A shipment of over a quarter million AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union, in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc to make sure big pharmaceutical companies would respect their contracts.
The move, affecting only a small number of vaccines, underscores a growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the slow rollout of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.
The ban came at the behest of Italy, and the EU did not raise objections to the tougher line Rome has adopted in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.
Italy’s objections centred both on the general shortage of supplies in the EU and on “the delays in the supply of vaccines by AstraZeneca to the EU and Italy,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
It said it also intervened because of the size of the shipment, more than 250,700 doses, that would go to Australia, which it did not consider a vulnerable nation.
Italy said it had informed the company on Tuesday. AstraZeneca refused to comment. The Financial Times first reported on the issue late Thursday.
The European Union says it may move to curb shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries after manufacturer AstraZeneca reported major production problems. 3:07
Shortages prompt control effort
Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines in late January, forcing companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved.
The EU has been specifically angry with AstraZeneca because it is delivering far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised. Of the initial order for 80 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, the company will be struggling to deliver just half that quantity.
There were rumours that the company was siphoning off from EU production plants to other nations, but CEO Pascal Soriot insisted that any shortfall was to be blamed on technical production issues only.
The EU has vaccinated only eight per cent per cent of its population compared to over 30 per cent, for example, in the United Kingdom. Australia is still very much at the start of its vaccination drive.
With such an action, the EU is caught in a bind. On the one hand, it is under intense pressure to ramp up the production of vaccines in the bloc while on the other hand it wants to remain an attractive hub for pharmaceutical giants and a fair trading partner to third countries.
The EU thought it had made perfect preparations for the rollout of vaccinations, heavily funding research and production capacity over the past year. With its 450 million people, the EU has signed deals for six different vaccines. In total, it has ordered up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and sealed agreements with other companies for more than two billion shots.
It says that despite the current difficulties it is still convinced it can vaccinate 70 per cent of the adult population by the end of summer.
One recent afternoon, at the edge of the main piazza in Vò, a tiny town in the northern Veneto region of Italy, a group of young people hung out near a car, listening to music. Among them was Jasmine Schiavoi, 19, a nursing student.
Schiavoi was paying her way through school by working part-time in a pub. But then the pandemic hit and her job disappeared, along with thousands of others in the region.
“I lost my job because of the COVID problem,” she said in an interview. “I just want to get through school so I can work in nursing. [Italy] needs medical personnel.”
One year ago this week, the world watched with alarm as 11 small towns in northern Italy shut themselves off to the rest of the world overnight. Days before, Annalisa Malara, a young anesthesiologist had diagnosed Italy’s first COVID-19 case. Shortly after, a 77-year-old retired contractor in Vò died, making him the first European casualty of the virus and placing the small town at the epicentre of the outbreak.
Since then, more than 95,000 people in Italy have died from COVID-19, the most in the European Union. The vast majority of deaths were older people, and most of those, men.
But with almost half a million jobs lost in the past year, Italy’s young people and women are also paying a steep price for the pandemic, just like Schiavoi.
Today, Vò mayor and pharmacist Giuliano Martini recalls with pride how his tourist town responded to the virus. It was the only in Italy to test and trace almost all of its residents, virtually eliminating COVID-19, he said.
But the economic effects of the pandemic remain. A year later, the piazza is nearly empty. It’s lined with papered-over store windows and “for rent” signs dot the street. Martini is no longer upbeat about what lies ahead for this town, Italy or its next generation.
“I just don’t see a future for the youth in Italy,” he said in Italian. “Governments invested very little in young people, even before COVID. I can only hope this one does better.”
Kickstarting Italy’s faltering economy
Over the past year, 70 per cent of the jobs lost were held by women. Youth unemployment, according to ISTAT, Italy’s national institute of statistics, is once again at 30%, second only to Spain and Greece.
Italy’s latest government, led by ex-European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, who was sworn in earlier this month, has vowed to use Italy’s 200 billion euro slice of the European Union’s COVID recovery fund to relaunch its long-stagnant economy. Draghi says he’ll do this by overhauling the country’s stifling bureaucracy, investing in education and green businesses and closing the employment gender gap.
These are promises Giulia De Rossi of the nearby Veneto town of Vicenza wants to believe.
