Coronavirus: learning urgent lessons from Italy
FT statistics journalist Federica Cocco looks at what the data can teach us about distancing, demographics, culture and testing
Produced by Joe Sinclair; graphics by Russell Birkett
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Governments around the world are asking themselves how they can stop the spread of the coronavirus, and they're looking to Italy, at the centre of the pandemic, for lessons. Deaths in Italy have outstripped China, and on the current trajectory the UK could find itself in the same situation in under two weeks. The death rate in the US and in other European countries has also been growing. So what can be done to stop the spread of the virus? We're going to be looking at social distancing, demographics, cultural factors, and testing.
Let's start with social distancing. After reaching 800 coronavirus deaths, Italy ordered a full lockdown, meaning people couldn't leave the house unless they had urgent work situations, emergencies, or health reasons. In the UK, the government has been ramping up social distancing advice, the emphasis on staying at home as much as possible, and otherwise keeping two metres apart. It's a method that can dramatically reduce transmission, and there's hope that by flattening the curve there will be less stress on the health system. There is a big but. It relies on people taking heed of the advice. Now things are moving towards a full lockdown.
Shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible, one form of exercise a day, for example, a run, walk, or cycle alone or with members of your household, any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, and travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home. That's all. These are the only reasons you should leave your home.
Age is a factor, too. It's important to protect the elderly and the vulnerable. One reason why Italy may have suffered such a high death rate may be because of its elderly population. One in four Italians are aged over 65. In the UK it's less, but it's still a large proportion. And we know that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are by far the most vulnerable. That's why in the UK those over 70 have been asked to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks. It could be crucial. But it's not that straightforward. Germany and Japan also have large elderly populations, and yet their death rate has been far lower.
There are also cultural factors. Italians like large gatherings, and they're very tactile. Italian families are very tight knit, and it's possible that the younger generations spread it to their grandparents, but another cultural factor at play could be to what extent are people willing to follow the rules, especially in the early days. In Britain, people's tendency to keep calm and carry on could be walking the country into trouble. That's why the UK government faced criticism for merely advising social distancing rather than ordering a full lockdown. Whatever the message is it needs to be loud and clear.
I must give the British people a very simple instruction. You must stay at home.
And then there's testing. In the UK only people in need of hospitalisation have been tested, but the government is ramping things up. The World Health Organisation is advising aggressive testing to limit the infections. A control experiment in the small town of Vo near Venice proved that mass testing can help stamp out the virus. There were two rounds of testing done. In the first round of testing people with the virus, including those with no symptoms, were put in isolation. There was then a second round of testing and a smaller number of infections were found, also put in isolation, proving that this can help stop transmission.
But other factors may be at play. How the cause of death is counted, genetics, maybe even the climate. Southern Italy has suffered less. This is leading scientists to believe that maybe high temperatures and humidity helped stop the spread. Perhaps, the summer will bring some respite, but the summer may be too late. If lessons are to be learned, they need to be learned now.