Romans woke Saturday to learn that the leader of Italy's Democratic Party had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the virus had also infected an official inside the Vatican, the walled city-state in Rome.
News that Nicola Zingaretti, the first leading Italian politician confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, came amid mounting fears that the government's containment policies, the most far-reaching in Europe, were not working to halt the spread of the virus from northern Italy. Italians were further dismayed to learn from the Civil Protection Agency that there had been a jump in the death toll from coronavirus.
With confirmed cases still rising apace, the Italian government was poised to broaden drastically the lockdown, according to reports.
Eleven towns in the north were locked down, but a draft decree, which the government had yet to approve, would impose a lockdown on the whole of the Lombardy region and 11 provinces in other nearby regions. The lockdown would include Milan and Venice, imposing a virtual ban on people entering or leaving. The regions would be locked down until April 3, Italian media reported.
Media reports were not clear about when the lockdown would start, but the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera said it was "imminent."
Zingaretti, whose brother is a popular television actor, announced he had tested positive in a video he posted on his Facebook page, saying, "So, it's arrived, I also have coronavirus." He added: "I am fine, and therefore I am in quarantine at home. From here, I'll continue to do what I can do. My family are also following the protocols, and ASL [the local health authority] is contacting people who have worked closely [with me] in recent days to carry out checks. I have always said 'don't panic' and that we will fight this."
The Democratic Party rules Italy in a coalition government with the Five Star Movement.
Salvini bodyguard tests positive
On Friday, it emerged that one of the bodyguards protecting Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist, anti-migrant Lega party, had tested positive for the virus. Salvini, who has mounted fierce criticism of the government's response to coronavirus, appeared to dismiss calls to self-isolate, saying he felt fine and arguing he had little contact with the bodyguard. But he added, "Obviously, I'll do everything that the health authorities will ask me to do, like any other citizen."
Five Star Movement politician Carlo Sibilia said Salvini should self-quarantine. "The virus does not look at your name. It does not look at your social position or your parliamentary status," Sibilia said. "We invite all those, including Salvini, who have documented contacts with people who have tested positive to follow the measures developed by the government and not to go it alone, because it would mean endangering Italian citizens."
The unrelenting rise in confirmed cases in Italy – and the jump in the death toll to around 4% of confirmed cases – has prompted some countries to order their airlines to curtail flights to Italy. Last week, British Airways and budget carriers Ryanair and EasyJet reduced their numbers of flights, mainly to cities in the worst-affected north. They did so unprompted by government requests.
Austria and Georgia said Saturday that they were halting all flights to Italy, and Norwegian Air said it was suspending service between Oslo and Milan. The Czech Republic on Friday announced that any of its citizens returning home from vacations in Italy must self-quarantine for 14 days. The Czech prime minister said Czechs must avoid all travel to Italy. "We call on all citizens of the Czech Republic not to travel ANYWHERE in Italy," Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a Twitter post.
As of Saturday, Italian authorities reported 5,883 confirmed cases of the virus, the fourth-highest number after China, South Korea and Iran. Of that number, 233 people have died. Italy has carried out 36,359 tests.
11 towns locked down
Eleven small towns – 10 in Lombardy and one in Veneto – have been on lockdown for almost two weeks, and government officials told VOA they were considering extending the quarantines. Schools and universities across the country have been shuttered until March 15, and major soccer matches have to be played behind closed doors until April 3.
The contagion is damaging the Italian economy and its important tourism industry. Confturismo, the national tourist confederation, projected the crisis could cost the country more than $8 billion in lost tourist revenue by May.
Italian officials said they were likely to announce further sweeping measures, including locking down more towns. The government urged people not to shake hands or hug and has begun recruiting retired doctors and nurses as part of an effort to bolster the health care system.
Until recently, Romans seemed confident that the city would escape major contagion. There are 49 confirmed cases in Rome and the surrounding region of Lazio. But the city has become emptier – and not just because of a 90% plunge in the number of tourists in Rome. The normally thronged historic piazzas are bare of locals as well. Restaurants, cafes and bars report a drastic drop in customers. Staff wonder how long the crisis will last and how it will affect their jobs.
Many tune into the televised evening updates on the virus from the top officials of the Civil Protection Agency. The World Health Organization has advised Italy to boost the number of intensive care beds from 5,000 to 7,500 in the coming days.
Too much or not enough?
Fear and frustration are building, and Italians are split about whether the government is being too drastic in its actions or not drastic enough. Some say containment measures such as school closures should have been introduced two months ago. Within the locked-down towns in the north there are complaints of shortages of medical equipment and even doctors, along with appeals for more face masks.
Some question why schools are being closed but not factories and offices, saying there is no logic to the measures. The Lega party and other anti-migrant political groups blame the crisis firmly on China, a line of criticism that their opponents say is fueling harassment and abuse of Chinese Italians and of anyone who has an Asian appearance.
One Lega politician apologized after saying on television, "It is a cultural fact that China has paid a big price for this epidemic because we have seen them all eat living mice and things like that."