In a chilly warehouse on the outskirts of town, she flicks the switch on a large fabric shredding machine and feeds discarded clothing onto the conveyor belt. A soft, fluffy cloud of material comes out the other end. It will be compressed and shaped into everything from gift boxes to furniture, all fully recyclable.
WATCH | Turning scraps into a sustainable business:
Giulia De Rossi of Vicenza, northern Italy, feeds discarded clothing into a shredder that turns it into a fluffy material she uses to make everything from gift boxes to furniture, all recyclable. Government funds she was promised for the shredder were diverted because of the pandemic. 0:40
De Rossi quit her coveted day job linked to the oil industry two years ago to launch this circular economy startup. The prime motivator, she says, was to leave the world a better place for her infant son.
“The fashion industry is one of the most polluting, so I asked myself, ‘Is there a way not to send those huge amounts of clothes to landfill or be incinerated?’ So I started doing some tests in my kitchen,” she said.
But Italy’s infamous bureaucracy, scant investment in the green economy and limited child care made the move risky.
When De Rossi’s son was born, she thought of giving up, before her mother-in-law stepped in to help out, a solution many new Italian parents still rely on.
Then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the regional funds De Rossi had been promised to help pay for the 13,000 euro shredder were diverted to fight the pandemic, forcing her to pay for it out of her retirement savings.
De Rossi says COVID-19 must take precedent. But like many here, she says that investment in the circular economy, young businesses and women, always seems to come last.
Pandemic provides unprecedented opportunity
Elly Schlein — vice-president of the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, and at 35, a leading voice of Italy’s younger generation — says COVID-19 and the EU relief fund have provided an unprecedented opportunity for Italy to transform into a modern, green, and digital economy that includes young people and women.
“We are talking about billions of euros, so there are no alibis anymore,” she said of the EU money.
Schlein says what began as a health crisis quickly morphed into an economic and social crisis, putting into stark relief inequalities that persisted after the last crisis in 2008.
“[Those] who paid the highest price for that economic crisis were women and young people in Italy because of the kind of contracts that they have … precarious,” said Schlein. “And even with the unprecedented choice of the Italian government to block firing people during the pandemic, still, [women and youth] have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Why? Because they have part-time contracts or jobs with no protection.”
In December of 2020 alone, she points out, 98 per cent of the 101,000 jobs lost in Italy were held by women, according to ISTAT.
Recovery ‘tinged in pink’
The situation prompted Linda Laura Sabbadini, an ISTAT department head, to write in an op-ed in la Repubblica newspaper calling for the allocation of the billions of euros of the Recovery Fund to be “tinged in pink.”
“The gender impact of the entire recovery fund must be part of the plan,” she wrote. “Because if you keep allocating scarce funds [to get and keep women in the workforce] and don’t spend real money on social infrastructures and women’s entrepreneurship, Italy will not develop. Women, as always, will pay. But the whole country will, too.”
It’s a message that a group called Il Giusto Mezzo (Half of It), made up of economists, entrepreneurs and employees, has been transmitting through flash mobs held in piazzas throughout Italy. The larger group it belongs to, Donne per la Salvezza (Women to the Rescue), has issued post-Covid proposals to the government, pushing for everything from the promotion of girls in STEM to better child care.
But with just a third of new Draghi’s cabinet women — most without portfolios — many Italians remain skeptical.
“It’s a sign of a patriarchal society that has not yet understood that you can only write better policies for the complex problems of society if you don’t have one eye closed, the eye of women,” said Elly Schlein.
While thousands of young people have reacted to the exclusion from the Italian economy by voting with their feet — leaving for opportunity elsewhere — women with children don’t often have that choice.
And some, like Giulia de Rossi, are risking and investing in a better future for Italy.
“These days, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I think, ‘Oh my God, I need to do this or that’,” for her business, she says. “Before starting this new adventure, I would wake up worrying I was wasting my life.”
She just hopes Italy will finally prioritize young women like her, who are already betting on a country that has yet to bet on them.
The Paralympic community is celebrating after it was announced Wednesday that another discipline of the roaring game has been added to the 2026 Paralympics in Italy.
The International Paralympic Committee confirmed wheelchair mixed doubles curling has been provisionally approved as an additional event at the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games.
