On January 29, when Italy detected and isolated its first coronavirus cases – two Chinese tourists – authorities were sure they had put together the safest protection system in Europe.
The following day, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte immediately declared a state of emergency for six months, and made Italy the first country to block flights from China.
But by March 11, the country had the second-highest number of infections outside China.
With the epidemic now rapidly spreading to other European countries – France, Germany and the UK have recorded sharp rises in cases – Italy’s experience is serving as a case study and a warning for other governments about how quickly and decisively they need to act. But how did this happen? Why did Italy have so many deaths so quickly? And most of all, could this have been prevented?
There is growing consensus among scientists that fatal cases of coronavirus have not, in fact, hit Italy “quickly”. The virus circulated unnoticed in the country from at least mid-January – thriving because so many of the infected had no symptoms at all, or only mild symptoms like a cough and a mild temperature. This is consistent with recent research suggesting that the virus can be spread by people who do not yet show any symptoms.
There could be different reasons why these initial contagions were not spotted.
One, it could be that some suspected pneumonia cases were not tested [for coronavirus].
Two, it could be that there weren’t any severe cases, that they only emerged in a clinically mild way.
Italy’s high average age could be a factor in this. The elderly are more likely to have pre-existing conditions, and almost a quarter (22.6 per cent) of Italy’s population is aged 65 or higher – the highest number in the EU and among the highest in the world.
But the alarming thing for other countries is that there doesn’t seem to be anything that Italy did particularly wrong. It seems to have been down to chance.
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