Coronavirus: Trump and Johnson response to outbreak like ‘watching horror film’, says Italian doctor

'The majority of us told ourselves and each other: this isn’t so bad. We’re young, we’re fit, we’ll be fine even if we catch it... Fast-forward two months, and we are drowning'

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 12 March 2020 19:05
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With UK prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Donald Trump under increasing pressure to ramp up their response to the coronavirus pandemic, an Italian doctor has compared the reaction of British and American citizens to the crisis to characters in a horror film who naively “decide to take a tour of a dark basement”, failing to anticipate the danger lurking in the shadows.

Writing in Newsweek, the anonymous physician criticises the lacklustre measures taken by those in power and the problem of widespread complacency, particularly among young people, calling on everyone to take collective responsibility if the state will not.

“I’m a doctor in a major hospital in Western Europe. Watching you Americans (and you, Brits) in these still-early days of the coronavirus pandemic is like watching a familiar horror movie, where the protagonists, yet again, split into pairs or decide to take a tour of a dark basement,” they write.

“The real-life versions of this behaviour are pretending this is just a flu; keeping schools open; following through with your holiday travel plans, and going into the office daily.

“This is what we did in Italy,” the writer continues. “We were so complacent that even when people with coronavirus symptoms started turning up, we wrote each off as a nasty case of the flu. We kept the economy going, pointed fingers at China and urged tourists to keep travelling. And the majority of us told ourselves and each other: this isn’t so bad. We’re young, we’re fit, we’ll be fine even if we catch it.

“Fast-forward two months, and we are drowning. Statistically speaking – judging by the curve in China – we are not even at the peak yet, but our fatality rate is at over six per cent, double the known global average.”

In Britain, Mr Johnson is under growing pressure to follow the example of Ireland and Scotland and enter lock down mode to contain the contagion as the number of confirmed cases rises to 590, according to the Department of Health.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet, has accused the prime minister of “playing roulette” with the lives of vulnerable citizens, while the former regional director of Public Health England, John Ashton, has said the country has “wasted a month” in tackling the epidemic, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a day after chancellor Rishi Sunak put aside £12bn in his first budget to fight Covid-19 as part of a £30bn stimulus package.

In the US, President Trump has decreed a 30-day travel restriction blocking new arrivals from Europe but remains under intense criticism for his repeated denial of the seriousness of the situation and emphasis on the fluctuations of the stock market, rather than the welfare of the American people, with at least one eye on his re-election campaign.

The Italian doctor uses the Newsweek editorial to warn that Europe is “still awaiting the peak of the epidemic” and to reiterate that, for now, “the only solution is to impose social restrictions”.

“If your government is hesitating, these restrictions are up to you,” the author states. “Stay put. Do not travel. Cancel that family reunion, the promotion party and the big night out. This really sucks, but these are special times. Don’t take risks. Do not go to places where you are more than 20 people in the same room. It’s not safe and it’s not worth it.”

Cautioning against selfishness, they write: “Odds are, you might catch coronavirus and might not even get symptoms. Great. Good for you. Very bad for everyone else, from your own grandparents to the random older person who got on the subway train a stop or two after you got off.

“You’re fine, you’re barely even sneezing or coughing, but you’re walking around and you kill a couple of old ladies without even knowing it. Is that fair? You tell me.”

Ending with a final call for personal responsibility, the mystery doctor reminds readers: “It’s the civic and moral duty of every person, everywhere, to take part in the global effort to reduce this threat to humanity.”

The doctor recounts the experiences of colleagues in Milan, Bergamo and Padua and is joined in calls for action by Mohamed Abu Hilal, a former NHS doctor currently trapped in Brescia after Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced nationwide shutdowns on Monday, effecting 60 million residents and seeing schools, restaurants and small businesses close their doors.

“COVID19 is serious, feels to be in a war!” Professor Hilal wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “People are dying, not only elderly. Beds are full. Governments must shut down everything, prepare beds, ventilators , antivirals, doctors and nurses. People should stay at HOME!”

At the time of writing, Europe has more than 23,000 cases of coronavirus with more than 950 fatalities so far and Italy, France, Spain and Germany worst hit.

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