istaly was a symbol of the first wave of the pandemic. It was the first country in the world to enter a nationwide lockdown, as its hospitals – especially in cities like Bergamo and Cremona in the north – struggled to cope with the surge in cases and there was a sharp increase deaths.
As fear of a second wave grips Europe, Italy seems to be coping much better than other countries like France, Spain and the UK. This is hardly the time for complacency; as Britain can attest, this virus may come back with a vengeance. But in the past two weeks, Italy has recorded just under 35 cases per 100,000 population – compared to almost 315 in Spain, nearly 200 in France and 76.5 in the UK The average number of deaths has amounted to 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, or a third of the French rate and almost a tenth of Spain. Italy’s numbers are only slightly worse than Germany’s, which has been hailed as a model of good pandemic management.
Italy has so far been able to avoid the kind of new restrictions put in place in other parts of Europe. The UK has announced that restaurants and pubs will close at 10 p.m. and there will be fines of 200 pounds ($ 254) for those who do not wear masks as required. In France, Paris has imposed the same 10 p.m. curfew in bars and restaurants and closed gyms. In Italy, social life continues unhindered – even though the government has forced nightclubs to close again after a series of new cases of Covid in the summer, particularly on the island of Sardinia.
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So what works in the Italian approach? It is difficult to determine exactly which factors improve a country’s ability to control an epidemic. In the spring it emerged that the early introduction of a strict lockdown – as Greece did – was a recipe for less pain. And yet the recent sharp drop in cases in Sweden, after the country avoided a lockdown and other draconian measures taken elsewhere, has raised doubts about what exactly is effective. The Italian government does not appear to have taken any drastically different measures from the rest of the continent.
Two things may help explain Italy’s relatively strong performance – so far – in preventing a second wave of the virus. The first is the effectiveness of its tracking and traceability system in identifying and isolating contacts from those who test positive. Italy tests around 100,000 people per day, which is not high by European standards. But only around 2% of these tests are positive, which is low compared to elsewhere in Europe.
This slower spread than elsewhere can also be explained by the second factor: Italians seem rather good at wearing masks and maintaining their social distance. Doctors are also convinced that they have become better at treating Covid-19 – although that only explains the low death rate, not the limited number of cases.
Yet none of these explanations are perfect and it’s important not to get carried away by Italy’s apparent resilience. The country’s healthcare system has traditionally ranked well in international comparisons, but it failed to contain the first phase of the pandemic, possibly because it was caught off guard.
There is also evidence that Italians have largely complied with the requirement to wear masks in the spring, and yet it was weeks before the number of deaths and cases declined. It is quite possible that Italy will experience a second wave delayed compared to France and Spain. The UK suffered its first outbreak much later than Italy or Spain, but ended up with an equally high human cost.
Rome should therefore remain on the alert. It only takes a few missteps for the epidemic to spiral out of control. For now, however, Italian citizens can be proud of their health care system and of themselves. Bloomberg
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