Italy put 16 million people under quarantine to curb the spread of coronavirus

More than 16 million people are now under quarantine in northern Italy, an unprecedented move by the government as it furiously tries to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Italy is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. The country is struggling to contain the virus: The number of cases in Italy has surpassed 9,000. At least 450 people have died.

Movement restrictions in northern Italy are the latest extraordinary measure. Early Sunday morning, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that the government would restrict movement in Lombardy — whose capital is Milan, the region’s economic center — and more than a dozen other provinces in the region.

Conte said Italy was facing a national emergency and needed to take these measure to stop the spread of the virus and to prevent hospitals from being overloaded. “This is the moment of self-responsibility,” he said.

People will be barred from entering or leaving the region and travel inside it will be severely limited. Exceptions exist for work or health or family emergencies, but people in violation of the ban could face penalties, including jail time or a fine.

The government has banned attendance at ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Theaters and gyms and and ski resorts are shut down. Across the entire country, sports and cultural events have been canceled (or, with sports, played in empty stadiums). Last week, Italy closed all schools until March 15, though that’s been extended until at least April 3 in the northern region, according to Politico.

People are being told that they must stay at least one meter away from others at bars, cafes, and in supermarkets. In the quarantine “red zone,” bars and restaurants are operating on restricted hours, from 6 am to 6 pm, according to the Guardian. These “social distancing” measures are meant to thin crowds and stop people from spreading the virus, though those who experience symptoms of the coronavirus have been instructed to stay home altogether.

Riots broke out in prisons across the country over the weekend and into Monday after facilities banned family visits and restricted leave applications, leaving at least six dead. Many of the incarcerated are concerned that they would be particularly vulnerable should the virus spread in prison.

It’s not clear how long the population of about 16 million will be under imposed quarantine, though a draft measure suggested the plans could be in place until April 3. Those draft measures leaked before the government’s formal announcement, causing confusion and anger among local leaders.

It also sparked mass panic, as people in the north rushed to board trains or get in cars to head to other parts of Italy to avoid the new restrictions. Northern Italy, which is the country’s economic center, attracts workers from southern Italy. In Puglia, for example, officials said those returning from the north would also face quarantine restrictions.

Conte called the leak unacceptable, but it underscored the challenges of imposing such severe restrictions in a democratic country like Italy. Chinese authorities put into place strict quarantine and travel restrictions, but Italy, as Conte said, is much more dependent on the public taking “self-responsibility” through social distancing and limiting movement.

Conte urged Italians not to “try and be clever” to get around the restrictions. Some prominent Italian figures used the hashtag #iostoacasa (“I’m Staying Home”) on Twitter to encourage people to abide by the new rules.

Italy’s extraordinary measures highlight the urgency of slowing the coronavirus spread

The rollout of Italy’s new measures marks a turning point for a country that’s struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus. And it’s not even clear that this extraordinary order, which would effectively put a third of Italy’s population under quarantine, will do enough to slow the contagion to other parts of the country.

Prominent politicians, including Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of Italy’s Democratic party (which is part of the governing coalition), has tested positive — leading to fears about spread and exposure in the government.

The latest directive also puts into perspective just how damaging the outbreak will be on Italy’s already fragile economy.

Italy’s government will provide a 7.5 euro stimulus (about $8.5 billion) — “shock therapy” — to deal with the fallout from the virus, but uncertainty prevails. Lombardy, with Milan as its capital, and Veneto, home to Venice, together account for about a third of Italy’s GDP. The quarantine will surely affect businesses, to say nothing of tourism and travel to the region.

The mass quarantine is also raising fears about the potential economic impact across the eurozone. The European Central Bank meets Thursday, and everyone is waiting to see what interventions it may make to try to stave off a recession within the bloc.

Italy is so far the hardest hit in Europe, but the virus is spreading throughout the continent. So far, the European Union has resisted calls to completely seal off Italy’s borders, though neighboring countries have increased border checks. Some leaders, specifically Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, have been more forceful in calling on the EU to ban travelers in Italy.

Some of the continent’s right-wing populists have also exploited the coronavirus as a rallying cry to seal its borders and bar migrants. Matteo Salvini, a right-wing populist and anti-immigrant politician in Italy, said in February that the government had underestimated the coronavirus by “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed.” (As of March 4, there have been just 11 confirmed cases in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.)

But the rapid spread of the coronavirus is shattering the sense that it can be contained by borders. Italy is trying to slow the outbreak, but it’s unlikely it can deal with the outbreak, or the economic fallout from it, without cooperation and coordination from the rest of the EU.

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