Italy goes into nationwide lockdown as coronavirus numbers spiral

The almost empty St Mark's Square is seen after the Italian government imposed a virtual lockdown on the north of Italy including Venice to try to contain a coronavirus outbreak, in Venice, Italy, on March 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS) - Italy will become the first country in the world to attempt a nationwide lockdown as people were ordered to stay home, in a last-ditch measure to curb the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus across Europe's fourth-biggest economy.

The death toll from the virus, which is on the cusp of turning into a pandemic, is edging towards 500.

Its leader has called it the country's "darkest hour", inviting comparisons to Britain during World War II when it was losing the fight against the Nazis.

The effects, both psychological and economic, could be devastating as the government visibly struggles to contain the damage.

"We need to change our habits right now," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said at an unscheduled news conference on Monday (March 9) evening. "We are forced to impose sacrifices" on the entire country.

Less than 48 hours after announcing drastic steps in the region around Milan, Mr Conte is now moving to widen restrictions by decree across the whole country with a population of more than 60 million.

The initiatives in the north have appeared to yield limited results; people are still able to move around freely.


Now that Mr Conte has sounded a global alarm, major questions linger about the enforceability in Western economies of the kind of draconian measures needed to limit the number of people getting infected.

The country's health system is on the brink of collapse - and the obstacles Italy is up against in practical terms are much greater than what China carried out in part of the country.

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All of Italy under lockdown and tougher self-quarantine measures in Israel made clear on Monday how the global coronavirus epidemic was extending its reach.

Chinese authorities didn't impose travel restrictions nationwide, instead training their focus only on on the most-impacted province, Hubei in the country's centre. It locked down a handful of cities - including Wuhan where the pathogen is thought to have originated - stopping air and rail travel and restricting those who could leave by car.

In Italy, schools and universities will be closed nationwide, all public events will be cancelled and Italians won't be allowed to travel without a business or health-related justification until April 3.

Italy's top sports body on Monday called for all sports events to be blocked until April 3, and asked the government to issue a decree to enforce the measure.

After a meeting between representatives from all Italian team sports federations, the National Olympic Committee (CONI) said in a statement the government should intensify its measures against the virus.

Mr Conte's decision came after the number of cases in Italy soared by 25 per cent to 9,172 on Monday as reported deaths jumped to 463 from 366.

Italy's Finance Ministry said on Monday that the country is better off taking a short-term economic hit now to prevent a wider economic crisis. The government has ramped up spending to €7.5 billion (S$11.8 billion) to help cushion the economic impact of the virus. That figure, it's now clear, will rise even further.

The contagion only came to light near Italy's financial capital Milan on Feb 21. Since then, there have been some 9,172 confirmed cases and 463 deaths, putting the national health system under massive strain.

In the northern Italian region of Lombardy, which has borne the brunt of a nationwide contagion, has risen over the past day to 333 from 267, a local official said on Monday.

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