The announcement was made following official confirmation at a recent IPC board meeting.
Curling Canada’s national wheelchair coach Mick Lizmore says this addition is a boost for the sport.
“This is truly good news for the sport of wheelchair curling, and will certainly add motivation to Canadian athletes as we work towards the debut of mixed doubles in 2026,” Lizmore said.
“It will open more eyes to the possibilities of getting involved with wheelchair curling.”
Canada’s success at Paralympics
Canada has had great success at the Paralympics in the mixed team event, having won three golds and a bronze medal since it was added to the program in 2006.
Now, Canadian curlers will have another chance to add to the medal haul at the 2026 Paralympics.
“This is about expanding the winter sport program,” said Martin Richard, executive director of communications for the Canadian Paralympic Committee.
“We only have five sports in the Paralympics right now so this is a great opportunity to show Canadians more winter athletes.”
Those five sports include nordic events, alpine skiing, snowboarding, para ice hockey and curling.
“I know the Paralympics community as a whole is quite excited. Our staff celebrated the news this morning. We knew this was coming but you just never know,” Richard said.
This now means that two curling events, mixed team and mixed doubles, are part of the 2026 Paralympic winter program.
However, there will be changes to the number of teams competing — the mixed team event will go from 12 teams to 10 teams, meaning there will be 10 less athletes competing in that bonspiel. The mixed doubles wheelchair event will feature no more than eight teams — an increase of 16 athletes at the Games.
Final confirmation by late 2022 or early 2023
A final confirmation of all medal events and athlete quotas will be made by the International Paralympic Committee Governing Board in late 2022 or the first quarter of 2023.
World Curling Federation President Kate Caithness says they are absolutely delighted with the news, confirming that two wheelchair curling events will be included in the Paralympic program in 2026.
“We are confident that this new discipline will accelerate the visibility and growth of wheelchair curling in the coming years. This is a fundamental step in showcasing our sport and making it more accessible to everyone around the world,” she said.
The Canadian mixed team is coming off a silver medal performance at last year’s world wheelchair curling championship.
The upcoming world championship, which will also feature mixed doubles wheelchair curling for the first time, was scheduled for Lohja, Finland in January 2021. However, the event has been cancelled and a new competition date in late 2021 is being explored.
Seven bodies were found in a region straddling the French-Italian border near Nice on Sunday after torrential rains swept houses and roads away, officials in both countries said.
Five of the bodies were discovered in northwestern Italy, including four washed up on the shore between the towns of Ventimiglia and Santo Stefano al Mare, near the French frontier. Some of the corpses might have been swept down the coast from France.
Two more were found in France, including a shepherd found by an Italian search and rescue team. The other body was found in a vehicle that had been swept away by flash-flooding in the village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, France.
It brings to nine the total number of people found dead after fierce rains and howling gales lashed the border area on Friday. French firefighters said another 21 people were missing, eight of them known to be as a direct result of the storm.
The bad weather caused millions of euros of damage, with several road bridges swept away in Italy, and streets in some towns littered with debris, mud and overturned cars.
Officials in the Piedmont region reported a record 63 centimetres of rain in just 24 hours in Sambughetto, Italy, near Switzerland — more than half its annual average rainfall.
In Limone Piemonte, Italy, a three-storey house was swept off its foundations and into a river. In the nearby village of Tanaro, floodwaters destroyed the local cemetery, sweeping away dozens of coffins.
In France, almost 1,000 firefighters were drafted into the Alpes-Maritimes region to look for the missing and re-establish communications. More than two dozen primary and secondary schools in the area are closed until further notice, local authorities said.
Up to 50 centimetres of rain fell in less than 10 hours, a volume not seen since records began, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Saturday.
Flooding from record rains in the mountainous region that spans France and Italy killed two people in Italy and left at least 24 people in the two countries missing Saturday.
A storm that moved overnight across southeastern France and then northern Italy caused major flooding on both sides of the border, destroying bridges, blocking roads and isolating communities.
In Italy, a firefighter was killed during a rescue operation in the mountainous northern region of Val d’Aosta. Another body was found in Vercelli province, near where a man had been swept away by flood waters late Friday.
A total of 16 people were reported missing in Italy, all but one travelers in cars on the Col de Tende high mountain pass between France and Italy, according to civil protection authorities.
