Italian Regions And The Coronavirus Test

Here's how Italian regions are doing in the management of the coronavirus crisis.

Francesco Pierantoni / CC BY

Here’s how Italian regions are doing in the management of the coronavirus crisis

For more than a month, Italy is experiencing an unprecedented situation: stores are closed, productivity has stopped, restaurants and aperitivi are distant memories that seem to belong to a different lifetime. The whole country has been put under forced quarantine since March 10 to stop the surge in coronavirus cases that is threatening the national health system. But you probably know this all too well, since the Covid-19 pandemic has now reached not only all Italian regions, but virtually every corner of the world.

Nonetheless, while we might all be trying to hold on and get through the lockdown on our own, national and local leaders are carrying the responsibility of decisions that could literally save thousands of lives on their shoulders. They are aware that, when the health emergency will be over, the choices they’re making now could represent a real springboard for their career or, on the other hand, be the beginning of its end.

Here’s how they’re doing.

Lombardy: three men, one race

Lombardy is the most affected Italian region by the coronavirus epidemic. It had the ‘patient one’ case, back in February, and the first red area of the country in Codogno, a small town near Lodi. Luckily, Lombardy can also boast a well-oiled network of hospitals and health centers, with the highest number of intensive care units in Italy (spoiler: it was not enough anyway).

Lombardy’s political scene is divided: the Mayors of Milan and Bergamo, Giuseppe Sala and Giorgio Gori, respectively, are firmly left-wing, while the region’s governor Attilio Fontana was elected with The League, the sovereignist, right-wing party led by Matteo Salvini. The coronavirus pandemic also forged some new stars in the region’s firmament. The most prominent name is that of Giulio Gallera, a formerly unknown Health Councilor who suddenly conquered all the major newspaper headlines. 

Predictably, there was no lack of controversies about the leaders’ management of the health emergency. Milan, in particular, had quite a false start in counteracting the epidemic. At the end of February, just when the town of Codogno was going under lockdown, the city’s Mayor Giuseppe Sala — a beloved star with an approval rating of more than 60% — promoted the campaign #milanononsiferma (#MilanDoesntStop), encouraging all citizens to go out to restaurants and bars, have fun, spend their money and help the economy roar again. That was a glaring error.

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#milanononsiferma e con ago e filo ricama…

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A few weeks later, Coronavirus cases in Lombardy were growing by the minute, and soon enough the health systems of many cities found themselves on the verge of collapse. 

About a month after the launch of the #MilanDoesnStop hashtag, Mayor Sala reevaluated it, referring to the initiative as something “probably wrong.” To be honest, we should also take into account the fact that, at the time, many citizens actually agreed with him: back in February, the coronavirus was still largely perceived as a flu or, in any case, a disease that could only have serious consequences for elderly people. 

On the other hand, after a moment of initial reticence, Lombardy’s governor Attilio Fontana embraced the ‘let’s shut it all down’ attitude. In the region, schools were closed on February 21, and they’ll probably stay so until September. At the beginning of March, Fontana urged the national government to impose stricter measures to stop the spread of the virus and, on March 8, he claimed that the decision to put Lombardy and 14 other provinces under lockdown was “going in the right direction.” On March 21, a few hours before Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the stop of all non-essential activities, Fontana had just released a brand new decree, similar to the national one in many aspects.

However, soon enough controversy reached him as well. From his failed attempt to wear a protective mask during a Facebook Live video — after several of his co-workers tested positive, Fontana put himself in self-quarantine — to the mismanagement of Bergamo and, most of all, the controversial decision to organize a major, on-site press conference to celebrate the opening of a new hospital in the Fiera Milano area, which was incredibly built in just about 10 days and equipped to treat Covid-19 patients. 

Here is where Giulio Gallera comes into the picture. A previously anonymous 50-years-old Health Councilor, Gallera transformed himself into the man of the hour during the coronavirus outbreak. He started holding weekly press conferences about the developments of the disease in Lombardy, attending all the public events and going back and forth, province to province, in a relentless attempt to prove Lombardy’s efficiency and professionalism. 

