Italy’s coronavirus outbreak spreads south, death toll rises

Visitors and health workers wear protective face masks outside the Cervello hospital in Palermo, southern Italy, 25 February 2020. The first coronavirus case in southern Italy has been registered, with a tourist from the northern city of Bergamo testing positive in Palermo. [Igor Petyx/EPA/EFE]

Italy’s coronavirus crisis spread south on Tuesday (26 February) beyond its original epicentre in the north, as the death toll from the worst outbreak in Europe rose to 11 and the number of new cases jumped above 320, officials said.

A tourist from Lombardy, the worst-affected area, was diagnosed with the disease while on holiday in Sicily, and the regions of Tuscany and Liguria both reported their first cases.

Italians or people who had recently visited the north of the country tested positive in Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia on Tuesday, showing how far and fast the illness could spread.

The total number of cases in Italy rose to 322 from 229 on Monday, with the vast majority from Lombardy and Veneto, the economic powerhouse of the country that include the financial capital Milan and the tourist hotspot Venice.

Four new deaths were announced in the two regions – two men and two women, the youngest of whom was 76. All the others who have died since the flare-up came to light on Friday were also elderly and suffering from underlying health problems.

As a swathe of European Union countries advised their citizens not to visit northern Italy, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said he would meet foreign ambassadors in Rome to explain the progress of the outbreak and measures taken to counter it.

Health ministers from neighbouring countries met in the Italian capital to discuss the crisis and dismissed some calls to close the border.

“We agreed to keep borders open, closing borders would be a disproportionate and ineffective measure at this time,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.

Political attacks

A fragile truce between Italy’s political parties collapsed on Monday after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte suggested malpractice at a hospital in Lombardy may have fuelled the outbreak.

Conte said the hospital had not followed the correct protocol “and this contributed to the spread”, and he may consider withdrawing some regional powers over health policy.

The right-wing, opposition League party, which runs both Lombardy and Veneto, reacted furiously.

Its lower-house leader Riccardo Molinari said Conte’s words were “almost fascist” while the League’s economics spokesman Claudio Borghi called the premier “a disgrace to the country”.

Lombardy Governor Attilio Fontana accused Conte of a “desperation strategy”.

However, the World Health Organization, which sent a mission to Rome, praised Italy’s efforts at suppressing the outbreak.

“The measures taken by the Italian government or the regional governments have been pretty strong and most likely should help in containing this virus as good as possible,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in Geneva.

As economists warned that the outbreak in Italy would probably tip its economy into recession, a senior official said the government may need to ask the European Union to offer leeway on its budget targets.

“There are resources the EU can give us in relation to economic events that could lower GDP considerably,” Deputy Economy Minister Laura Castelli told RAI radio.

Italy has proportionally the highest public debt in the euro zone after Greece and struggles to meet the bloc’s strict borrowing rules.

Conte warned that the economic fallout could be “very strong” but also said he was confident the contagion would come under control soon.

He praised Italy’s health service as “among the most efficient and rigorous in the world” and urged foreign tourists to keep visiting.

“Italy is a safe country for travel and for tourism, probably safer than many others,” he told reporters.

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