Italy is set to overtake UK as worst country for Covid deaths

Italy is set to overtake UK as worst country for Covid as death toll passes 63,000 and critics slam government’s ‘amateurish’ response to second wave

  • If current rate continues, Italy could overtake UK total coronavirus deaths today 
  • The government has been slammed for its policies in tackling the second wave
  • Italy added another 761 victims Friday, bringing its official death toll to 63,387
  • This comes despite Italy having 6 million fewer people than the UK

Italy is on track to reclaim the unwanted record of having seen the most coronavirus deaths in Europe, with the country expected to soon overtake the UK. 

The Italian government has faced accusations of pushing ‘amateurish’ policies to combat the second wave of the virus after the health care system again failed to protect the elderly and the government delayed imposing new restrictions.

Italy added another 761 victims Friday, bringing its official total to 63,387, just 216 shy of Britain’s Europe-leading 63,603 dead, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

Both numbers are believed to greatly underestimate the real toll, due to missed infections, limited testing and different counting criteria.

Still, Italy could overtake Britain despite having 6 million people fewer than the U.K.’s 66 million, and would trail only the much larger U.S., Brazil, India and Mexico. 

The country has seen an average of more than at least 600 deaths per day consistently since mid-November, and on some days reaching about 800. By contrast, the UK’s average has remained in the 400s during this time period.  

Multiple members of medical staff in protective suits work in a hospital in Milan, Italy. The country added another 761 victims Friday, bringing its official total to 63,387, just 216 shy of Britain’s Europe-leading 63,603 dead, according to Johns Hopkins University

Italy’s figures do not reflect well on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who opted to avoid a second lockdown during the second wave.

Instead, he opted for an ‘Italian model’ of a three-tier system of restrictions of movement based on region that has since needed strengthening. There is also a 10pm curfew and a crackdown movement over Christmas and Boxing Day.

Italian microbiologist Andrea Crisanti who took leave from Imperial College London to help to tackle Italy’s outbreak, has criticised the government.

Speaking to The Times, he said: ‘Italy’s first wave was bad luck but the second wave, which has killed 25,000, was unforgivable. A sign of poor management and amateurish preparation.’

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Italy was the first country in the West to be slammed by COVID-19 and, after suffering a huge wave of death in spring, brought infections under control.

Italy then had the benefit of time and experience heading into the fall resurgence because it trailed Spain, France and Germany in recording big new clusters of infections. 

Yet the virus spread fast and wide, and Italy has added 28,000 dead since Sept. 1.

Italy’s figures do not reflect well on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (pictured Friday), who opted to avoid a second lockdown during the second wave

‘Obviously there needs to be some reflection,’ Guido Rasi, former executive director of the European Pharmaceutical Agency, told state TV after Italy reported a pandemic-high record of 993 deaths in one day.

‘This number of nearly 1,000 dead in 24 hours is much higher than the European average.’ 

Italy has the world’s second-oldest population after Japan, and the elderly are the most vulnerable to the virus.

The average age of Italian victims has hovered around 80. 

Pictured: A graph showing the number of new coronavirus deaths per day in Italy. Since mid-November, the country has been consistently seeing over 600 deaths per day, with 761 recorded on Friday taking its total to 63,387

Pictured: A graph showing the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK per day, and the rolling 7-day average that is currently at 424

In addition, 65 percent of Italy’s COVID-19 dead had three or more other health problems before they tested positive, such as hypertension or diabetes, according to Italy’s Superior Institute of Health.

But that doesn’t explain the whole picture. Germany has a similarly old demographic and yet its death toll is one-third of Italy’s despite its larger population of 83 million. 

Germany recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus victims Friday – 598 – but has only 21,000 dead overall.

Analysts point to Germany’s long-term higher per-capita spending on health care, which has resulted in greater ICU capacity, better testing and tracing capabilities and higher ratios of doctors and nurses to the population. But Germany also imposed an earlier, lighter lockdown this fall and is now poised to tighten it.

