Why Italy’s coronavirus death toll continues to spike despite lockdown – and what the UK can learn

Lack of clarity and a frustrated population means rules not always followed, Federica Marsi reports from Milan

Friday 20 March 2020 17:21
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Soldiers of the Italian army patrol around the Piazza del Duomo, Milan
Soldiers of the Italian army patrol around the Piazza del Duomo, Milan

As a number of European states scramble to introduce mandatory social distancing and the UK ponders similar measures, governments are looking at Italy’s coronavirus lockdown to gauge how far a democratic state can go to constrain civil liberties when dealing with a medical emergency.

Italy has been in full lockdown since 9 March, yet its measures are failing to contain the spread of the pandemic. On Thursday, deaths had soared to 3,405, outstripping the toll in China, where the virus first hit.

While infections kept on rising, totalling 41,035 cases including 4,440 recoveries, the government extended the quarantine beyond its initial deadline of 3 April and mulled over a harsher crackdown on civil liberties to curb the outbreak. By Friday, there had been 47,021 cases and 4,032 deaths.

“Unfortunately, the numbers of contagions are not going down,” Attilio Fontana, the president of the worst-hit Lombardy region, told Italian media. “Shortly we will not be able to assist those who fall ill.”

Fontana added that the government will have to “change register”, “because if the message was not understood, we will have to be more aggressive in delivering it”.

Democratic countries have resorted to hoping the public will voluntarily comply in a bid to contain the virus while avoiding the enforcement of draconian measures undertaken by autocratic regimes such as China’s, where a system of individual permits coupled with mass surveillance was effective in “flattening the curve” of the contagion.

Italy has adopted measures unprecedented in peacetime to contain Europe’s worst outbreak, effectively testing the limits of democracy in the western world.

Yet, it is considering stepping up its response – including deploying the army – as an estimated 40 per cent of Lombardy residents are still moving beyond a few hundred meters of their homes, either to go to work or in defiance of government rules.

Andrea Cavaliere, president of the criminal chamber in Brescia, said the government is entitled to enforce harsher measures as long as the right to public health outweighs the right to freedom of movement.

“Everything that is not a necessity can be banned,” Cavaliere told The Independent. “This is because we are not respecting the parameters of the restriction.”

Soon after the government effectively declared walking on the streets without a “valid reason” a punishable offence, Italian citizens took to social media with a flurry of questions about how the restrictions should be interpreted.

Some fussed over whether they could still take the dog out for a walk or take out the garbage, while others wondered if going for a jog was considered a necessity.

The wording of the provision listed four exceptions to the rule: going to work if providing an indispensable service; getting basic necessities; health reasons; travelling back to a place of residence.

However, it left considerable room for interpretation. Officials later clarified that basic necessities include catering for non self-sufficient relatives and going to the supermarket. Taking the dog for a walk and going for a jog – albeit alone and within a safe distance from other people – was also allowed.

When outside, all citizens are requested to carry a form detailing the purpose of their activity. Those found guilty of breaching the government order face a three-month prison sentence or a fine up to €206 (£188).

“If we do not abide by this rule, we are effectively committing a crime,” Marco Micheli, a lawyer at the Palmer Legal group in Bologna, told The Independent. In contrast to a misdemeanour, which can be settled with a fine, it entails a legal proceeding.

Italian authorities have pressed charges against more than 40,000 people for violating the lockdown, according to figures from the interior ministry.

Coronavirus cases: The spread outside China

In Milan, five people in their twenties who were found “waiting for a friend” and not respecting social distancing were charged with breaching article 650 of the penal code, which regulates the penalty for not respecting a government order.

Making a false statement to police officers – such as claiming to be going grocery shopping while being more than 400m away from your address of residence – carries a penalty of up to two years of imprisonment.

In Aosta, northwest Italy, an investigation was opened against a man for “aggravated attempt to spread the epidemic” because he underwent plastic surgery while exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. He later tested positive for Covid-19 and will face legal charges for spreading the virus.

Despite the clampdown, authorities fear these measures have not been effective in yielding the desired outcome. Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, had said the beneficial effects of the lockdown would be felt two weeks from its start as the coronavirus is thought to carry an incubation period of two to 14 days.

But as Italians entered their 11th day of quarantine on Friday, results seemed to be scarce. Between Wednesday and Thursday, the number of cases jumped from 28,710 to 33,190 not including recoveries, in line with an average increase of 3,000 cases a day over the course of the week.

Anonymous data mapping phone users’ locations provided by Vodafone and TIM – two leading phone service providers in Italy – revealed that about 40 per cent of residents in the northern Lombardy region were still moving beyond the proximity of their homes.

The findings, announced by Lombardy’s vice president Fabrizio Sala, have stoked concerns over privacy rights.

Coronavirus – Will a facemask help?

With the data at hand, the Italian government is now pondering new measures to match the magnitude of the outbreak. Luciana Lamorgese, the interior minister, said the army could be used to enforce the lockdown. On Thursday, it was confirmed that army officers would be deployed in the southern island of Sicily, where case have so far been relatively contained – but where the population has been unruly.

Further containment measures yet to be approved might include allowing only one person per household to carry out necessary tasks including grocery shopping and issuing a ban on physical activity outdoors.

As Milan saw a record increase of 634 cases in 24 hours on Thursday, Fontana, the president of Lombardy, said the deployment of army patrols was on the table. “It is a decision that can only be made at the government level,” he said.

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