All of Italy, a Group of Seven country and the world’s eighth-largest economy, was placed in lockdown Monday night after a surge in Italian COVID-19 infections and fatalities alarmed all of Europe and eliminated any hope that the virus outside China was on the verge of being contained.
The national lockdown was imposed less than two days after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree that sealed off much of wealthy northern Italy, including Milan, and is the only quarantine of an entire country since the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 erupted in Wuhan, China, in December.
The lockdown will severely restrict the movements and office life of 60 million Italian citizens, four times the number of citizens who had been confined in northern Italy since early Sunday morning.
Italy has been fighting a losing battle to contain the virus, which began hitting the country hard about two weeks ago, when 11 northern towns, most of them near Milan, were placed in quarantine. Sealing off those towns, and later much of the entire north, failed to halt the spread of the disease through Italy and into nearby countries.
By Monday, the latest tally put the number of confirmed cases in Italy at about 9,200 – up almost 1,800 over the previous 24 hours – with 463 fatalities, up by 97. Italy now has more confirmed cases and fatalities than any country other than China, where the new infection rate has slowed substantially in recent days. China recorded just 44 new cases on Monday.
In a televised address Monday night, Mr. Conte said: “We’re having an important growth in infection ... and of deaths. We all must give something up for the good of Italy. We have to do it now, and we’ll only be able if we all collaborate and adapt to these more stringent measures."
The national restrictions are the same as those imposed in the north. Italians have to adopt what Mr. Conte described as an “I stay home” policy. The quarantine decree will keep schools, universities, museums, cinemas, theatres, pools and public events on shutdown until at least April 3. People will be forbidden to assemble in public and go to nightclubs. Soccer games will be suspended. Only essential travel, and travel for family emergencies, will be allowed.
The number of coronavirus cases worldwide reached 114,000 on Monday, with more than 4,000 deaths. In Europe, France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Netherlands and the micro-state of San Marino reported new deaths. Spain’s new COVID-19 cases, at 555, were the second highest jump on the continent, after Italy.
Germany, which reported its first two deaths, urged citizens to work from home and avoid public transportation. Tunisia reported five COVID-19 cases. Tunisians are blaming Italians for bringing the disease to their country.
The virus outbreak has almost certainly thrust Italy into recession, one that would be its fourth since the 2008 financial crisis, economists say. The economy was already on the verge of sustained downturn late last year, when it shrank by 0.3 per cent.
On Monday, the Milan stock exchange lost 11 per cent as investors, spooked by the plunge in oil prices and bond yields, took flight. Equities in the United States and Britain posted their steepest fall since 2008. The Italian markets could plunge again on Tuesday, since Mr. Conte announced the national quarantine after the Italian markets closed.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Italy also triggered riots in dozens of overcrowded prisons, resulting in deaths and extensive damage as the disease raised tensions and fear across the country.
The riots broke out on Saturday in a prison in Salerno, south of Naples, and spread to about 30 other prisons by Monday. The worst-hit prison was in Modena, a wealthy city in northern Italy whose nearby industries include race-car maker Ferrari. Six Modena prisoners died after they broke in to an infirmary and overdosed on methadone, an opioid whose misuse can be fatal.
The prisoners rioted after restrictions were placed on temporary leave permits and family prison visits – efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, where the tight quarters would virtually guarantee the disease’s quick transmission.
In Naples, home of the infamous Poggioreale prison, where many Mafiosi are locked down, friends and relatives of the inmates gathered outside to protest against the banned family visits. Some of them climbed onto the roof of the prison.
At the Modena prison, two guards were injured in addition to the prisoner fatalities. At the Torre del Gallo prison in Pavia, south of Milan, two guards were temporarily taken hostage. Prisoners stole their keys to release fellow prisoners.
Human-rights advocates had warned that the coronavirus-related restrictions on prisoners were putting great stress on them. In a statement, human-rights group Antigone said, “We had already warned tensions were growing in prisons, and that we feared it could end in tragedy."
OSAPP, the Italian prison guards’ union, said in a statement Monday afternoon that the riots had been quelled. It added that fires and vandalism had done “incalculable damage” to four prisons, including Modena and Naples Poggioreale. OSAPP was highly critical of the government, accusing it of providing no support to the prisons during a disease crisis that agitated inmates.
The government later announced that it will distribute 100,000 face masks to the penitentiary system, starting Tuesday. A medical devices company in Bologna, Siare Engineering International, received an emergency government order for 2,000 respirators. Respirators have saved the lives of many critical patients.
By Monday, 34 U.S. states had reported more than 600 COVID-19 cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.