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Covid-19, Italy and Lessons for Canada

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By Thomas Barbiero, Ryerson University and Livio Di Matteo, Lakehead University As Italo-Canadese and members of the large Italian diaspora throughout the world, we have found the COVID-19 situation in Italy truly heart-wrenching.  As we write, Italy is the hardest hit country outside of China with over 60,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths. The hardest hit region is that of Lombardia in the north, which now has about half of the infected population and over 60 percent of the fatalities. The regions where our families originated, Campania and Abruzzo, have also been hit with about 1,500 cases combined.  Hospitals in the hardest hit regions of Italy are overwhelmed, with mortality rates especially pronounced among seniors over the age 70.  The rapid spread of the virus and the

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by Thomas Barbiero, Ryerson University and Livio Di Matteo, Lakehead University

As Italo-Canadese and members of the large Italian diaspora throughout the world, we have found the COVID-19 situation in Italy truly heart-wrenching.  As we write, Italy is the hardest hit country outside of China with over 60,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths. The hardest hit region is that of Lombardia in the north, which now has about half of the infected population and over 60 percent of the fatalities. The regions where our families originated, Campania and Abruzzo, have also been hit with about 1,500 cases combined. 

Hospitals in the hardest hit regions of Italy are overwhelmed, with mortality rates especially pronounced among seniors over the age 70.  The rapid spread of the virus and the high mortality rates in the last two weeks are particularly disconcerting with important lessons for us in Canada as we ramp up efforts to deal with the virus.  Based on current Canadian case numbers, we are approximately where Italy was in mid to late February. Canada currently has over 1,400 confirmed cases. A crucial difference is that we have had more warning and are taking things somewhat more seriously than they were at the start of their crisis.

We offer the following observations of the Italian situation and their application to Canada.  We believe the severity of the Italian situation is a function of several factors which have come together. 

First, Italy is an open economy heavily dependent on both trade and tourism and substantial international economic and travel ties. It is densely populated country -about the size of southern Ontario with 60 million people -  that receives over 60 million tourists a year. By comparison, Canada receives about 20 million international tourists a year but Canadians themselves are big international travellers especially to the US. Moreover, in just the last few days alone, about one million Canadians have returned home.

Ontario and British Colombia, together currently represent over half of those infected in Canada. Ontario, like Lombardia is an economic heartland with substantial international trade, travel and commercial ties.  B.C. has a thriving trade and commercial sector and again a major international travel destination as well as close links across the border. 

Canada’s decision to limit flights and close borders is an important one given that the virus spreads through personal contact and travel is the key factor in initial transmission and spread. Hopefully, this has not been delayed too substantially.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 spread in northern Italy before the authorities fully mobilized as there was reluctance to admit its seriousness.  A major politician in Italy in February even pronounced that there was no reason for Italians to give up their pleasurable aperitivo with friends in the evening. He was later found to have the virus and is now undergoing treatment.

Second, evidence has emerged that infection and mortality rates are higher in older Italian men. Smoking rates in Italian men are much higher than Canada.  Given COVID-19 has major impacts on the respiratory system, this is undoubtedly an aggravating factor.  Moreover, Italy’s population over age 65 is one of the highest in the world, representing almost a quarter of its population, compared to about 16 percent in Canada.  Mortality in COVID-19 is concentrated in the older population.

Third, Italian culture involves substantial social interaction outside of the house.  Italians are always out and about visiting the local bar to have a coffee or play cards, going for a passegiata and gathering on park benches after dinner. Italian culture is highly social and involves substantial physical contact when greeting.  Elders in Italian culture particularly expect the respect of warm physical embraces and greetings, and can be offended if that respect is not shown. Families are close and often get together for meals.

Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that 7 members of an Italo-American family in New Jersey were infected by the virus and 4 of them died Apparently, only one guest at one of the family dinners had the virus and spread it to these other family members.

Finally, Italians have a notorious irreverence for rules and compliance with government edicts, and the resistance to following quarantine and lockdown guidelines has been substantial based on the anecdotal evidence and news stories we are familiar with. Such behaviour has come with a price and is an important lesson to those of us in Canada who still are ignoring the need to social distance.

When it comes to what needs to be done to plank the curve in Canada, Italy in our opinion is a prime example of why “social distancing” combined specifically with “physical distancing” is paramount.  We all need to play our part.  It needs to be done immediately and it is important that the rules be complied with – now.

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