Instead, Conte opted for an ‘Italian model’ of a three-tier system of restrictions of movement based on region that has since needed strengthening. There is also a 10pm curfew and a crackdown on movement over Christmas and Boxing Day

Pictured: People stroll at Piazza del Popolo in Rome Friday. The average age of Italian victims has hovered around 80. In addition, 65 percent of Italy’s COVID-19 dead had three or more other health problems before they tested positive, such as hypertension or diabetes, according to Italy’s Superior Institute of Health

‘If you can act sooner, even a bit lighter in the measures, they work better than acting harshly a bit later or too late,’ said Matteo Villa, research fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies, a Milan-based think tank.

Italy, he said, waited too long after infections started ticking up in September and October to impose restrictions and didn’t reinforce its medical system sufficiently during the summertime lull.

‘If you look at France and the U.K., you can see Italy did fare much worse,’ he said. ‘And if you look at a comparable population with similar demographics, which is Germany, Italy did a lot worse.’

With another wave of infections feared to be just around the corner with Christmas visits and the winter flu season, many are wondering how many more will die.

Doctors have blamed systemic problems with Italy’s health care system, especially in hardest-hit Lombardy, for failing to respond adequately. They have cited the growth of private hospitals in Lombardy in recent years at the expense of public ones. 

Brain drain and bureaucratic obstacles have resulted in fewer doctors going into practice, while general practitioners have complained of a lack of support despite being the backbone of the system.

Nearly 80,000 Italian health care workers have been infected and 255 doctors have died.

Pictured: A graph showing the number of new coronavirus cases per day in Italy 

With another wave of infections feared to be just around the corner with Christmas visits and the winter flu season, many are wondering how many more will die. Pictured: COVID-19 patient under treatment in the intensive care unit lies on a bed at the Circolo hospital, in Varese, Italy

‘We asked for a lockdown at the start of November because the situation inside hospitals was already difficult,’ said Dr. Filippo Anelli, head of the country’s doctors’ association. 

‘We saw that it worked in the spring and allowed us to get out from under COVID. If this had been done, probably today the numbers would be coming down.’

But the Italian government resisted re-imposing a nationwide lockdown this fall, knowing the devastating impact on an economy that was just starting to come back to life after the springtime shutdown.

Instead, on November 3 the government divided the country into three risk zones with varying restrictions. But by then infections had been doubling each week for nearly a month and hospitals were already overwhelmed in Milan and Naples.

Italy also went into the pandemic poorly prepared. It had fewer ICU beds than the average of developed countries. 

And in recent weeks, investigative news reports have noted that Italy hadn’t updated its influenza pandemic preparedness plan since 2006 – which could help explain its critical shortage of protective equipment early on and its chaotic initial response to the pandemic.

A World Health Organization report, which was posted and then immediately taken down from the WHO website, noted that Italy’s 2006 plan was merely ‘reconfirmed in 2017’ without being updated. 

The report said the plan was ‘more theoretical than practical’ and that when COVID-19 hit, all hell broke loose.

The Italian government resisted re-imposing a nationwide lockdown this fall, knowing the devastating impact on an economy that was just starting to come back to life after the springtime shutdown

‘Unprepared for such a flood of severely ill patients, the initial reaction of the hospitals was improvised, chaotic and creative,’ said the report.

The U.N. health agency said it removed the report because it contained ‘inaccuracies and inconsistencies,’ and then decided not to republish it because it developed other ways to assess countries’ responses.

Italy also ranked 31st – between Indonesia and Poland – in a 2019 survey of 195 countries compiled by the Global Health Security Index assessing abilities to respond to a pandemic or other health care crisis. 

Italy scored particularly poorly in emergency response, preparedness, and communications with health care workers during a crisis.

Government officials admit they were caught unprepared but have strongly defended their response to the resurgence as scientifically sound and proportional to prevent the economy from collapsing. 

Domenico Arcuri, the government’s virus commissioner, said Thursday that the November restrictions were flattening Italy’s infection curve.

‘Daily infections are coming down, hospital admissions are coming down, the number of people who unfortunately are admitted to intensive care (is) coming down,’ Arcuri said.

That is small comfort to Marcella Polla, who announced the death of her 90-year-old aunt on Facebook Dec. 6, saying she caught the virus in a hospital in October after complications following an angioplasty.

‘My aunt was tough, made of Trentino fiber,’ Polla wrote in explaining the extraordinary photo she posted of her aunt, holding herself up on a set of gymnastics rings this year. 

‘I want to remember her like this, even though the thought of her and so many others dying alone and then being put in a body bag torments me.’

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