Italy And Epidemics: The Long Story Of A Dangerous Relationship

History proves that Italy, due to its central position in the Mediterranean, has always been a land of passage for many epidemics.

Epidemics Coronavirus Italy

History proves that Italy, due to its central position in the Mediterranean, has always been the tastiest prey for epidemics

These days, everyone in Italy is talking about coronavirus. TV news, press and social media do nothing but writing, talking and posting about the health crisis we are facing. People are using social media to describe their everyday life in quarantine from last weekend, when the Italian government created one big red zone across the country to contain the outbreak. Basically, people cannot leave their houses unless they’re purchasing food, or for specific work and medical purposes.

There are many points of view on the situation, as the opposition leader Matteo Salvini — perhaps not so surprisingly — has been attacking Giuseppe Conte and his cabinet from the appearance of the very first first coronavirus case in Italy. It is true, indeed, that many people have underestimated the consequences of the disease, like the Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti, who probably got the virus shortly after partecipating to an aperitif in Milan under the motto “no panic.”

Coronavirus, you are in good company

Setting aside the usual political controversies, could the government do any better to tackle the infection? Maybe yes. Or maybe not, as Italy is — for different historic, social and economic reasons — the perfect prey for dangerous epidemics like coronavirus.

Due to its central location in the Mediterranean, Italy has represented throughout its history a geographical link not only between Europe, Africa and Asia, but also between East and West. This strategic position is a blessing when it comes to trade and economy in general, but when a plague is coming after you, it can become very dangerous. We can refer to some past examples.

A major setback for the ancient Roman empire: the Antonine plague

From the specific historic perspective of diseases in Italy, the Roman Empire should always be in the foreground. Indeed, Caesars managed to unify the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, putting the Italian peninsula at the center of the world stage. Italy became major commercial hub, where people and merchants from everywhere thrived. From Portugal to Iraq, from Scotland to Egypt, everyone was involved in the greatness of the empire. Moreover, it is worth highlighting that the Romans deserve credit for paving the Silk Road, as they were bringing to the Empire textiles and spices.

However, all that glitters is not gold. In fact, a strategic position can represent your blessing, as well as your downfall. In 165 AD, the Roman Empire was hit by a mercyless enemy: the Antonine plague. The disease was carefully described by the ancient Greek physician Galenus, who reported the devastating consequences on people.

The disease, perhaps smallpox, erupted during the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius, at the height of the Roman Empire. Many historians believe that the plague represents the starting point of the Empire’s decline, due to its deep economic, social and military consequences. According to the ancient historian Cassius Dio, the disease killed 2,000 people each day in Rome, with the record peak of 5,000. It was too much to take.

Interestingly, the outbreak started in China, travelled on the Silk Road, and hit Roman soldiers while besieging a city in Iraq. When legionaries came back home, they spread the disease everywhere. The Antonine plague might have killed a third of the total population, about 30 million people across the Empire.

Black death asking for its tribute

Another dramatic moment in Italian history is, without any doubt, the Middle Age, especially for city-states in northern and central Italy. At the time, Milan, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Siena and Genoa were extremely wealthy cities developing on trades, and important commercial links between the Middle East and Europe. So, here we go again. Boasting a strategic position is a double-edged sword. It makes you richer, but it also places you on the front line if something bad occurs.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis probably came — surprise — from China, travelling along the Silk Road, until in 1374 it reached the Genoese colony of Kaffa, on the Crimean coast. Here, Mongolian soldiers were besieging the city and throwing dead corpses inside the city walls, carrying out an ante litteram biological warfare.

Unfortunately, these corpses were infected with the black death bacterium. From Kaffa, the disease spreaded all around the sea trade routes, reaching in 1348 Costantinople, Venice, Genoa and Pisa. The plague covered the most crowded continental routes, touching by 1350 all European regions, including Russia and Scandinavia.

The plague killed about the 30% of the European population, more than 20 million people, with peak death tolls of 60% and 70% respectively in Venice and Tuscany. Thanks to the extensive trading system, the bacterium was brought from Italy to the rest of Europe, putting an end to the social, cultural and economic development of the Middle Age, something that would start again only many centuries later.

Why Italy is the tastiest prey for epidemics

Today, the virus is hitting hard in Italy, as almost 2,000 people died and more than 20,000 people have been infected. A question arises: how is it possible? Are there any causes that place Italy at the top spots of western countries?

First, as remarked before, Italy’s strategic position between Europe and Asia makes the country structurally more exposed. Still today, Italy has significant economic relations with China, ranging from infrastructures to shipping activities and renewable energies, for a total yearly amount of 42 billion dollars. Moreover, China is the first Asian market for Italian exports. It is no coincidence that Italy represents the first European country hit by coronavirus.

Other reasons, linked to less evident economic and social issues, should also be highlighted. Indeed, the virus makes more victims among elderly people. Italy, with a life expectancy of 83 years and an average age of 45 years, is one of the oldest countries in the world.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that the virus makes most of its victims in northern Italy. Notably, the most important outbreaks are in the Po river valley, which is one of the most polluted areas in Europe. Italy has the first spot in the continent in terms of deaths from nitrogen dioxin. Interestingly enough, there are many medical studies showing that there is a link between pollution and respiratory viral infections like coronavirus. Another reason why it is not a surprise that the contagion originally took place in the heart of the toxic Padan area.

Last but not least, there are specific economic reasons that might be leaving the field to the virus and that call for more detailed consideration in the future. The domestic economy is barely recovering from the financial downturn of 2011, has a burdensome public debt, placing the country at the 6th spot in the world, and little money to make investments and research, especially in healthcare. It is very clear that Italy is not in its best shape to tackle the outbreak.

In conclusion, there are many reasons why the coronavirus has spread so largely in Italy. The country is objectively in dire straits for economic, social and environmental reasons. Indeed, history shows us that a strategic position could represent the greatest blessing, unless an epidemic decides to hit you and you’re not prepared for it.

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  1. I love, love, love the term ‘tastiest prey’. But I might have a quibble. I am not sure the COVID-19 is out to kill us and eat us; it just wants to live inside of us for a while and feed on our blood. It is a parasite, not a predator, so we are hosts, not prey. So now my question: Using Google Translate, if I enter ‘host’ on the English side, I get ‘ospite’ on the Italian side. And if I enter ‘guest’ on the English side I get . . . ‘ospite’ also! How can that be? Doesn’t it get confusing? How can one word have opposite meanings?

    1. Ciao, Thomas!
      Thank you for your kind comment, and sorry for my delay. I had problems with the comments’ section in WordPress.
      Actually, some translations between English and Italian may be tricky. The Italian word for “ospite” comes from the Latin word “hospes”, which means “guest”. So, it is definitely the right word for friends you invite for dinner!
      On the other hand, the word “ospite” is, by extension, used in biology for the English word “host”.
      I dont’ know how it is possible, but there are tricky words that have different meanings when translated into other languages. That’s really fascinating, in my opinion.

      Thank you for your comment and sorry again for my delay.

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