Let us spray: a nation goes into quarantine

Sixty million trapped: The whole of Italy was ordered into coronavirus lockdown yesterday. © AP

Is Italy a grim warning to the world? There is anxiety and confusion on the ground as the country implements its most restrictive measures since World War Two, in its battle against Covid-19.

At a hospital in Lombardy, the doctors look at each other in despair.

With 70% of Italy’s coronavirus cases in their region, they are running out of beds for severe cases. They gather all the equipment they can to convert normal wards – and even some operating theatres – into intensive-care units.

Some are in tears and all are exhausted, after working extra hours to cover for sick colleagues.

The most stressed doctors of all are in the emergency room at the heart of the hospital. They know they cannot give every patient the care he or she needs, so they have to make haunting choices. One anaesthetist, Dr Christian Salarol, has described it as “a warlike situation”.

The official policy is to put young, otherwise healthy patients before older ones or those with pre-existing conditions. According to Dr Salarol, “If a person is between 80 and 95 and has severe respiratory failure, they probably won’t make it.”

At the latest count, there were almost 8,000 reported cases of the virus in Italy – more than 460 of them fatal.

In Milan, a city of five million people, the public spaces are eerily quiet. A street which would normally be thronged with 200 pedestrians has only a dozen; some stop off at a bar which is still open, but – like cafés and restaurants – has to observe a 6:00pm curfew.

At the train station, the few travellers have to show their papers to soldiers and persuade a police officer that they should be allowed to embark.

Since the government announced a nationwide lockdown on Sunday to last until 3 April, no one has been allowed to leave home except for work or health reasons. Large gatherings of people are banned, so schools and universities stand empty, with students having to take lessons online.

Cinemas, theatres, museums, gyms, and sports stadiums are shut too. Serie A football matches have been postponed. Church doors carry the message, “By regional ordinance: church closed and Mass suspended.” For the country’s huge tourist industry, it is a disaster.

Doctors are worried that the disease has not yet peaked and that it could become established in the south of Italy, which has a much less developed health system than the north.

Is Italy a grim warning to the world?

Emergency measures

Some say that this is the shape of things to come for many other nations. The Covid-19 virus is extraordinarily contagious and the likelihood is that, in any country it reaches, at least half the people will become infected. Even if only 20% of them need hospital treatment, the system will struggle to cope and the same difficult decisions will have to be made.

Others argue that the situation in Italy is only so grim because its health system is badly organised: instead of being nationwide, it is divided into regions, making a response harder to co-ordinate. On top of that, the authorities have been slow and incompetent in their reaction. South Korea has had a similar number of cases but – thanks to more widespread testing – only 54 deaths.

You Decide

  1. Should your own government shut the whole country down now?
  2. Is it morally right to prioritise young patients over old ones?


  1. Draw a map of Italy, showing the regions it is divided into.
  2. One of the greatest works of Italian literature, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, is about 10 young people taking refuge in a castle during a plague and getting each other to tell stories to pass the time. Ask the person next to you to give you a subject for a story, and write it on two sides of paper.

Some People Say...

“Each is liable to panic, which is exactly the terror of ignorance surrendered to the imagination. Knowledge is the encourager.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American poet and essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Italy has had a problem in communicating advice about the situation, which has added to its severity. Only 11 days ago, Milan’s mayor sent a tweet encouraging everyone to go out and about as normal. The announcement of the national lockdown was leaked the day before it was made, causing thousands of people to get on packed trains and head home in case they got trapped in another part of the country – a recipe for spreading the virus further.
What do we not know?
How other countries, where the virus is only just starting to spread, will cope. In terms of numbers, the situation in Britain now is the same as it was in Italy two weeks ago. In the US, where there is no national health system and many people cannot afford to go to a doctor, things could be even worse. President Trump’s complacent attitude has not helped, and could affect his chances of being re-elected.

Word Watch

A prosperous region in north-west Italy containing around 10 million people, a sixth of Italy’s population.
A medical specialist in controlling pain during and after surgery.
Connected to breathing.
To get on (for example, a bus or train).
Serie A
The top division in Italy’s soccer league.
A command.
A Christian service, particularly in the Catholic church.

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