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HEALTH

Tensions rise as face masks sent to Italy from China end up in the Czech Republic

Thousands of face masks sent by China for Italy's beleaguered hospitals have ended up in the Czech Republic in an apparent cross-border imbroglio as Europe, now the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, faces a shortage of masks.

Tensions rise as face masks sent to Italy from China end up in the Czech Republic
Illustration photo: AFP

The problem is crucial in Italy, the country currently paying the heaviest price, with almost 5,000 deaths and its hospitals at breaking point.

But the Czech Republic, which is also bracing for a rise in infections, has tightened controls on the export and distribution of such material.

It was unclear on Sunday whether the incident amounted to a misunderstanding, a logistical error, or deliberate attempt to withhold the masks from Italy.

Italian daily la Repubblica wrote on Saturday that Czech authorities seized Chinese masks intended for Italy's hospitals under guise of a sting against traffickers, in an article titled: “How the Czech Republic sequestered thousands of masks sent from China to Italy.”

The newspaper cited as a source “a courageous Czech researcher”, Lukas Lev Cervinka, an adviser to deputy Jan Lipavsky of the anti-establishment Czech Pirate Party.

Czech police carried out an anti-trafficking operation on Tuesday, seizing 680,000 masks and ventilators from a warehouse of a private company in Lovosice, north of Prague, presenting it as a coup against illegal trafficking in medical devices.

On Friday, Interior Minister Jan Hamacek conceded on Twitter that “unfortunately, after further investigation, it turned out that a smaller part of this seizure was a Chinese donation to Italy”.

According to the Czech media, the donation from China represented just over 100,000 masks. Local authorities had announced that 380,000 of the seized masks would be distributed to local Czech hospitals.

“We are trying to understand what a Chinese donation for Italy was doing in Lovosice,” Hamacek said, adding the government was in discussions with Italy.

“I can assure that there will be no loss to Italy.”

“The Czechs did not deliberately withhold this equipment,” Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek was quoted by the Czech News Agency.

No Italian officials had reacted to the La Repubblica article by Sunday.   

The Czech Republic has recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus cases, but no deaths.

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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