Italy’s death toll from coronavirus on Thursday overtook that of China, where the virus first emerged, as hospitals said they were being overwhelmed and the government prepared to prolong emergency lockdown measures.
A total 427 deaths were registered in Italy over the past 24 hours, bringing the total nationwide tally to more than 3,400 since the outbreak surfaced on Feb. 21. China has recorded more than 3,200 deaths since early January.
However, Italy has far fewer confirmed cases — 41,035 as of Thursday, against 80,907 in China.
Officials and experts believe the total number of infections in Italy is significantly higher, with testing largely limited to those arriving for hospital care. The country’s large, elderly population, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, is also seen as a factor for the high number of fatalities.
“We’re working in a state of very high stress and tension,” said Daniela Confalonieri, a nurse at a hospital in Milan, the capital of the wealthy northern region of Lombardy, which has been the epicentre of the epidemic.
“Look at the news that’s coming out of Italy and take note of what the situation really is like. It’s unimaginable.”
Underscoring the scale of the drama, soldiers transported bodies overnight from the northern town of Bergamo, northeast of Milan, where the cemetery has been overwhelmed.
An army spokesperson said 15 trucks and 50 soldiers had been deployed to move coffins to neighbouring provinces. Earlier local authorities had appealed for help with cremations as their own crematorium could not cope with the huge workload.
Italy went into virtual lockdown before other countries in Europe but with cases still rising, the government is considering even tougher measures that would further restrict the limited amount of outdoor movement currently permitted.
Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region neighbouring Lombardy, demanded stronger curbs from Rome, including closing all shops on Sunday. If they were not passed, he said he would consider passing a regional decree.
“I hope there will soon be measures to restrict people jogging or going out for walks. I’m sorry about that, but the alternative is intensive care, hospitalization and contagion,” he said.
At the other end of the country, in Sicily, the regional governor said the army would now help police make spot checks to ensure only people with legitimate reasons were out.
Police across Italy have stopped more than 1.2 million people over the past week and booked some 51,000 for violating the rules, the interior ministry said Thursday.
Emergency rules to be extended
The Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as saying the government would extend the deadline on emergency rules closing schools and many businesses.
The measures currently order most shops to stay shut until at least March 25 and schools until April 3. He did not say how long schools might have to remain closed.
Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told SkyTG24 television that schools would reopen only when there was “certainty of absolute safety,” adding that the end of the school year would depend on how well online lessons went in coming weeks.
The contagion is also badly damaging Italy’s economy, which had already been on the brink of recession before the virus struck last month and the government imposed a nationwide clampdown, causing many businesses to grind to a halt.
Italy’s treasury has announced a 25 billion euro ($38.68 billion Cdn) package of measures to support companies and workers, and sources said it was considering extending guarantees on bank loans to help firms hit by a collapse in orders.