They include two people from Germany driving with their 11-year-old and six-year-old grandchildren, and a pair of brothers returning from France.
The spokesperson for Italy’s firefighters said a search was ongoing for a missing shepherd who was pulled into flood waters on Col de Tende. His brother managed to grab onto a tree and was saved, while authorities were searching on the French side for the shepherd.
Firefighter spokesperson Luca Cari said he suspects the other people reported missing in Italy have lost phone contact, but at the moment they are not thought to be in imminent danger.
The situation at the tunnel on the high mountain pass is complicated by the fact that French emergency responders cannot access their side due to flood damage, Cari said. Italian firefighters were searching the French side for people who may have been blocked.
Unrelenting rainfall overnight hit levels not seen since 1958 in northern Italy’s Piedmont region, where as much as 630 millimetres of rain fell in a 24-hour period, according to the Italian civil protection agency.
Hundreds of rescue operations were underway. Eleven campers were saved in Vercelli province, where floodwaters hit 20-year highs. And Alpine rescue squads have evacuated by foot seven people who were in houses cut off by flooding at Terme di Valdieri; some had to be carried on stretchers due to the muddy conditions and accumulation of detritus.
On the other side of the border, in southeastern France, almost a year’s average rainfall fell in less than 12 hours in the mountainous area surrounding the city of Nice. Nice mayor Christian Estrosi said over 100 homes were destroyed or severely damaged in the area.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, who flew over the area in an helicopter, confirmed that at least eight people were missing, including two firefighters whose vehicle was carried away by water when the road collapsed during a rescue operation.
“I cannot hide our grave concern on the definitive toll,” Castex said.
Many worried families had not heard from their relatives due to cellphone services being cut off in the area.
“As I speak, priority goes to searching for victims, providing supplies and accommodation for the people affected, and restoring communications,” the prime minister said.
Rescue efforts included 871 personnel working on the ground, as well as military helicopters and troops helping with emergency assistance, Castex said.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday expressed gratitude toward rescuers on Twitter. “Together we will get through this,” he said.
France’s national weather agency, Meteo France, said that up to 500 millimeters of rain (19.7 inches) were recorded in some areas, the equivalent of almost one year of average rainfall.
Meteo France issued a danger alert on Friday and all schools in the region had been closed. Local authorities urged people to stay at home.
In central Switzerland, flooding along the Reuss River caused the closure of a stretch of the A2 highway – a major trans-Alpine route. Further east, 13 residents were evacuated from their homes in the town of Diesbach because of flooding.
When engineering student Sara Del Giudice returned home to Naples in late August from a short vacation with her boyfriend, instead of embracing her siblings and parents, she shut herself in her room.
“We’re a close family that hugs and kisses all the time, but I had a slight headache, a cough and achiness, and I just thought, better safe than sorry,” said Del Giudice, 23.
Several days later, she and her boyfriend tested positive for COVID-19. Despite both having negative antibody tests before their holiday on the island of Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, her boyfriend was coming from Sardinia, where clusters of partying young people spread the virus with alacrity.
“Even though I thought was being cautious. I was too casual,” she said. “I should have known better.”
While Del Giudice is one of thousands of young Europeans who caught the novel coronavirus this summer, Italy has been far more successful than its neighbours at keeping them from passing it on.
As daily infections have recently flared as high as 12,000 in Spain and 16,000 in France, those countries have had to renew restrictions and urban lockdowns.
WATCH | As cases rise, COVID-19 restrictions reimposed in Europe:
A surge in COVID-19 cases across Europe has prompted many countries to start cracking down again, with restrictions ranging from local lockdowns to limits on social gatherings. More are likely in the days ahead. 2:02
But Italy, the first European country to be devastated by COVID-19 with almost 35,875 deaths, now has among the lowest infection and death rates in Europe. An average of 1,700 people a day tested positive in the past week, up from low hundreds in July, though they’re much lower than in other countries.
Britain registered its biggest jump in daily infection rates on Tuesday, less than a week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the soaring rates compared with those of Italy and Germany by saying people in his country find rules hard to follow because they love freedom more.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella responded, “We Italians also love freedom. But we know how to be serious, too.”
