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ANALYSIS: Five reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard

The new coronavirus found dangerously fertile ground in Italy's demographics, business, geography and culture, writes Italian researcher Sara Belligoni.

ANALYSIS: Five reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard
Specialist health workers at a hospital in Lombardy, the epicentre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

Italy is one of the nations worst hit by the global coronavirus pandemic. As a scholar in the field of security and emergency management who has studied and worked in Italy, I have determined that there are at least five major reasons why the country is suffering so much.

1. Lots of old people

Italians have the sixth-longest life expectancy in the world – 84 years old. That means lots of Italians are elderly: in 2018, 22.6 percent of its population was 65 or over, among the highest proportions in Europe.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Medical researchers have said the coronavirus poses a more serious threat to older people than to younger ones. Older people are more likely to contract the COVID-19 disease and, mostly, to have a more severe case of it. That can also increase the demand for hospitals’ intensive-care units.

Many older Italians may have been also exposed to the virus in the workplace; in 2019 the average Italian retirement age was expected to be 67, at least two years later than average retirees in other Western developed nations.

2. Close proximity

Italians aren’t used to social distancing. They are very physically affectionate people: hugs and cheek-kisses are common not just among family members but also friends and even work colleagues.

Even when they’re just chatting, Italians are closer together than many other people, because their culture’s psychological perception of personal space is smaller than in other countries.

Large social gatherings, formerly common in public areas, were banned by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the beginning of March 2020.


3. Dense population

There isn’t a lot of space in Italy for people to spread out in. Italy is a densely populated country, with an average density of 533 people per square mile. In comparison, Germany has a population density of 235 people per square mile while the US has 94.

Two-thirds of Italians live in urban areas that are even more dense. Rome has 5,800 people per square mile, and Milan packs more than 19,000 people into every square mile. That’s almost twice the density of Berlin and Washington, DC.

4. Northern Italy is a business hub

Milan, in northern Italy, is the country’s financial capital, and has close trade and educational connections with China. The whole region of northern Italy is home to offices for many multinational corporations.

Workers travel from all over the world to attend meetings and conventions in northern Italy. An infected person not only could infect others, but those people could rapidly spread out across the entire country.

READ ALSO: No jogging, no hotels, no long dog walks: Lombardy's latest quarantine rules

'Stay at home': a message to the public in Milan. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

5. Massive number of cases

With far fewer people, Italy’s infection rate is much higher than China’s. No other country has a truly comparable set of circumstances.

A key factor in emergency management is learning lessons from others in similar circumstances – but there is no one for Italy to learn from at this stage of the crisis. Chinese experts have traveled to Italy to help – but many of the lessons they are bringing only became clear after Italy’s outbreak began, so the Italians are behind where other countries, with more recent outbreaks, may be.

The Italian government has progressively worked to contain the disease, including declaring a total national lockdown on March 10. More than two weeks later, the country may finally be seeing a decline in the number of new cases.

READ ALSO: 'More sacrifices to come': When will Italy finally reach the peak of the coronavirus epidemic?

Italy has struggled – and is continuing to fight – against an unprecedented crisis that found dangerously fertile ground in elements of the country’s demographics, business, geography and culture.

But its people haven’t lost their social habits – just adapted them, and created perhaps a temporary new national motto: “Distanti ma uniti.”

Distant, but united.

Sara Belligoni, Ph.D. Student in Security Studies, University of Central Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Member comments

  1. Add that nothing was done to mitigate the influx of virus via returning Chinese workers at the end of Lunar New Year. Don’t you believe that is at least why Lombardy was hit so hard so fast? And then when Lombardy was locked down, people fled south, to the countryside and to the mountains, spreading the virus. Lots of articles about and photos of people boarding trains without any control on a Sunday morning, the first morning of the Lombardy lockdown, at Milano Centrale.

