Birth and history of a global emergency
November 2019, the new “Wuhan virus” – A type of Sars similar to pneumonia spreads in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a logistics hub of 11 million inhabitants where Beijing concentrates some of its major investments in new technologies and heavy industry.
December 31 – Chinese authorities inform the WHO about the pneumonia emergency while investigating the origin of the disease. The following day they decide to close the Wuhan fish market, which is identified as the epicentre of the outbreak, assuming that the infection may have been caused by some animal products sold there in poor hygiene conditions.
January 9-12, 2020 – Beijing announces that it deals with a new strain of coronavirus, whose infectiousness is still unknown. For this reason, WHO believes it should not recommend any restrictions to travel to and from China, despite the first victims and already forty infected according to official figures. The cases are concentrated in Wuhan while the coronavirus is sequenced and renamed “2019-nCoV”.
January 20-21 – Chinese health authorities and WHO announce that the new coronavirus is transmitted from human to human, while in China the political leadership of the Communist Party remains silent for 13 days between 7 and 20 January. Then, on January 21, President Xi releases the first official statement, calling on the country to “make a full effort” to curb the epidemic.
January 23 – WHO believes it is still too early to declare an international public health emergency. The death toll rises to 17, while the virus spreads to Asia and China’s neighbours (Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan) and all the way to the US. In Italy, inspections are carried out on flights arriving from the epicentre area, while the Health Ministry recommends not to travel to China unless strictly necessary.
January 24 – The first European cases are assessed: three people are infected with the coronavirus in Paris and Bordeaux. France is the first country to evacuate its citizens from China, followed by Spain, Portugal and the UK. Germany reports the first case of internal transmission and in Italy two Chinse tourists from Wuhan are hospitalized at Rome’s Spallanzani at the end of the month. Two Italians returning from China are placed in quarantine in the Cecchignola military barracks.
30-31 January – WHO declares a public health emergency. The Italian government is the only one in Europe to take the decision to immediately shut down air traffic to and from China, thereby infuriating the authorities of the Asian giant. A cruise ship with 6 thousand people is blocked off Civitavecchia after two suspected cases reported on board. The following day, the Council of ministers (CDM) decrees the state of health emergency and the head of the Civil Protection Angelo Borrelli is appointed Special Commissioner for the coronavirus emergency.
February 11 – WHO adopts an official name to identify the new disease: COVID-19. “Co” and “vi” indicate the coronavirus family, “d” the disease and “19” the year in which it was discovered. At the same time, world health authorities denounce the rampant ‘infodemic’, that is the circulation of an excessive amount of information about the disease that makes it difficult to choose among truth and fake news. Meanwhile in Italy a controversy erupts between the government and the governors of Veneto, Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, who ask for an immediate tightening of containment measures.
February 21-22 – The first coronavirus cases are officially reported also in Italy. The emergency spreads through the country with hundreds of contagions and outbreaks in Veneto and Lodi province. Since it consists of people who have never been to China, the affected areas of Codogno, Castiglione d’Adda and other are immediately isolated. In the evening between 22 and 23 February, the CDM issues a decree to counter the transmission of COVID-19 in the outbreaks areas only. It will be the first of a long series. But there are also those who see an unjustified alarmism: while Milan mayor Sala asks the government to reopen museums, League leader Salvini intimates Palazzo Chigi to reopen “everything that can be reopened”. The case of PD secretary Zingaretti becomes paradigmatic: the center-left politician drinks a symbolic beer in public on the canals of Milan, then after a few days admits that he’s positive to coronavirus.
March 4-9 – The epidemic spreads across Northern Italy, the country’s productive heart and hub, leaving behind a hundred victims. The government reacts by closing all schools and universities until March 15 and by limiting travels to the affected areas, establishing a red zone in Lombardy and in 14 other provinces between Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Marche regions. The leak to the press of the still unofficial draft of the March 8 decree unleashes polemics and causes a mass exodus from lockdown regions. Subsequently, a new decree extends the limitations and blockages to the whole national territory. People are permitted to leave their house only for real needs, work or other health reasons. Several riots broke out in Italian prisons against overcrowding and the risk of contagions.
March 11 – WHO declares the global pandemic after over 165 countries worldwide have re-ported infections. German Chancellor Merkel talks about 58 million people at risk contagion while French President Macron prepares a new round of prevention measures – although he confirms the local elections despite wide disagreement.
March 21 – The Italian government talks about the most difficult crisis since the second post-war period and puts in place new containment measures, with the lockdown of all non-strategic productive activities until April 3. Italy becomes the second most affected country in the world behind China, with contagion rates that frighten.
April 1 – The Conte administration extends the restrictive measures until April 13, contemplating the opening of a “phase 2” of coexistence with the virus only in the event of a marked decrease in infections numbers. Still, for the head of the Civil Protection Borrelli, Italy will remain under lockdown until mid-May at least. Meanwhile, the emergency blows up the traditional European fault lines, in particular between Germany, the Netherland and Austria on one side and Italy, France, Spain and Greece on the other. The former demand for conditions to lend money to countries where the crisis will cause more damages, the latter ask instead to share the burden of the debts incurred to save their collapsing economies.