Italy and other European countries are making cautious plans to lift lockdowns in full knowledge that moving too quickly would risk another deadly coronavirus outbreak and too slowly would wreck already damaged economies.
Italy was the first Western country to go into lockdown and has endured severe quarantine measures for more than a month. While Italy’s official death toll – 17,669 by Wednesday night – remains the world’s highest, the number of new infections and fatalities peaked in late March and has fallen in recent days, giving hope to quarantine-fatigued Italians that they may resume normal life soon.
But they could be mistaken. The Italian government has yet to reveal a precise timetable for easing the restrictions that have closed schools, churches and all shops, businesses and factories deemed to be non-essential. At street level, only food stores and pharmacies remain open.
Some of the countries that copied Italy’s lockdown are waiting for it to create a format to lead the way out.
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In particular, they are eager to know if Italy will introduce “immunity certificates,” a public-health measure that would allow those with antibodies, a potential indicator of COVID-19 immunity, to go back to work.
“Their attraction to some is obvious, given that restrictions could last a long time, until an effective vaccine is developed," Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and research director at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, told The Globe and Mail.
But early indications are that such certificates might be a long way off, if they appear at all.
Details of Italy’s exit strategy are scant while government ministers and their medical and scientific advisers work out a plan.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday promised that Italians would soon “reap the fruit of these sacrifices” in personal liberties to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. A day earlier, Health Minister Roberto Speranza outlined a five-point strategic plan to keep new infections down and the health system intact as the quarantine eases off.
On Wednesday, Mr. Speranza said: “We are still in the midst of the emergency; caution and a gradual [approach] are needed in order not to frustrate the great sacrifices made so far."
Beyond the vague statements made by Mr. Conte and Mr. Speranza, Italians have little to go on as they watch a few other countries announce plans to lift their own quarantines. On Wednesday, Wuhan, the Chinese city that was the original epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, opened its gates after 76 days in lockdown.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz this week became the first European leader to provide a specific date for easing lockdown rules. Starting Tuesday, two days after Easter, he will allow small shops to reopen, but the obligation to wear masks in supermarkets, buses and other potentially crowded spots will remain in place. Larger shops and schools will reopen in May, barring an acceleration of coronavirus infections.
A few other small European countries, where the impact of COVID-19 was relatively light, have also announced plans to open for business, though no country will remove all restrictions overnight. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said she hopes for a “gradual, controlled and quiet reopening of Denmark” after Easter. Some of the big countries, such as Britain, whose infections and fatalities are still on the sharp upswing, have made no specific commitments to end their isolation measures.
Italy’s quarantine began on March 9 and its daily incremental caseload peaked on March 21, with daily fatalities peaking six days later, at 969. Since then, the country has seen an uneven decline in new cases and fatalities, triggering demands from business lobby groups for information on when – and how – the lockdown is to end.
In a recent interview on Italy’s Canale 5 TV, Giuseppe Castagna, CEO of Banco BPM, Italy’s third-largest bank, said it’s time for the government to “seriously think about the next phase, as the country cannot afford to stand still.”
Economists say that Germany, France and Italy – the three biggest EU economies – are already in deep recession, one that would be worse than the one triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
Mr. Conte has pleaded for EU funds to help Italy fight COVID-19 and a relaxation of the EU’s budget deficit limits. “I am asking for a relaxation of the budget rules. Otherwise we will have to do without Europe and everyone will do what they need to do alone,” he said in an interview published Wednesday in Germany’s BILD newspaper.
With no specific plan publicly released, Italian businesses and families are relying on leaks and unsourced newspaper interviews for clues. The suggestion is that some shops and factories will reopen next week though the general lockdown might persist until early May, meaning office life might not resume for another month or so.
The strategic plan of Mr. Speranza, the health minister, gave some comfort to Italians.
It will keep social-distancing rules in place, supported by the distribution of face masks to those who need them most, such as bus drivers and health workers; increase the capacity of COVID-19 hospitals and local health networks; and boost the number of virus tests, especially for health-care workers but also for the general population to determine the real rates of infection.
The model is the northern Italian region of Veneto, whose widespread testing of asymptomatic cases helped it avoid the horrendous number of fatalities seen in neighbouring Lombardy.
Several prominent Italian politicians, including former prime minister Matteo Salvini, have raised the idea of a “COVID pass” or “immunity certificate” for those who have recovered from COVID-19 and have resistance to the virus, so they can resume normal life. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also suggested that citizens who have had the virus might be issued an immunity certificate.
But there is widespread doubt about whether such certificates would be fair, accurate and not prone to abuse. Prof. McKee says that doctors do not yet know how effective infections are in conferring immunity and that no highly accurate, easy-to-use and inexpensive test for large-scale population screening yet exists.
He also says sophisticated forgers might be able to create fake certificates. “It would also create an incentive for young people, who are unlikely to die of the disease, to go out and get infected so they could get a certificate,” he said. “They know there would be an advantage to having been sick, as long as they survive."
Listen in to Eric Reguly on Friday, April 17, as he shares lessons learned from Italy. Register https://www.globeandmailevents.com/ereg/index.php?eventid=540107&
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