The hospital built at Milano Fiera is his workhorse: he said it would have been ready “quicker than those in Wuhan” and later described it as a “pride for Italy and Lombardy.” On the day of its inauguration, Fontana and Gallera attended a crowded press conference, which was then criticized as a violation of the restrictive norms imposed on the whole country. Gallera responded that “everyone was wearing protective masks” and, thus, the situation was under control even though the safety distances were not respected. 

Giulio Gallera’s tireless efforts to counteract the coronavirus pandemic made many think that citizens’ safety was not his only goal. “If I will be asked to run for mayor, I won’t back down,” he said, only to then actually back down a few hours later, amid accusations of exploiting a health crisis to fuel his personal and political ambitions. 

Veneto, U-turns and a soft lockdown

In Veneto, governor Luca Zaia (from The League party) adopted quite a confused strategy toward the Covid-19 outbreak. On February 22, the first reported coronavirus-related death in Italy took place in Vo’ Euganeo, a small village in the province of Padova. Zaia immediately closed down the area and imposed compulsory tests for all the residents. 

About two weeks later though, when Prime Minister Conte declared a larger red area which also included three provinces in Veneto (Padova, Venezia, and Treviso), Zaia complained about the decision and requested to remove Veneto from the final version of the document. 

After a day fews, Zaia suddenly aligned himself with his colleague Fontana (Lombardy’s governor), advocating for homogeneous restrictions on a national level just hours before the decision of the national lockdown, on March 9. 

Now, on April 14, the third U-turn occurred: Veneto was getting ready for a ‘soft’ form of lockdown, which eliminated the compulsory 200-meter distance from home for any outdoor physical activity and allowed home barbecues among family members. “We are listening to the experts’ advice, but we are getting ready to enter Phase 2,” Zaia said

Overall, Zaia’s strategy has shown good results. On April 14, the Veneto region — which has almost 5 million citizens — reported 906 coronavirus-related deaths and about 14,500 total positive cases. We can compare this data with Piedmont that, with a similar population size, has 1,927 deaths and 17,690 cases, in spite of having conducted roughly a third of Veneto’s tests.

Piedmont and the curse of disorganization

Piemonte’s governor Alberto Cirio (Forza Italia) was the second Italian politician to be diagnosed with coronavirus, after the Democratic Party’s leader Nicola Zingaretti. Cirio’s administration has been criticized on several fronts, starting from the small number of tests conducted (about 71K on April 14, compared with 209K in Veneto) and the lack of coordination among the different hospitals and health centers. 

“I’m fighting a war with the army I’ve been given,” Cirio replied, recalling the fact that his governor mandate started about 7 months before the coronavirus outbreak: too soon to get the healthcare sector reorganized they way he wanted. But after all, Cirio himself admitted that “in Piedmont, the curve is flattening more slowly than in other regions.”    

Emilia Romagna: safety and economy arm in arm

Reinforced by the recent re-election, governor Stefano Bonaccini (Democratic Party) represents a positive example in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on a model that takes into account both the citizens’ safety and the needs of the economy. 

After the national lockdown, Bonaccini closed the public parks and outlawed jogging and any other outdoor recreational activity. He defined the public health system as a “national patrimony” and claimed that, after the end of the emergency, it will need better care and more investments. The health system in Emilia Romagna is proving to be up to the situation, also thanks to a plan that offered 3,100 hospital beds and 513 intensive care units to all the cities in the region. 

On the other hand, Bonaccini is also considering the need for the economic activity to re-open as soon as possible, and he’s organizing meetings with the necessary players to devise a plan based on the optimization of personal protective equipment (PPE) use in the workplace.

Per la prima volta dall'inizio della pandemia, oggi in Emilia-Romagna i guariti superano i nuovi casi positivi. Non…

Posted by Stefano Bonaccini on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Lazio: it’s all about the capital

On January 30, the first two coronavirus cases in Italy were detected in Rome. They were Chinese tourists that had been traveling around the country, and they were quickly hospitalized at Spallanzani Medical Center. This prompted the government to close air traffic with China. About a week later, on March 7, Lazio’s governor and Democratic Party’s leader Nicola Zingaretti tested positive to coronavirus, and he started to self-quarantine.

