Home >News >World >In Italy’s second coronavirus wave, Milan staggers as hospitals fill up
Photo AFP (AFP)
Photo AFP (AFP)

In Italy’s second coronavirus wave, Milan staggers as hospitals fill up

  • Country that thought it had tamed the virus this summer has now locked down its business capital

Italy’s business capital has become the center of a second wave of the coronavirus, putting at risk the country’s economic recovery and reviving the specter of a health-care crisis Italians thought they had overcome this spring.

With infections, hospitalizations and deaths linked to Covid-19 rising exponentially, hospitals in Milan are running out of beds even after having converted wards and suspended nonurgent procedures. Ambulances have been forced to wait for hours to disembark patients at hospitals where Covid-19 patients are sometimes kept on gurneys in crowded corridors.

On Friday, the government sealed off Milan and the surrounding Lombardy region, along with three of Italy’s other 20 regions. In the so-called red zones, freedom of movement is severely curtailed, most stores are shut, cafes and restaurants can sell only takeout, and children from the second year of middle school onward have reverted to remote learning. The government said it would assess the situation in two weeks.

“I don’t know if the new lockdown will be enough, nobody knows that," said Massimo Galli, the head of infectious diseases at Milan’s Sacco hospital, where in the second half of October doctors treated as many severely ill Covid-19 patients as in all of March and April.

Milan has become emblematic of how quickly the pandemic can spin out of control in a place that thought it had defeated the virus. Lombardy, which has 10 million inhabitants, has been averaging 115 daily deaths from Covid-19 in the past week, compared with just four a day at the beginning of October. About half of the region’s deaths and hospitalizations are in Milan.

A Milan crematory said it couldn’t keep up with the number of deaths and stopped accepting bodies for cremation of nonresidents who die in the city. A temporary hospital inaugurated in April at Milan’s trade-fair center has reopened.

“We had hoped that we wouldn’t need to use this new hospital again, but now all I can say is thank god we have it," said Marco Giachetti, chairman of Milan’s Policlinico hospital, which is providing medical staff to oversee some of the trade-fair hospital’s ICU beds.

The temporary hospital treated just 23 patients in the spring, as Italy suppressed the first wave of the pandemic with a strict nationwide lockdown. This week, the hospital, which has 155 intensive-care beds and can be doubled in size if needed, had 37 patients.

The Policlinico and Milan’s other hospitals are racing to discharge non-Covid patients as quickly as possible to free up space. A rise in Covid patients was expected following the summer, but not to the extent that has happened.

In the spring, the city of Milan was less badly hit by the pandemic than smaller towns in its surrounding region of Lombardy, such as Bergamo and Brescia. Milanese hospitals took in Covid-19 patients from the region to relieve the pressure on provincial hospitals. Now, however, Bergamo is having to help out, taking in patients from strained hospitals in Milan and Monza, a city 10 miles to its north that has also become a virus hot spot.

A month ago, Lombardy had just 41 Covid patients in intensive care and 361 occupying non-ICU beds. On Sunday, those numbers had jumped to 650 and 6,225 respectively.

A few days into the new lockdown, Milan’s normally bustling streets are largely deserted, most shops are closed and trams glide by with few passengers. Many Milanese are wondering what could have been, had Italy done a better job of safeguarding its progress against the virus. This summer, Italy was garnering international recognition for being one of the Western countries that had managed to contain the pandemic.

“I have trouble falling asleep, I wake up stressed and sometimes I feel like it’s all pointless because I try so hard and look where we are," says cafe owner Marika Fiumara. She gestures at the four small empty tables outside her cafe, which normally teem with locals discussing politics or soccer. “It’s March all over again."

On a recent morning, Ms. Fiumara, 30, greeted a few regulars who came by for a takeaway cappuccino or espresso. As her mom stood ready to work the espresso machine, Ms. Fiumara scanned the street for customers who might help her pay off the debt she took on to cover the rent during Italy’s first lockdown.

She got a payout from the government earlier this year, but it covered only part of her expenses. Business recovered to about 60% of normal levels, but the new lockdown has cut it to a fraction of that.

In recent weeks, the coronavirus containment strategy of Italy’s most cosmopolitan city has come undone as one of Milan’s strengths—the coming and going of thousands of workers, students and business people from across the country and Europe—became a liability.

“The virus didn’t have a chance to spread extensively in Milan in the spring because Italy shut down quickly, but this time it’s completely different," said Antonella Viola, a virologist at the University of Padua who had advocated for a lockdown in Milan and other hard-hit areas weeks before the government acted.

Milan isn’t alone among big Italian cities in facing an explosive outbreak. Naples, in Italy’s south, is also grappling with a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. But Milan’s importance for Italian finance and industry makes its virus crisis a threat to the whole country’s economy.

The number of new businesses in Milan grew strongly in the third quarter, as Lombardy led Italy’s strong economic rebound from the earlier lockdown. But a reversal of the trend is now likely, with many businesses closing again, said Carlo Sangalli, chairman of the Milan chapter of business association Confcommercio.

“The truce from the virus in the summer allowed many companies in Milan to get a little oxygen, but this second wave could cancel all the progress made," he said.

The Milanese know a hard winter is coming but they aren’t about to give in. “We beat this last time and we can do it again" said Ennio Iovane, who works at a hardware store in Milan. “It will take time and we have to be patient."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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