Coronavirus: Why has Italy’s poorer south fared better than the north?

Coronavirus: Why has Italy’s poorer south fared better than the north?
People walk past a huge billboard that shows a woman with as protective mask in the colours of an Italian flag and which reads, "All together, without fear" referring to the coronavirus campain to stay home in the city of Naples. (File/AFP)
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Updated 19 April 2020

Coronavirus: Why has Italy’s poorer south fared better than the north?

Coronavirus: Why has Italy’s poorer south fared better than the north?
  • Medical expert describes south's low infection rate as a "real miracle"
  • Except for big cities such as Naples and Palermo, the south is generally much less densely populated

ROME: The northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto are still badly hit by coronavirus. But except for a few hotbeds that were immediately sealed by the authorities, the death toll in the poorer south of the country has been much lower.

Ninety percent of new cases of COVID-19 are reported in the north. “The virus here killed more people than the World War II bombings,” said Coronavirus Procurement Commissioner Domenico Arcuri.

A medical expert described as “a real miracle” the fact that the lower infection rate in the south is now close to that of Germany.

Virologists believe that the south has fared better because of the time factor. When he imposed the West’s first peacetime national lockdown while the disease was still gathering force, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had warned that Italy’s ability to combat coronavirus depended on whether cases could stay largely contained to its northern epicenter around Milan.

The disease has now officially claimed 23,275 lives in the Mediterranean country of 60 million people, a toll second only to the US.

But Italy considers itself relatively lucky that the outbreak erupted in provinces with the best-equipped medical staff.

Conte gambled that the short-term economic pain would pay off by saving the health care system nationwide and allowing the country to gradually reopen in the weeks to come.

Italy’s top health officials now believe that Conte’s gamble paid off. “We’ve prevented the spread of contagion in southern regions. This is now a fact supported by figures,” said public health council chief Franco Locatelli.

Giovanni Rezza, head of the infectious diseases department at the Istituto Superiore di Sanita (Superior Institute for Health), told Arab News: “The virus entered Lombardy probably before the blockade of flights from (the Chinese city of) Wuhan. It was spreading there during a peak flu period, so in the first phase it was very difficult to diagnose. Then it was transmitted mainly by contiguity all over the north.”

He added: “When the epidemic spread throughout Italy and some outbreaks arose in the south, the authorities were already prepared and the lockdown was effective. We believe that the measure of social distancing hindered the virus in the south before it could spread in the same proportion as in the north, where it had been circulating for a long time ... The time factor saved the south.”

Providing another reason for the geographical discrepancy, Rezza said: “In Italy, the virus has shown to mainly affect the most productive areas, such as the northern regions. That’s simply because more contacts between people and more daily movements related to a busy work environment are recorded there. Population density matters too.”

Except for big cities such as Naples and Palermo, the south is generally much less densely populated than the north.

“As long as there’s no vaccine, the virus will circulate. Until then, we won’t get rid of it. If precautions are suddenly relaxed, a southern city like Bari could become in a heartbeat a bigger Codogno,” warned Rezza, referring to the town in Lombardy that has suffered the highest death toll in Italy so far.

That is why some experts chosen by the government to assess the epidemiologic situation do not see positively the decision to lift the lockdown, which expires on May 4.

Some business leaders accuse Conte of doing unnecessary damage to the economy by extending the production shutdown.

Most leaders in Italy’s northern industrial heartland are pushing Conte to open as many businesses and industries as possible in early May, as the shutdown has devastated once-booming factory towns and left millions furloughed or temporarily unemployed.

Italy’s central bank said industrial production had declined by 15 percent in March, and total economic output was set to contract by 5 percent year-on-year between January and March.

But a standoff is emerging between northern leaders and those south of Rome. Vincenzo de Luca, governor of the southwestern region of Campania, warned that he may have to “close our borders” to people from the north if those regions’ stay-at-home orders are lifted. The governors of Calabria and Sicily have said they would do the same.

“We resisted so far and we did well. We can’t waste everything now,” said Sicily’s Gov. Nello Musumeci.