What worked and why

April 09, 2020

On December 31, 2019, the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, China but news of its spread started coming forth in January.On January 11, 2020 China announced its first death from the...

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On December 31, 2019, the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, China but news of its spread started coming forth in January.

On January 11, 2020 China announced its first death from the illness, a 61-year-old man who had purchased food from the sea market. The market was closed and sealed. On January 17, China announced its second death and on January 20 its third death as well as two hundred infected people. Chinese experts announced that the disease was highly infectious and could transfer from human to human having the potential of spreading out to millions of people. On January 22, seventeen deaths were announced with 550 infected people and on January 23, Wuhan city was completely locked down.

All rail and air departures were suspended and massive preparations were put in place for making special hospitals to be converted into quarantine or isolation centers for the patients. The policy adopted was that anybody who was showing signs of Covid-19 or was tested positive would be isolated from his home into the quarantine units prepared by the government.

There were no exceptions. Massive numbers of tests were done all over the city and anybody testing positive was shifted to quarantine for two weeks whether showing symptoms or not. Being Corona positive meant that the person had to be separated immediately leaving behind any dependents or even a child at home.

A city of over 11 million population was put into a complete lockdown. Nobody was allowed to leave their house without permission. Security guards monitored the temperatures of anybody entering the building. Door to door health checks were made to find anybody infected and removed forcibly at times. Face masks were mandatory all over China and even in Mongolia, 1000 km away from Wuhan, people were ordered not to leave the house without a face mask.

But even with all the measures in place, the cases continued to climb and the death toll increased. On February 18, China reported 72,436 infected and 1,868 deaths but the daily cases reduced for the first time to under 2000. China had succeeded in containing the spread and flattening the curve in just 24 days from the lockdown.

Today with the total recovered patients at 74,971 and the number of total deaths at 3,295 China has completely controlled the horrific situation with new deaths just in single digits.

In Italy, however, despite the warning from the WHO the government was initially reluctant to put cities in lockdown. On February 16, sixteen cases of Covid-19 were detected in the northern province of Lombardy. The next day 60 new cases and first deaths. On March 8, Prime Minister Conte declared complete lockdown of Lombardy and other provinces and on the next day extended it to all Italy putting sixty million people in quarantine. But by that time there were already 7,375 reported cases and 366 deaths.

Italy was also testing the population and thus the number of new cases reported everyday started climbing. By March 12, although all commercial activity was closed, the cases crossed fifteen thousand and the death toll crossed the one thousand mark. Within days the situation grew from bad to worse as the hospitals were filled to capacity, doctors were working non-stop and there was shortage of staff in hospitals. Volunteers were called, new hospital facilities were set up hastily and more equipment arranged but the cases and death toll continued to spike unabated. By March 27, the death toll had doubled to 9,134.

Why did Italy not succeed in containing the spread where China succeeded within the same time? There are two important reasons for that. One is of course the ageing population of Italy and their already weak physical condition. Second, whereas China tested the population of Wuhan and quickly isolated the infected, Italy quarantined the people in their homes and mostly tested them whenever someone called the hospitals and complained of symptoms. In many cases more than one person in the house was tested positive even when they were not showing any symptoms.

Italy also isolated the infected in quarantine centers but there is a huge population spread all over Italy that is still not tested and might be infected. The Chinese government succeeded in doing massive tests in a comparatively small area, whereas in Italy the virus spread throughout the country within weeks of the first reported case.

Italy’s national health service provides free healthcare to the citizens and it is under tremendous pressure now. The Italian doctors and medical staff have shown extraordinary heroism and stood up bravely in the face of a mega disaster but the situation is not yet under control.

The fact is that because of the lockdown and closure in Italy, there would be massive financial loss to the country. Only the tourism industry will be losing an estimated $8.1 billion this year and some 35 million fewer tourists. The areas worst hit are among the favourite tourist places in Italy.

Still Italy’s government is resolute to carry on with the lockdown. They have taken bold steps, announcing an $8.5 billion support package for the families and businesses affected by this catastrophic disaster. They are not giving up on the ill and doing everything to provide them treatment and care. There are people recovering everyday.

The example of Italy should have been an eye-opener for the rest of the world where governments were hesitant in taking decisive action – yet both the UK and the US both did not lock down. And currently the situation is that the number of patients is increasing in the thousands every day in both countries and the governments are clueless as to how to procure the facilities to cope with the situation.

The writer is a social development professional.

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