The eyes of health leaders across the world are focused on Italy this week as the country faces a critical moment that could prove to be a global turning point in stemming the impact of coronavirus.
Italy has become the epicentre of the global pandemic, with more than 53,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,800 deaths, and world leaders view the situation there and its response as a harbinger of what may soon happen in their own countries.
Acknowledging the country had now exhausted all the possible ways it could to limit personal and professional contact, Franco Locatelli, president of Italy’s Higher Health Council, suggested that this week will be “absolutely crucial” in mitigating the spread of the virus and that he expected to see the number of coronavirus infections start to fall.
“In the middle of the week we will be more or less 14 days after the adoption of the most stringent measures,” Locatelli said on Monday morning. “We expect the results to become evident, with a clear tendency to reduce new infections and people who lose their lives.”
Locatelli added: “Let’s continue to keep social distance. Let’s adopt these measures, let’s manage our behaviour and [...] certainly we will get the results we are hoping for.”
His warning came after Italy reported a slight decrease in the number of coronavirus deaths after weeks of mounting casualties. On Sunday, Italian officials announced that 651 people had died from the disease, compared to 793 on Saturday.
“Today’s numbers are smaller than yesterday’s,” Angelo Borrelli, the head of Italy’s civil protection agency, said. “We all hope that this trend can be confirmed in the new few days. But we must not lower our guard.”
“Flattening the curve” refers to efforts to stagger the number of Covid-19 cases over a longer period of time so everyone can have better access to care and health services aren’t overrun.
Boris Johnson is among world leaders closely watching the situation in Italy. “The numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating. We are only a matter of weeks – two or three – behind Italy,” the British prime minister said on Saturday. “Unless we act together, unless we make the heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread, then it is all too likely that our own NHS will be similarly overwhelmed.”
New stringent measures announced this weekend in Italy, which has often provided an eye to the future of measures emulated across the world, include ordering all non-essential businesses and factories to close until April 3.
The hardest-hit region of Lombardy banned any outdoor exercise not on personal property and set distance limits on dog-walking. Authorities there also raised fines for violators to 5,000 euros (£4,672).
Neighbouring Spain, which after Italy has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe, also faces a critical test this week, with the government warning over the weekend that “the worst is yet to come”.
“We have yet to receive the impact of the strongest, most damaging wave, which will test our material and moral capacities to the limit, as well as our spirit as a society,” prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday.
There is growing concern about overcrowding at Spain’s hospitals and complaints that facilities could be running short of equipment, such as masks. Some 1,612 patients are currently in intensive care units.
Ricard Ferrer, chairman of Spain’s intensive medicine society, told public television channel TVE that he expected that in eight to 10 weeks around 10,000 patients would be in intensive care units. Ferrer said Spain had the capacity to deal with that number, but added that he hoped that from Monday the confinement measures would start having an impact on the number of cases.
In the US, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio similarly suggested that the city’s health care system could soon be overwhelmed. “We’re about 10 days away now from seeing widespread shortages of ventilators, surgical masks, the things necessary to keep a hospital system running,” de Blasio said on Sunday. “April is going to be a lot worse than March. And I fear May could be worse than April.”
In response to the crisis, all non-essential businesses across New York State have been ordered closed. In the UK last week, Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants, and gyms to close and pleaded with people to stay at home in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. But as residents continued to flock to parks and other public spaces over the weekend, the government signalled that it might soon enact stricter lockdown measures.
“Nothing is off the table,” UK health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC on Monday. “Of course we are looking at what other European countries are doing.”
In Spain, Sanchez announced on Sunday that the government plans to extend the state of emergency for another 15 days, until April 11. Residents of France are now entering their second week of home confinement. In Greece a nationwide lockdown went into effect on Monday, with people allowed outside only to return from work, shop for food or medicine, or visit a doctor.
“We must not get to the point where we will have to choose who lives and who dies,” prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, alluding to the situation in Italy, where doctors in overwhelmed hospitals are being forced to decide which patients should receive treatment.
With reporting from HuffPost Spain, HuffPost Italy, AP and Reuters