Health expert: ‘Coronavirus lethality in Italy higher than China’

A few minutes after Italy announced unprecedented travel restrictions on its 60 million people on Monday to control the deadly coronavirus outbreak in the country, talked to Nino Cartabellotta, a leading Italian public health expert, professor and president of Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze or GIMBE – Italy’s Group for Evidence-based Medicine.

“Finally, the decision has been taken,” Cartabellotta said in an interview by phone, welcoming the extension of the quarantine zone to all of the country.

“It was about time. This is the only way we can tackle the spread of the virus effectively.”

His research institute has been gathering data and following the coronavirus outbreak since its onset in China and belongs to a taskforce recently set up to advise Italy’s Ministry of Health.

Cartabellotta has been vocal throughout the epidemic, calling for strict containment measures to be implemented since late February.

Al Jazeera: How has the virus has spread so quickly?

Nino Cartabellotta: We noticed that the virus had first extended across the Hubei province, then to its provincial neighbours, and eventually across China. We knew the same dynamic would have repeated in other countries. The more days that passed, the clearer it became that the virus would have reached everywhere, thanks to its high transmissibility and through asymptomatic cases.

The virus arrived in Italy most likely in the first or second week of January, much before the closure of the country’s air traffic from and to China on January 30, when people still thought suspending flights might have spared us the infection.

Al Jazeera: Some say the current lockdown should have been implemented earlier. Has a delay made the situation more critical?

Cartabellotta: Following the announcement of the first few cases in Italy, we immediately understood we would have gone through such a vast epidemic. The COVID-19 outbreak was driven by the spread in hospitals in Italy. In such cases, the number of infected patients skyrockets very fast.

Before Monday, measures had been taken in fits and starts because of political and economic factors amid an attempt to protect the national economy, without considering in full all the evaluations that we had presented at the institutional level.

Italian politics took a wait-and-see approach. More or less rigorous measures have been taken based on what was unfolding on the ground. But the virus doesn’t work this way. The virus moves extremely quickly.

We would have needed to take such draconian containment measures for the whole country since March 1. It doesn’t make sense to put regional, provincial or city borders in such a situation. A policy of procrastination is not a solution amid an epidemic.

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