“Italy is doing well because we have implemented very strict rules, and we did so early,” said the country’s deputy health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri. “The situation today is a sum result of the quick and relatively long lockdown but also the gradual easing that allowed us to adjust protocols as we went along.”
Airport gets top marks for hygiene
Unlike many countries, which appear to be taken off guard by flare-ups or second waves, Italy — after the trauma of coffins carried away by military trucks and people dying in hospital without funerals in late winter — got prepared.
From March to mid-August, the country almost doubled the number of ICU beds in hospitals from 5,400 to 10,000, Sileri said. It also increased the number of infectious and respiratory beds by up to eightfold and hired some 20,000 new doctors and nurses.
In late August, when young vacationers like Del Giudice were returning home infected from hot-spot areas such as Greece, Spain and Sardinia, screening was introduced at airports. (This month, Rome’s Fiumicino airport was the first airport in the world to receive a five-star top score by ranking site Skytrax as a result of hygiene and other preventative measures ranging from face-mask enforcement to enhanced terminal airflow and filtering.)
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte used emergency powers to shut down discos and made face masks mandatory, even outdoors, in places where people gather from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Last week, the larger-than-life president of the southern region of Campania, Vincenzo De Luca, went a step further and made masks obligatory outdoors at all times.
De Luca became a social media star for his cartoonish threats toward anyone breaking the rules, promising those planning illegal parties that he would “send in the police accompanied by flamethrowers.” While over the top, he was part of a strong, coherent message from government leaders.
Testing and tracing key to success
Especially important to Italy’s success, experts say, has been its testing and tracing system, where everyone within the social network of an infected person gets tested, whether or not they’ve been exposed, which has uncovered thousands of asymptomatic cases. Most of the testing is carried out through local community health centres with mobile units and home tests.
“Our experience in the first months of the epidemic [has taught us] to take people away from the hospitals for the diagnosis,” said Giuseppe Ippolito, scientific director of the Lazzaro Spallanzani Hospital in Rome. “We need to be vigilant to avoid a future increase.”
He said such measures at schools as the widespread testing of teachers, daily temperature checks and mask-wearing by students while not at their desks are already showing signs of being effective.
And when backlogs and bureaucracy get in the way, creative solutions are often found.
When it became clear that single desks on wheels, ordered by the government, were not going to arrive in time for the start of the school year, teachers and students at the Alfonso Casanova Technical School in Naples pulled together in late summer and fashioned single desks out of the student tables.
WATCH | Students, teachers in Naples ready desks for school year amid COVID-19:
At Alfonso Casanova Technical School, students and teachers fashion new single desks out of tables to allow for physical distancing in the classroom. 0:48
There is still room for improvement in the country: Only six million of Italy’s almost 60 million inhabitants have downloaded its contact-tracing app Immuni, launched at the start of the summer.
“People were worried about privacy, which badly affected adherence,” Sileri said. “But if more Italians downloaded it, it would resolve our contact-tracing problem.”
He said test results need to be faster as winter approaches and colds and the flu season pick up. Right now, those who have been in close contact with an infected person must self-isolate for 14 days, but Sileri said he’d like that reduced to one week if they test negative.
Italy requires second negative test
The government will also consider eliminating the now-required second negative test before infected people can leave quarantine, he said, although it will depend on the results of research.
Sara Del Giudice said she wishes she could have done without the required second negative result. She ended up having to spend more than 30 days in quarantine, the hardest experience of her life.
“I thought it would be like the first lockdown, but they were night and day,” she said. “The first lockdown with my family was fine, we almost enjoyed it. The second one on my own, where I couldn’t see or touch anyone for a month, was brutal.”
Yet Giuseppe Ippolito sees some of the changes brought by the coronavirus as positive.
“We will have less respiratory infections this winter,” he said, as a result of Italy’s widespread adherence to mask-wearing and physical distancing. “We have a new appreciation for human relations. This is all a real added value for the future.”
Ippolito said the country’s experience with COVID-19 has also provided a pleasantly surprising re-evaluation of Italians’ reputation for being, shall we say, culturally challenged when it comes to following rules.
“We are world leaders in food and wine. We have a wonderful sea and historical sites,” he said, adding that with the country’s newly discovered ability to follow strict protocols, “we can add another star in our carnet.”
