“Coping with a pandemic without good plans, with insufficient intensive care skills and a scarce stock of health protection devices is like finding yourself driving a bus on a mountain road in the middle of a sudden and heavy snowfall without snow chains,” says a retired Italian army general Pier Paolo Lunelli in an investigative report filed with prosecutors last week. “Unfortunately,” he continues, “the Italian bus ended up off the road.” Where an American Supercruiser was soon to slide alongside it, in the COVID-19 ditch.
With a national death toll of more than 36,000 and a caseload fast approaching one-third of a million, no one would dispute that Italy’s slow response to a Coronavirus outbreak in the northern province of Lombardy in late February cost lives. Gen. Lunelli estimates 10,000 Italians could have been saved had the government updated its 2006 pandemic plan.
But, he admits, great plans guarantee nothing. In January 2020, the two best pandemic-prepared nations were believed to be the U.S. and the U.K.. Both had detailed plans, but Gen. Lunelli notes, both failed to execute them.
Italy dug itself into a pandemic hole, but clawed its way out with an improvised but comprehensive and well-enforced lockdown. After weeks in the second half of march where new cases peaked at more than 6000 a day, the curve turned sharply down so that by the First of May caseloads had dropped to 2000, and by the First of June to 300 a day, and for the next weeks stayed that low or lower.
But as the big vacation and tourism month of August headed into its second half, hot spots of Coronavirus appeared, concentrated in late-night bar areas of beachfront towns.
The national and local governments reversed engines, shutting some bars and night clubs, requiring masks, even outdoors, in the nightlife areas where young people congregate.
But there was a certain Italian style to the new restrictions… they didn’t take effect until two days after Ferragosto, an ancient Italian mid-August holiday of singing and dancing. One week later, caseloads jumped to 800 a day; a week after that they’d all but doubled again and the surge was on. The last couple of weeks of September new cases averaged a few hundred below 2000, so far in October the daily caseload in Italy has been several hundred above 2000, peaking at more than 2800.
As someone said of President Trump, Italy is not out of the woods yet where the pandemic is concerned, but let’s put the Italian surge in perspective. Even with the upward curve currently in motion, on a per capita basis, Italy’s new caseload is less than half that of the United States, and compared to the resurgence of the virus hitting European neighbors like the Czech Republic, The Netherland, Spain, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, Italy is getting off relatively easy.
Chris Livesay is a CBS News foreign correspondent based in Rome, contributing to all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Livesay, a journalist with experience covering hotspots across Europe and the Middle East, joined CBS News in 2020 and began reporting for the Network at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy. He provided extensive coverage across that country throughout the pandemic.
In March, Livesay was the first reporter for an American television network to go inside an ICU in Italy when the country was at the epicenter of the crisis and doctors inside the hospital turned scuba masks into ventilators as supplies ran low. He has reported from northern Italy where cemeteries couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies. Livesay also found bright spots amid the suffering; in Venice, he spoke with volunteers who delivered supplies to those in need in gondolas via the city’s famous canals. This week, he reported from Venice that nature is flourishing, with streets and canals nearly empty of people and transportation.
Before joining CBS News, Livesay reported around the globe for NBC News, PBS NewsHour, PBS Frontline, and NPR News. He brings to CBS News a wealth of international experience having covered a number of major stories with global impact, such as the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, the protests in Hong Kong, and the priest sex abuse scandals at the Vatican. In 2018, he was the first American TV correspondent to report from Libya in almost a year and had to flee the country amid government threats for shedding light on migrant trafficking, torture and abuse. In 2016, he was among the first TV journalists to report from Mosul on the front lines of the Iraqi military’s push to remove ISIS.