  2. I suspect there is another aspect to this: la famiglia. We tend to think of people “fleeing” to places they believe will be safer. But many people working in the north are from the south. When this hit the news, how many got calls telling them to come home immediately? In my experience, when your Italian family starts yelling, you tend to jump first and think later.

  3. You are spot on Mary. Why does Italy have to import so many foreign workers? Unemployment is high. why not use your own people? Money????

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REVEALED: These are the most polluted towns in Italy

The northern cities of Milan and Turin were named Italy's 'smog capitals' in a new pollution report on Monday which urged the government to take action over poor air quality.

REVEALED: These are the most polluted towns in Italy
Photo: Pixabay

Smog and pollution are choking Italian cities year-round and many towns are exceeding limits on fine particles and other pollution, according to another report from Italian environmental watchdog Legambiente.

The Mal’aria di città (Air pollution in the city) report for 2023, unveiled on Monday, was the latest to warn about the risks to health posed by pollution in many parts of the country.

It found that 25 of 95 cities monitored had violated clean air ordinances by exceeding daily fine particle (PM10) emission limits, which are currently set at no more than 35 days a year with a daily average of over 50 micrograms per cubic metre.

Turin was ranked as the worst offender, exceeding this level on 90 days, closely followed by Milan (84), Asti (79), Modena (75), and Padua and Venice at 70.

These were followed by Cremona, Treviso, Mantua and Rovigo, all of which exceeded limits to a lesser degree.

All of the most polluted cities were in the northern Italian regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto, with most within the north-western ‘industrial triangle’.

Some southern cities featured nearer the bottom of the ranking, with Andria (Puglia) and Ragusa (Sicily) exceeding limits on several days, as well as Rome, which overshot the permitted level for one day.

(Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The average annual rate of PM10 emissions nationwide dropped slightly, by two percent year-on-year, the report found.

“This, however, is not enough to guarantee the health of citizens,” said Stefano Ciafani, president of Legambiente.

He pointed out that the situation looked even worse if air quality in Italian cities were measured against tighter limits under the new European Directive on air quality, in force from 2030, which lowers the PM10 threshold from 35 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

“Only 23 out of 96 cities (24 percent) would be under these limits,” Ciafani said, while 84 percent would exceed the threshold for PM2.5 and 61 percent for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Italy has repeatedly been reprimanded by the European Union over air quality, and has “persistently and systematically” breached EU recommended limits, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2020.

The north of Italy has long been ranked among the worst areas in Europe for polluted air according to data from the European Environment Agency.

“Air pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also a health problem of great importance,” said Ciafani. “In Europe, it’s the main cause of premature death due to environmental factors.”

“Italy has more than 52,000 deaths per year caused by PM2.5 emissions, equal to a fifth of those recorded throughout the continent,” he said.

The main causes of air pollution in Italian cities are reported to be industry, inefficient domestic heating systems, agricultural practices and, most of all, heavy traffic.

In Italy, cars continue to be by far the most-used means of transport. 65.3 percent of journeys overall are made by car, Legambiante wrote, with the emissions from some 38 million cars choking Italy’s towns and cities.

(Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Legambiente said “drastic” measures were required to tackle the problem, including funds for more efficient heating systems in homes and public buildings and a major increase in public transport provision.

The group said Italy must “quadruple the availability of public transit, promoting integrated season tickets as done by Germany in 2022”, triple the number of electric buses, create zero-emission zones in town centres, and “create another 16,000 kilometres of cycle paths”.

It also praised local authorities choosing to bring in 30 km/h speed limits in city centres. Councils in Bologna, Turin, Milan and Cesena have all said they plan to implement these limits, following the lead of European cities including Paris and Madrid, despite fierce criticism from Italian transport minister Matteo Salvini.

Legambiente published a petition urging the government to make clean air and more livable cities a priority, saying Italy should follow Paris in attempting to create ’15-minute cities’, in which everyone lives within a quarter of an hour’s walk of vital amenities such as shops and schools and possibly also workplaces.