Dario Triscar and Nertila Goga opened their new bistro in Milan on March 5 only to close just days later as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Italy.
In short order, they found themselves investing $ 1,200 Cdn (800 euros) in Plexiglas and spending much of their time in quarantine cutting and gluing barriers to line and surround their tables when the time would come to reopen.
More than two months later, Triscari proudly overlooks the bistro’s outdoor patio, where people are dining al fresco.
“We entered a new reality, and we have to adapt,” he said. “When restaurants in Wuhan reopened, we went online to see what they were doing, and that’s where we got the Plexiglas idea.”
Italy, the first Western country to be ravaged by the novel coronavirus, has further eased its two-month-long lockdown, allowing everything from museums and libraries to sit-down dining and hairdressers to reopen.
With strict new safety regulations in place, businesses in Milan are grappling with radical changes to their operations in a city with entirely new rhythms, with staggered opening hours decreed by the government and many still remote working from home.
Some in Milan have seized this time as a chance to make strategic, forward-thinking changes to the city’s modes and flow of transportation. But others are struggling to adapt to new measures that they must implement because of COVID-19.
Together, but apart
What’s gone for now, said Triscari, is what Italians call la socialità — the everyday encounters among friends and strangers tipping back a morning espresso pressed against a café counter or crowding around a table with bright orange Aperol spritzes after work.
Contractor Francesco Vigorita, 28, digs into an antipasto of calamari and potato across a Plexiglas shield from his father, Pino.
“What more can you do?” Francesco said, shrugging. “It’s not the same, and I miss seeing friends in groups, but for now, this is how it is.”
For some, however, the transition to the new normal has been nothing short of defeating.
Sandra Zini, who with her mother and brother run Il Tronco, a restaurant that’s been in their family since 1933, have not yet reopened. They say the post-lockdown regulations are too complicated.
“Normally, we seat 50 clients. Now with social distancing, 16,” she said, gesturing to the widely spaced tables, which by law have to ensure diners who are not related sit a minimum one metre distance from each other.
Embracing change while upholding tradition
For Zini, that means taking the temperatures of staff members and clients, recording the name and phone number of every diner to allow for tracing in case of contagion, sanitizing the washroom each time someone uses it, and patrolling the social distance between clients.
It’s simply too much for her staff of five to handle.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said.
The tension between embracing change and upholding tradition is palpable on the streets of Milan.
A decade ago, when the city moved to reduce smog, the linchpin to its sustainability plan was increasing use of public transit. Now, with a 30 per cent cap on transit capacity because of social distancing requirements, the city is boosting other alternatives to private cars: bicycles, electric scooters, mopeds and vehicle sharing.
WATCH | Coun. Marco Granelli cycles in one of Milan’s new bike lanes
Milan city councillor Marco Granelli cycles along a stretch of the 35 km/h new bike paths laid in Milan to help reduce pressure on public transit. (Credit Megan Williams) 0:15
As Milan Coun. Marco Granelli shows off a traffic lane freshly converted into a bike path, pedestrian walkway, moped parking and spaces for vehicles to offload goods, taxi drivers across the street lean against their cars and glare, gesticulating and shouting the odd muffled expletive.
“It’s created a little debate in the city,” Granelli chuckled.
He said vehicle sharing is up 65 per cent, thanks in part to a government incentive that reimburses 60 per cent of the cost of a new bike or electric scooter and use of sharing schemes. Cycling, as a percentage of the means of transport, has risen to 30 per cent post-lockdown from 10 per cent pre-lockdown.
“Our main concern is laying down enough bike paths so that when students return in September, our city will be ready,” said Granelli.
To further prepare, Milan will start running its buses and trains with peak frequency to create as much space as possible and its subway is developing a software system to automatically block entrance turnstiles once a station reaches its passenger limit.
Opportunity for visionary thinking
But the biggest challenge long term will be replacing the revenue from the loss in ticket and monthly pass sales that covered half of the cost of running Milan’s transit system. The city is turning to the European Union to help cover the loss and invest heavily in more regional commuter and subway lines.
Milan’s approach is seen as forward-thinking by other major cities, but many here would like the city to go even further.
