Italy’s Drastic Containment Rules Don’t Seem to Have Changed Life Much

Italy introduced far-reaching measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak, yet hours after the dramatic early Sunday morning announcement, it was far from clear how strictly they would be enforced.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte presented the new rules, including a near-complete travel ban for about a quarter of Italians, following hours of uncontrolled leaks and signs of public panic. On Sunday morning, life seemed to continue as normal even in the regions most affected by the epidemic, with people crowding cafes and boarding trains to go north and south. Airports, including those in the affected areas, also remained open.

The lack of clarity about the real scope of the measures only deepens confusion around Italy’s response to Europe’s largest virus outbreak, with almost 6,000 confirmed cases and 233 deaths. Doctors have warned that hospitals are close to collapse as they flood with patients needing intensive care.

How markets react on Monday will be a key test of whether investors believe the government’s restrictions have struck the right balance between containment and avoiding excessive economic pain. The Milan stock exchange will operate as normal, Borsa Italiana Chief Executive Officer Raffaele Jerusalmi told Bloomberg in an interview.

Italy’s rules, in force until April 3, follow a similar quarantine of some 60 million people in China that’s been credited with slowing the epidemic’s spread to the rest of the country and the world. It remains to be seen whether Italian society will accept the quarantine, and what the measures’ long-term impact will be, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“As soon as these actions are released, as they have to be, the virus is going to come back,” Osterholm said. “We have to ask ourselves, what’s the endgame? What are we trying to do?”

Measures like quarantines can help tamp down the peak of an outbreak and relieve pressure on health care, said Thomas Frieden, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just as important is getting society to buy in to such actions, he said.

“It’s crucial — for both ethical and practical reasons — that communities are engaged and supported,” he said in an email. “Otherwise communities will have higher costs and the effectiveness will be lower.”

The most stringent measures, included in a new decree signed by Conte and published on the government’s website, apply to a population of almost 17 million people in Lombardy, the region around Milan, as well as vast swathes of Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Marche. Venice is part of the affected zone, while Turin, home to the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV headquarters, is outside of it.

Overall, the rules impact a region of 56,000 square kilometers — roughly the size of West Virginia — that accounts for about a third of Italy’s gross domestic product. They include:

  • Restrictions on leaving, entering or moving within entering the designated areas when not for “demonstrable” business needs, emergencies or health reasons
  • A “strong recommendation” to anyone with a temperature above 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) to stay home even if they have no virus symptoms
  • Leaving home is “absolutely forbidden” for those who have tested positive
  • Sports events are suspended unless they can be held behind closed doors. That means for now, the top-flight Serie A soccer league will continue
  • Skiing, public events, religious ceremonies and work meetings will be suspended, while schools, museums, swimming pools, gyms and theaters are closed. Shopping malls should be shut during weekends
  • Bars and restaurants can open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and must assure that patrons stay at least one meter (3.3 feet) apart
  • Employers should facilitate work-from-home arrangements.

The decree also issues new regulations for the rest of the country, including a recommendation to avoid travel outside home towns unless absolutely necessary, enforcing “social distancing” of one meter in all public venues and restricting public events from demonstrations to theater shows. Elderly people are advised to stay home, and schools and universities will remain closed nationwide until March 15.

Failing to respect the measures is a criminal offense and might lead to a fine or imprisonment. Some regions voiced resistance. The Veneto region opposes the inclusion of the Padua, Treviso and Venice provinces in the decree, according to a statement published by Ansa. Maurizio Rasero, the mayor of Asti, which is in the affected zone, called the ban “madness, a disaster we didn’t expect.”

The southeastern region of Puglia ordered all those coming into the area from the affected regions be subject to a 14-day quarantine. Regional president Michele Emiliano went a step further, telling his northern compatriots to turn around and go back immediately, according to comments published by Ansa.

With Italy’s economy already about to contract before the outbreak, the crisis has all but paralyzed business activity in Lombardy, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product, and the rest of the north.

The impact is clear even in other regions that aren’t subject to the stricter controls. The Pompeii archaeological site near Naples and the Vatican museums are closed until April 3, and an exhibit of Renaissance master Raphael in Rome was halted.

The government decided on Thursday to double emergency spending to 7.5 billion euros ($8.5 billion) to help cushion the economic impact of the virus.

It’s also calling up 20,000 doctors, nurses and medical personnel to help deal with the outbreak. Fallout from the virus’s spread is slamming Italy’s key tourism industry, which is worth almost 15% of GDP, at a time when the country is already teetering on the brink of recession.

The European Commission’s top economic officials approved Italy’s spending plans, saying in a letter to the government in Rome that the stimulus won’t be factored in when assessing the country’s compliance with the European Union’s fiscal rules.

— With assistance by John Lauerman

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