Why has Italy shut down schools – and will this really help stop the coronavirus spread?

Why has Italy shut down schools - and will this really help stop the coronavirus spread?
A student studies alone at the library of the University Milano-Bicocca in Milan on Thursday. All photos: AFP
After the Italian government on Wednesday took the decision to close all of the country's schools and universities until mid-March amid the coronavirus outbreak, some say the measure puts too much pressure on working parents - and won't help anyway.

More than 8.5 million children and teens missed classes on Thursday – and Italian authorities seem to be struggling to agree on whether this is wise.

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The World Health Organization's Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi called the move “useless and harmful” because closing schools for 10 days is insufficient to stop a virus whose incubation period stretches for two weeks.

The government's own Scientific Technical Committee called the idea of closing shools to halt the spread of coronavirus “devoid of scientific evidence”.

And even Education Minister Lucia Azzolina said she hoped “the pupils will return to school as soon as possible”.

Some ministers lobbied against the closure, because it forces working parents to stay home with their kids.

So why exactly is Italy shutting down its 58,000 schools and nurseries, along with public and private universities, until March 15?

Italian newspapers and commentators think the government's main fear is that an outbreak which has been mostly contained to pockets of the richer north will start appearing across the poorer and less developed south.

The country's health system is regionally organised, and therefore has enormous differences from one part of the country to another. One fear is that underfunded hospitals in poorer regions may simply not be able to cope with a flood of contagious patients.

MAP: Which parts of Italy are affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

Italy already has first-hand experience of what that could mean: the first detected cases in the outbreak stem from a single Italian man who was hospitalised for pneumonia, but not immediately tested for the new viral strain.

He was isolated from other patients and staff only after it was too late – however, this happened in a hospital in the wealthier northern Lombardy region .

 “In case of exponential growth (in the number of cases), not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned on Wednesday, in a video he posted on Facebook after a day of chaotic government meetings and debates.

READ ALSO: How safe is it to visit Italy after the coronavirus outbreak?

But critics point out that closing schools seems like an unusual way to go about halting a disease that mostly kills the elderly and the infirm.

The government has repeatedly stressed that the overwhelming majority of the deaths were among people in their 80s and 90s and who were suffering from other disease.

And EU statistic show Italy has the oldest population in Europe by almost any count.

It has the lowest percentage of young people and the highest percentage of those aged over 65 (22.6 percent as of 2018) than any of the other member EU states.

The WHO's Ricciardi said his primary concern was that the schools were not being closed for long enough to make a meaningful impact.

The government also announced on Wednesday it would be adopting a range of other measures altering Italians' everyday lives.

Football matches and other sporting events will be played behind closed doors for a month.

People are being advised not to greet each other with the customary pecks on both cheeks, or hug. Handshakes are also out for the next month, government guidance said.

Cinema goers are being kept rows of seats apart and just about everyone is being advised to stay an arms-length away from others in a crowd.

The La Stampa newspaper however praised Conte for having the “courage” to make an unpopular
decision on schools, “even if it is not a given that it is the right one”.

Find all The Local's coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy here


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