The hard lessons of Italy's devastating coronavirus outbreak

Italy's Prof Andrea Cristani
Italy's Prof Andrea Cristani © Sabina Castelfranco/RFI

It has been one week since all of Italy’s over 60 million population has been on lockdown from the invisible enemy. It has been less than one month from that February 21 when authorities first reported the three cases of COVID-19 in the north of the country. No one at the time could imagine that it would spread so quickly with close to 25,000 positive cases today and a death toll from the coronavirus of more than 1,800.


Italians had little time to understand the scale of the devastation the enemy was going to cause and were quick to follow the unprecedented decisions taken by the authorities, who overnight requested a complete change in their lifestyles.

The prime minister announced stricter and stricter restrictions to limit the movement and contacts of people, the only way according to the authorities to limit the spread of the new and deadly virus.

One week into the nationwide lockdown and the call to stay home, no one is allowed to venture out unless there are medical reasons, an emergency or for proven work-related matters which must be self-certified and shown upon request to enforcers. It

alians cannot even go for a walk or jog in the park because too many were meeting up in groups or kicking a soccer ball around.

Italians can to the stores that are still open to buy food and other basic needs as long as they enter one at the time and keep a safe distance from each other.

Not just in the empty streets of towns and cities across the country, but it is in the hospitals all over Italy where the true extent of the devastating effects of this enemy are truly visible.

No more beds and ventilators available for the sick, 700 doctors, nurses and health workers who have tested positive to the virus. Even in the wealth north, where the outbreak was first detected, and where the national health system is renowned for its excellence.

“This epidemic has brought to its knees the pearl of the Italian health system, which is Lombardy”, said Professor Andrea Cristani, virologist at the Padua Hospital.

Professor Cristani directs the Molecular Medicine Department in Padua. His team carried out 3300 coronavirus swabs on the entire population of one of the initial 11 lockdown towns in northern Italy, Vo Euganeo, the only one in the Veneto region.

No one else decided to test every single member of the lockdown community. The results immediately showed that 3 percent of all those tested were positive. “We did not realize at the time this was a huge number but we immediately were able to see that the majority of those who were positive did not have any symptoms”, said Cristani.

The population was tested again after the two-week lockdown and “the lesson we learned is that isolating all positive cases, whether they were sick or not, we were able to reduce transmission by 90 percent and we found that all those who were still positive were all without symptoms”.

Professor Cristani is adamant that widespread testing must take place in the geographical and social surroundings of where positive cases are detected.

He said countries that have so far failed to take the measures that Italy has adopted should do so as quickly as possible, even though it is hard to face “this bitter reality” but social distancing is the only way to hope to overcome the spread of COVID-19.



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