“Just don't take it lightly”: The Importance of Learning from Italy’s Mistakes in the Coronaviru

Signs from Italian businesses notifying customers to practice social distancing Source: Wikimedia Commons

On February 20th, a 38-year old man in Lombardy, Italy, checked himself into a hospital. The man, who had met with a friend who recently returned from China, reported feeling ill. He ultimately tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, as did his wife and a friend. By the next day, Italy had 21 cases and one death. As I write this on Monday, March 16, Italy has over 27,000 cases and 2,158 deaths (yesterday it reported 368 deaths, its highest number so far). By tomorrow, both of these numbers will increase; by how much, we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that the lack of steps initially taken by Italy resulted in it having the most coronavirus cases and deaths outside of China. As we watch what is happening in Italy, we must learn from their mistakes.

At first, Italy didn’t take the outbreak seriously. People continued attending large events, traveling to other parts of Europe, and carrying on with everyday activities. According to Benedetta Cherchi, a student from Cagliari, Italy, many considered the new virus to be no worse than the flu. They insisted that the virus wasn’t that bad and argued that “a lot more people died of regular flu this year” and that “it (wasn’t) that bad, we (shouldn't) stop our lives for a disease.” In the opinion of the Italian public, precautions were unnecessary. Meanwhile, the Italian government tried to downplay the severity of the situation. During a news conference on February 27, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio stated that “the epidemic of misleading information will do more damage to Italy than the risk of the virus epidemic itself” and that “only 0.1% of the country is involved.”

Memes about the coronavirus were found all over Italian social media, most of them making fun of the outbreak and people’s panic. One video, released on February 26, featured an elderly man complaining about the lack of pasta available in markets. The man, filmed leaving an empty grocery store, exclaimed “the pasta shelves are empty. What is happening? There wasn’t this much panic when World War II started. Oh my god!” Meanwhile, bars and restaurants made light of the outbreak. One gelato shop advertised their new “Corona Cake”. Overall, the general mood of the public was relaxed, and many Italians chose to continue with their daily lives rather than take precautions.

The attitude of the public, paired with the government minimizing the outbreak’s severity, resulted in an exponential increase of cases. On February 22, two days after the first reported cases, there were 79 cases. One week later, on February 29, there were 1,128. By the time that the Italian government took action on March 4 to close all schools, universities, and ban the public from attending sporting events, there were over 2,000 cases and 107 deaths. A week later, the Italian government declared an official lockdown on Italy, closing all bars, restaurants, and shops while forbidding Italians from gathering in public places. Unfortunately, by the time that these measures were taken, the virus had already spread to potentially hundreds of thousands.

The massive increase in cases, paired with Italy’s old population (Italy has the second-oldest population in the world), has resulted in overwhelmed ICU wards. By now, doctors are having to choose which patients will receive hospital care, essentially choosing which patients will live and die. Dr. Daniele Macchini, an Italian surgeon, described the influx of cases as “a tsunami”, stating that emergency rooms are “collapsing.” Meanwhile, other Italian medics are warning that the virus is no flu, citing the high daily numbers of pneumonia cases which are overwhelming hospitals.

In Italy, the mortality rate of COVID-19 is estimated at 5%, much higher than the global estimate of 3.4%; for reference, the flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%. Although the actual rate may be lower due to numbers of unreported asymptomatic and mild cases, it is still alarming. Within one month of the outbreak, the number of deaths is over 2,000. The obituary sections of newspapers reflect the massive toll. A month ago, the obituary section of L’Eco di Bergamo, a Lombardy newspaper, was one page long. On March 13, the obituary section was 10 pages long. Due to the high numbers of deaths, morgues are overwhelmed with the deceased.

There are conflicting reports of how far behind the U.S. from Italy. According to the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. is approximately two weeks away from where Italy currently is. Atul Gawande, an American surgeon and staff writer at The New Yorker, estimates that we are a week or so behind Italy. Nevertheless, it’s important that the states across the U.S. continue taking precautions to avoid the spread of the virus. This not only involves closing schools, universities, bars, and restaurants, but also practicing social distancing and avoiding most public places.

Unfortunately, it seems that many Americans are not heeding the warnings from Europe. Although classes were cancelled here at the University of Michigan, many students chose to go out to local bars, despite the fact that two cases of COVID-19 were linked to U-M. In other parts of the U.S., thousands celebrated St. Patrick’s weekend, attending crowded bars and restaurants. Multiple videos surfaced of large crowds partying in cities such as New York, Nashville, and Chicago. If we continue to selfishly value our social lives over our greater communities, we are headed to Italy’s current situation. When I asked Benedetta if she had any advice for Americans, she told me this:

“Just don't take it lightly, because even if you probably don’t die if you get it, someone’s grandpa might...I hope for you guys that people start to see how dangerous it is before you have to lock yourselves up in your homes for a month.” 𑗉

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