Italians optimistic about Covid-19 recovery, but healthcare staff warn of winter risks

People in Italy are generally optimistic about the country's ability to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: AFP

VENICE/VICENZA - In the squares of Milan and Rome, well-dressed Italians indulge in aperitifs, and signs on job vacancies hang outside bars and shops. Many small and medium-sized enterprises work day and night to fill orders.

In Venice, people stroll and chat along the canals. Some are out shopping, while others rush to work.

A blue-collar worker visiting Venice, known only as Antonio, told The Straits Times: "Italy is beating the virus, and life is restarting."

In the nearby city of Vicenza, Mr Francesco Portorghese, a young artisan, said: "The country has restarted, I'm quite optimistic".

People in Italy are generally optimistic about the country's ability to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. Many trust the leadership of Mr Mario Draghi who became prime minister in February this year, as well as the efficacy of vaccines.

Still, there is lingering worry among some people, especially healthcare workers.

Housewife Micaela Grazioli said: "I look to winter with concern. I see a lot of people not wearing masks, not keeping their distance. They don't understand that we are in a pandemic, and the winter cold will make things worse. My husband is ... a doctor in the emergency room: his colleague's wife, a healthy person, was in the ICU for eight months."

There have been 4.8 million cases of Covid-19 and more than 130,000 people have died in Italy, one of the first Western countries to be hit by the virus and to impose a blanket lockdown. About 112,000 of the deaths occurred in 2020, when Italy struggled to cope with the stress on its crippling healthcare systems even in the big cities.

"I'm afraid there will be a resurgence of Covid-19 in the winter, we must be careful," said Mr Enzo Pugno Vanoni, a Milanese now living in the Venice area. "There are too many anti-vaxers. Those who get sick because they don't want to vaccinate should pay for treatment."

Italy is among the European countries that have administered the most vaccines, with 77 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

The country is relying on a mix of vaccine passes, mask-wearing indoors and testing regimes to underpin its inoculation drives and avoid more lockdowns.

"Winter is definitely going to be more stressful than summer," said an anesthesiologist from northern Italy, who asked not to be named. "My colleagues are at risk of burnout. Many over-45 physicians are leaving public hospitals: they've been under enormous stress because of the pandemic without any kind of economic reward."

The average age of healthcare personnel in Italy is 50. Young doctors prefer to work abroad, where wages are higher and there are more opportunities.

Dr Roberto Carlo Rossi, president of the Milan Medical Association, said: "The first wave of Covid-19 was a disaster because rural and suburban areas had been forgotten during the years: strong disinvestment, less and less human resources.

"We were fighting the virus without any proper equipment. It was like facing the German army with wooden rifles and cardboard shoes in World War II."

Calling the second wave "tremendous", he said "it hit hard the city of Milan too. But at least the masks and the disinfectant had arrived. Then finally came the hope of the vaccine, but the vaccination campaign was lousy in Milan and the Lombardy region until February, when a new vice-president of the regional government was appointed".

Today 86 per cent of residents over 12 years old in Lombardy region, the economic engine of Italy, are fully vaccinated, and more than 90 per cent of the population in Milan area have received at least one shot of Covid 19 vaccines. Poorer regions of the south, such as Sicily and Calabria, are doing well too: over 70 per cent are vaccinated.

But the healthcare system urgently needs a revamp.

Leading Italian economist Emanuele Felice said: "The pandemic has exposed two weaknesses in our healthcare system. The first is that the healthcare system is organised on a regional basis, and this creates disparities, between the north and the south".

Secondly, in the past years "there have been cuts to public healthcare, privatisation of many services and closure of several hospitals, especially in small towns. We need increased centralisation," he said.

A Sicilian doctor, who spoke to ST on condition of anonymity, said: "Public hospitals, especially in southern Italy, need more resources. There are few nurses, so much so that we doctors often have to perform nursing duties. And facilities need an upgrade."

However, Elisabetta Trinchero, associate professor of practice in government, health, and nonprofit at SDA Bocconi School of Management, is optimistic.

"In the event of a new wave in winter, the Italian healthcare system would hold up. We've learnt how to treat the disease and have ad hoc ICUs. We've also built new synergies and relationships with other European countries".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.