Even though Zingaretti is the region’s governor, the most prominent political figure linked with Lazio is probably Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi (Five Start Movement) who immediately started dealing with the threat posed by a potential spread of the disease in a city already struggling with many other problems. 

She asked for special powers to administer Rome’s finances and followed the national ordinances related to shops and monuments closures. The city set up four hospitals dedicated to Covid-19 patients, and many initiatives aimed at helping the less fortunate. 

Lazio is one of the most populous regions in Italy, but it currently has ‘only’ 5,111 coronavirus cases and 300 deaths. This follows the trends of central and southern regions that, away from the northern hotbeds, are dealing with Covid-19 on a different scale.

Campania: graduation party with flamethrowers

Campania’s governor Vincenzo De Luca (Democratic Party) found himself under the spotlight after claiming that “all the students who will be found organizing a graduation party will be visited by police forces, armed with flamethrowers.” The unusual declaration went viral on the web.

Weeks later, De Luca said he was proud of how Campania was managing the situation. “Many were expecting a catastrophe, they thought we were going to end up a hundred times worse than Lombardy. And those people were almost disappointed when this didn’t happen,” he said

Campania took action to set up prefabricated hospital sections equipped for the emergency and succeeded in keeping the number of positive cases and the death rate quite low, along with the general trend of southern-central regions.

Puglia, the virus travels south

In Puglia, a region in the southern part of Italy, problems began on the night between March 7 and 8, a few hours before the official communication about the impositions of extraordinary measures in Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces. The law decree, in fact, had been leaked by the press and spread panic among the many students and workers that lived in the north, but whose families were in the south. Train stations were stormed as people made a desperate attempt to go back home before it became basically illegal.

The first day after the official isolation of Lombardy and neighboring territories, more than 2,500 people filled in a compulsory self-reporting form stating that they entered Puglia from a quarantined area. By March 10, the number increased to more than 11K. Governor Michele Emiliano (Independent, center-left) was clearly alarmed: “If Puglia gets as many cases as Lombardy, we won’t be able to manage the consequences,” he said during a radio interview. According to him, all the 56 cases of coronavirus that Puglia had confirmed by March 10th were in people who came from northern Italy. 

Emiliano quickly created a task-force led by the epidemiologist Pier Luigi Lo Palco, who worked to properly prepare the healthcare system and maximize the intensive care units’ capacity. In the end, Puglia seems to be holding up. By April 14, the region had about 3,000 cases and less than 300 deaths.

Sicily, the struggle of quarantine on an island

Sicily’s governor Nello Musumeci (#DiventeràBellissima Party, local right-wing) struggled to enforce his ordinances and keep people from going back and forth between the island and continental areas. Musumeci took credit for the anti-Covid plan put in place in Sicily, based on the increase of intensive care unit departments, on the creation of Covid hospitals and the imposition of a compulsory self-quarantine period for all those who returned to Sicily from other areas of the country. “The hard-line we adopted is working,” he claimed.

A different picture came from De Luca, who showed on his Facebook account the lines of cars that filled the city’s port. He criticized the central government for turning a blind eye toward the violations that kept happening in his city and urged governor Musumeci to tighten controls and to adopt a database system that allowed local administrators to effectively trace movements in and out of their towns.

The weight of responsibility

Northern and southern regions have been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic from different perspectives, based on the number of cases and the availability of intensive care units. The North has been severely hit by coronavirus while, as experts highlighted, the South has been able to contain the emergency.

Nationwide, the lives of thousands of people were put in the hands of local governors, and their decisions proved to be critical in the management of the epidemic. The most contested plans were those adopted in the North, where the uncertainties regarding the flattening of the curve, the extreme stress experienced by hospitals and the need to balance public health and economical needs forced local leaders to make decisions in a very short time, before being able to take into account their potential consequences. This is true especially for Lombardy, where governor Attilio Fontana passed from being praised for his management to being blamed for the death of hundreds.

Making choices in such a delicate moment is not easy, but governors should be held accountable for their mistakes as much as for their successes.

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