The country’s experience shows that steps to isolate the coronavirus and limit people’s movement need to be put in place early, with absolute clarity, then strictly enforced.
As Italy’s coronavirus infections ticked above 400 cases and deaths hit the double digits, the leader of the governing Democratic Party posted a picture of himself clinking glasses for “an aperitivo in Milan,” urging people “not to change our habits.”
That was on Feb. 27. Not 10 days later, as the toll hit 5,883 infections and 233 dead, the party boss, Nicola Zingaretti, posted a new video, this time informing Italy that he, too, had the virus.
Italy now has more than 53,000 recorded infections and more than 4,800 dead, and the rate of increase keeps growing, with more than half the cases and fatalities coming in the past week. On Saturday, officials reported 793 additional deaths, by far the largest single-day increase so far. Italy has surpassed China as the country with the highest death toll, becoming the epicenter of a shifting pandemic.
The government has sent in the army to enforce the lockdown in Lombardy, the northern region at the center of the outbreak, where bodies have piled up in churches. On Friday night, the authorities tightened the nationwide lockdown, closing parks, banning outdoor activities including walking or jogging far from home.
Despite now having some of the toughest measures in the world, Italian authorities fumbled many of those steps early in the contagion — when it most mattered as they sought to preserve basic civil liberties as well as the economy.
Italy’s piecemeal attempts to cut it off — isolating towns first, then regions, then shutting down the country in an intentionally porous lockdown — always lagged behind the virus’s lethal trajectory.
“Now we are running after it,” said Sandra Zampa, the under secretary at the Ministry of Health, who said Italy did the best it could given the information it had. “We closed gradually, as Europe is doing. France, Spain, Germany, the U.S. are doing the same. Every day you close a bit, you give up on a bit of normal life. Because the virus does not allow normal life.”
Governments beyond Italy are now in danger of following the same path, repeating familiar mistakes and inviting similar calamity. And unlike Italy, which navigated uncharted territory for a Western democracy, other governments have less room for excuses.
It Could Never Happen Here
For the coronavirus, 10 days can be a lifetime.
On Jan. 21, as top Chinese officials warned that those hiding virus cases “will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity,” Italy’s culture and tourism minister hosted a Chinese delegation for a concert at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia to inaugurate the year of Italy-China Culture and Tourism.
Michele Geraci, Italy’s former under secretary in the economic development ministry and a booster of closer relations with China, had a drink with other politicians but looked around uneasily.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” he said he asked them. “Should we be here today?”
Mixed Messages Sow Confusion
Reassurances from leaders confused the Italian population.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Zingaretti posted his aperitivo picture. That same day, the country’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, the former leader of one of the governing parties, the Five Star Movement, held a news conference in Rome.
“In Italy, we went from the risk of an epidemic to an infodemic,” Mr. Di Maio said, disparaging media coverage that highlighted the threat of the contagion, and adding that only “0.089 percent” of the Italian population was quarantined.
In Milan, only miles from the center of the outbreak, the mayor, Beppe Sala, publicized a ‘‘Milan Doesn’t Stop’’ campaign, and the Duomo, the city’s landmark cathedral that is a draw for tourists, reopened. People went out.
An epidemiologist showed the curves of infection. There was a catastrophe facing the region’s well-respected health system.
“We need to do something more,”
Mr. Grasselli told the room.
Mr. Fontana, who had been pressing the central government for tougher action, agreed. He said that the mixed messages from Rome and the easing of restrictions had led Italians to believe “that everything was a joke, and they kept living as they used to.”
Italy is still paying the price of those early mixed messages by scientists and politicians. The people who have died in staggering numbers recently — more than 2,300 in the last four days — were mostly infected during the confusion of a week or two ago.
Some government experts attributed that turnaround to the strict quarantine that had been in place for two weeks. But Mr. Zaia had also ordered blanket tests there, in defiance of international scientific guidelines and the national government. The government has argued that testing people without symptoms is a drain on resources.