“We as Milanese believe this is a great opportunity for this city,” said renowned Milan architect and urban thinker Patricia Viel.
She said the major opportunity is revisioning Milan, turning it into a slow-moving, polycentric, open urban space. She wants Milan to ban most cars, enact a speed limit throughout of 30 km/h, widen sidewalks and do away with bike lanes entirely, placing the obligation on the few cars that need to access the centre to follow the rhythm of pedestrians and cyclists.
“We need to educate people to share spaces in the urban environment,” Viel said. “To make them bigger, easier to use and safe. That means you have to be slow, but not by dividing. We really need to share more.”
She also sees lockdown as having shifted people’s relationship to time.
Gone for many, she said, is the unquestioned acceptance that days must follow a predetermined pattern around work.
“This is over,” said Viel. “Now we understand what it means to design our own day … and companies have learned to trust” remote working.
New working hours and locations
How work is restructured will be the cornerstone in any plan to keep infections down in a region where one in seven people have had the virus and half of Italy’s 33,000 COVID-19 deaths have occurred.
Already, Milan’s city hall is working with companies to increase remote working by urging them to have people work from home at least two days a week and stagger work hours. Hairdressers and hardware stores, for instance, are among many now obliged to open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m..
Along with frontline healthcare workers, more than 200 of whom died in Italy during the pandemic, safety is of utmost concern for professions that involve physical contact with others, such as hair dresses, barbers and beauticians.
WATCH | The ‘new normal’ in an Italian spa
Beautician Margherita Bordo takes a client’s temperature in her small spa. ‘It’s time for word to spread that it’s safe to come here,’ she said. 2:55
In her small spa in the north of the city, Margherita Bordo aims a purple plastic gun-like object at the forehead of a client to measure her temperature.
In addition to checking clients for fevers and recording their phone numbers, Bordo has also installed Plexiglas barriers, set up wooden partitions around treatment chairs (cleverly camouflaged as product display cases) and installed an air purifying system — the latter not required, but “to give clients extra assurance.”
“It will take time for word to spread that it’s safe to come here,” said Bordo, who along with a loss in income, has invested several thousand dollars in the safety measures. “But I’m optimistic. As long as we don’t get a second wave of infections.”
The United States death toll from the coronavirus pandemic eclipsed Italy’s for the highest in the world Saturday at 20,229, Johns Hopkins University reported.
Italy has the second most reported deaths at 19,468 and Spain is third with 16,353. The death rate — that is, the number of dead relative to the population — is still far higher in Italy than in U.S., which has more than five times as many people.
The U.S. has seen its highest death tolls to date in the epidemic with roughly 2,000 deaths a day reported for the last four days in a row.
About half the deaths in the U.S. are in the New York metropolitan area, where hospitalizations are nevertheless slowing down and other indicators suggest physical distancing is “flattening the curve” of infections and staving off the doomsday scenarios of just a week or two ago.
New York state on Saturday reported 783 more deaths, for a total over 8,600. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s governor, said the daily number of deaths is stabilizing “but stabilizing at a horrific rate.”
Public health experts have warned that the U.S. death toll could spike to 200,000 over the summer if unprecedented stay-at-home orders that have closed businesses and kept most Americans indoors are lifted after 30 days.
The stay-at-home orders imposed in recent weeks across 42 of the 50 states have taken a huge toll on American commerce, with some economists forecasting job losses of up to 20 million by month’s end, raising questions about how long business closures and travel restrictions can be sustained.
Globally, there have been more than 1.6 million confirmed cases, with the death toll surpassing 106,000.
For the first time since coronavirus infections exploded in the small town of Lodi, Lombardy, the northern Italian region that would become the epicentre of the European outbreak, a remarkable site has appeared in the hospital there: a few empty beds.
Health-care workers continue to issue strong warnings that Italy is far from being out of the woods, and on Wednesday morning, Italy’s health minister extended the nationwide lockdown to April 13.
But the crushing pressure on northern Italian intensive-care units seems to be finally easing, providing if not a light at the end of the tunnel — deaths in Italy have surpassed 13,000 and still top 700 a day — then a distant flicker of hope.
Only carefully conducted epidemiological studies will bring to light exactly how and why COVID-19 took off in northern Italy with such speed. But in the midst of the emergency, experts say there are already lessons to be gleaned from Italy’s fatal errors — and urgent messages for other parts of the world.
