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From Italy — battling the fourth wave of Covid-19

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In February 2020 as the first Covid-19 cases emerged in Italy, public health officials, virologists and epidemiologists started talking about a ‘Lock-Down’. The idea was greeted with shock and horror. Was it really being suggested that an entire country stop working? That people not leave their homes? That factories, shops and restaurants close down?

But as death rates shot up, it rapidly became clear a strict nation-wide lockdown was inevitable. In early March 2020, all commercial activities stopped, schools and other education institutions closed, and people were told to not leave their home except for essential activities such as buying food and for medical purposes. It was a bizarre and unforgettable time. The death toll rose to a peak of almost a 1,000 per day, and the army had to be mobilised to deal with the dead bodies. The health system, considered among the best in the world, came close to collapse.

The lockdown worked. Cases dropped as sharply as they rose. It seemed that the sacrifices had been worth it. There was a collective sigh of relief. Restrictions started easing and by the time summers arrived, things were returning to normal.

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However, after the summer, cases started rising once again, reaching 40,000 per day in mid-November with a death toll once again approaching 1,000 per day. Christmas and New Year 2020 saw new restrictions which turned this traditional family holiday into a miserable affair. And the virus was not done yet. There was the third wave in spring 2021 with a peak of 25,000 cases and 500 deaths per day.

But by then vaccinations were coming on stream, first for the elderly and vulnerable groups, but then gradually for others. With the coming of September 2021 there was once again a semblance of normalcy. Schools reopened, social life resumed and the tourist industry — so important for the Italian economy — showed signs of revival. But problems lurked.

A virus continued to circulate among the seven million people who have refused vaccination; and among younger children — those below 12 — who were not covered by the vaccination programme. It is also circulating among those vaccinated; probably because the vaccine lose their efficacy after some time, or were less effective against the new variants. Whatever the reasons, the incidence of new infections started rising one again, going from around 2,000 in mid-October to almost 13,000 in the space of some six weeks. For now the proportion of those requiring hospitalisation and intensive care is still low, but these too are on the rise.

The government response so far has been to encourage those already vaccinated to go for a booster shot after two initial jabs, and to extend the vaccination programme to children between five and 12 years of age. It is also placing greater restrictions on those who are not vaccinated through a Green Pass — a certificate issued only to those vaccinated, who have had Covid in the past six months or have had a lateral flow test in the last 48 hours. A Green Pass is now mandatory for those working in public and private enterprises, for using public transport, for eating indoors at restaurants and bars, and for going to the theatres, cinema and exhibition.

Will these measures be enough to contain the spread of the disease? It is difficult to make predictions especially now with the new Omicron variant which arrived in Italy. Patient zero, an engineer who works for the petroleum giant ENI in Mozambique, entered Italy mid-November and travelled around for more than a week before he was diagnosed.

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There are also other black clouds gathering on the social, political and economic front. There have been strong and sometimes violent protests in many cities against the government restrictions which are being compared to those imposed by the Nazis on the Jewish population. There are also other bizarre things happening. In some parts of Italy young people are organising Covid parties — they gather around someone diagnosed with Covid in order to get infected and thus become eligible for a Green Pass.

Populist parties, one of which is part of government, continue to ride the wave of fear and discontent. And should further restrictions be needed, it is by no means clear that the present government will survive. And if all this is not enough, there is the looming fear of another economic downturn and — given the vast amount of money put into the economy over the last year — of a rapid rise in inflation.

It looks like winter 2021-22 is not going to be an easy one.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2021.

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