The health crisis in Italy’s third largest city Naples is out of control, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday, after a video was posted on social media showing a corpse sprawled in a hospital lavatory.
The unidentified man was a suspected coronavirus sufferer who had been waiting for a test in a packed, squalid hospital emergency room, which was also shown in the amateur video.
Health officials said they were investigating the death, but Di Maio said this was just the latest shocking incident he had heard about in recent days from his native Campania region, which is centred on the Mediterranean port city.
“The situation in Naples and in many areas of Campania is out of control. The central government needs to intervene because there is no time left,” Di Maio said.
Officials said Campania reflected a wider health calamity playing out across much of Italy’s south, which emerged largely unscathed from the initial wave of COVID-19 that mainly battered the north. But it is being hammered by the second wave.
The number of cases nationwide roared past the one million mark on Wednesday – with half of those infections emerging in just the last 19 days. The number of deaths totals 42,953 – the sixth highest tally in the world.
Hospitals across the country have struggled to manage the skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers, but the poorer south has appeared particularly ill-equipped to cope despite having all summer to bolster their defences.
The sick in Naples have been administered oxygen and placed on drips through their car windows as they wait for hours for COVID-19 tests or to be admitted to hospital. Further south, on the island of Sicily, the mayor of Palermo warned on Monday his region faced an “inevitable massacre” as infections rose there.
“The north has always had a well-equipped health system spread out across the territory. The situation there might not be optimal, but the south by comparison is a wasteland,” Carlo Palermo, head of the ANAAO-ASSOMED doctors' union, told Reuters.
Latest government figures from 2018 show this divide, with annual per-capita health spending coming in at 2,054 euros ($2,425) in the northern region of Liguria and 1,973 euros in neighbouring Emilia-Romagna. In Campania it was 1,697 euros, the lowest in Italy, and 1,706 euros in nearby Calabria.
But it is not just a question of money. Poor management has also taken a heavy toll in the south.
The issue came into focus this month when the health commissioner for Calabria was interviewed on state television and initially denied any responsibility for having to draw up a long-delayed emergency plan to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
To prove his point, Saverio Cotticelli, a retired general, produced the health ministry letter that established the guidelines. Still on camera, the truth slowly dawned on him that he was indeed responsible for drawing up the plan.
He resigned the following day.
Calabria had 146 intensive-care beds available at the start of the year. This number had risen to just 154 by the end of October despite the Rome government telling regions to double their emergency room capacity over the summer.
When the national government split the country into three tiers this month to reflect the differing health risks, it immediately put Calabria into the “red zone” and imposed a partial lockdown.
Using an algorithm based on 21 indicators, Campania, to widespread surprise, was placed in the lowest-risk “yellow zone”. The decision raised questions about whether the region was supplying reliable data, and the Rome health ministry has dispatched inspectors to review the situation.
Maurizio Cappiello, an emergency services doctor at Naples Cardarelli hospital and a member of the ANAAO-ASSOMED union, said the virus was spreading exponentially.
“We have passed a critical level of alarm. The only way to manage the emergency in Campania is a total lockdown,” he said.
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