“The biggest mistake we made was to admit patients infected with COVID-19 into hospitals throughout the region,” said Carlo Borghetti, the vice-premier of Lombardy,an economically crucial region with a population of 10 million.
“We should have immediately set up separate structures exclusively for people sick with coronavirus. I recommend the rest of the world do this, to not send COVID patients into health-care facilities that are still uninfected.”
‘Like throwing a lit match onto a haystack’
Already, Italian cities in other regions are doing this, as well as field hospitals in Milan and Bergamo, Lombardy, which are almost complete.
However, the virus was not only spread to “clean” – i.e. infection-free – hospitals by admitting positive patients. In early March, as the number of infected was doubling every few days, authorities allowed overwhelmed hospitals to transfer those who tested positive but weren’t gravely ill into assisted-living facilities for the elderly.
“It was like throwing a lit match onto a haystack,” said Borghetti, who spoke out against the directive at the time. “Some facilities refused to take in the positive patients. For those that did [take them in], it was devastating.”
Along with the tragic misstep of putting infected people under the same roof as clusters of the most physically vulnerable, Borghetti and others point to a deeper structural factor that accelerated the outbreak in northern Italy: a highly centralized health-care system with large hospitals as its focus.
Under normal circumstances, these large hospitals are very effective, with a wide range of expertise under one roof. But as the go-to place for health services, they acted as conductors of infection.
“For the past 20 years, the region invested heavily in hospitals, which are now among the best in Europe,” Borghetti said. “Unfortunately, we did not make the same investment in local health services: health clinics, rehab facilities, community nursing and family doctors. And as a result, we’re drowning [in the epidemic].”
Testing policy ‘was wrong’
Epidemiologists estimate the real number of infected in Italy, now officially more than 110,000, is likely at least 10 times that number. Affected areas in Italy began vast testing of even asymptomatic people in the last week of February, shortly after Patient One was discovered on Feb. 21. A week later, however, they began to comply with the government’s requests to limit testing only to symptomatic cases.
“That policy of testing was wrong,” said Guido Marinoni, president of the Medical Association of Bergamo, the hardest-hit city. “We should have extended testing to the relatives of positive people and the contacts of those relatives, at the very least.”
Comparisons between the number of deaths in the four years prior to 2020 with the same period this year show a dramatic spike in mortality that the official death count of COVID-19 does not seem to adequately account for.
The gap, say experts, is the result of data being collected only on those who are hospitalized or who die in hospital with a positive test. Yet most people die at home.
“Many have died at home with undiagnosed coronavirus that exacerbated heart and lung complications,” said scientist Luca Foresti, CEO of the Santagostino Medical Centre, Italy’s largest out-patient clinic. Foresti has conducted a study on the mortality rate in four different towns in northern Italy: Nembro, Pesaro, Cernusco sul Naviglio and Bergamo.
“Another factor is that people with other unrelated illnesses, under normal conditions, would call an ambulance and be taken to emergency. But with hospitals overwhelmed, there were no ambulances” or hospital beds available, said Foresti.
He estimates 90 per cent of the additional deaths in northern Italy so far this year are from coronavirus and only 10 per cent due to unrelated illnesses.
Theories about spread don’t bear out
In the early weeks after the virus took off here, many theorized about what was behind Italy’s high case fatality rate (deaths per confirmed infections), a global outlier at a shocking 10 per cent.
Among the explanations were the country’s aged population and a cultural propensity to socialize in groups, often cross-generational, as well as showing affection through touch — compared to Asia, where mask-wearing and social distancing are common even in non-pandemic times.
WATCH | How COVID-19 hit Italy
While expanding the lockdown in Italy until at least April, the country issues a new measure allowing people to go for one daily walk as the infection rate begins to decline. 2:04
Experts say the full impact of these factors won’t be clear until further studies are carried out.
“Luck is a fundamental determinant of contagion [at the beginning],” said Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. “A virus can be introduced to a person who has little contact with others, or to a super spreader,” which was the case with Italy’s Patient One.
After it starts to take off, however, it follows the same exponential pattern.
The biggest takeaway from Italy, experts say, is that what happened here can happen anywhere.