by Dmitry ZAKS
Italy on Thursday overtook China’s coronavirus death total and braced for an extended lockdown that could see the economy suffer its biggest shock since World War II.
The Mediterranean country’s toll reached 3,405 after it recorded 427 new deaths on Wednesday.
China has officially registered 3,245 deaths since reporting its first infections to the World Health Organization at the end of December.
All of Italy’s fatalities came over a chaotic four-week span that began with only a smattering of cases around Milan and eventually led to the entire nation living through its deadliest disaster in generations.
Iran has officially disclosed 1,284 deaths but has had its tally questioned by medical experts.
Spain had 767 deaths and France 264 when Italy’s toll was released.
Its new COVID-19 cases are yet to plateau despite the Italian government’s best efforts.
Army trucks delivered new freshly-made coffins Thursday to a cemetery in the northern Italian city of Bergamo that suddenly finds itself at the global heart of the pandemic.
Burials were being spaced 30 minutes apart to avoid contagion through crowds.
Masked undertakers wrapped from head to toe in white suits carted the coffins on gurneys to speed up the process.
Italy’s ANSA news agency said the deaths of two more doctors in the nearby town of Como west of Bergamo brought the total number of medics killed by the new disease to 13.
“Use your common sense and act with utmost caution,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians.
“We are not underestimating anything and always acting based on the worst-case scenario.”
– Overwhelming support –
Conte enjoys overwhelming support from Italians for a lockdown that — while not as draconian as China’s quarantine of Wuhan’s Hubei province — seemed unimaginable for a Western democracy until this month.
A poll published in the daily La Repubblica found that 47 percent viewed the closure of most businesses and all shools and public institutions “positively”.
Another 47 percent viewed them “very positively” and just four percent said they were opposed.
Some of Conte’s strictest measures — such as the closure of all shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies — had been due to expire next Wednesday.
The Italian leader was adamant that an extension of all these precautions was inevitable.
“All the measures we have taken, both the ones that closed a lot of the country’s businesses and the ones that restricted people’s movement, can only be extended,” Conte said.
Schools are thus unlikely to reopen on April 3 and parents will have to find ways to look after their children while working from home for many more weeks or months.
“At the moment, there are no other far-reaching restrictive measures being considered,” said Conte.
“But if our prohibitions are not respected, we will have to act.”
– Economic shock –
Italy is imposing 206 euro ($222) fines for anyone found wandering the streets without a valid excuse such as grocery shopping or getting to and from work.
Police in Rome read periodic instructions out of megaphones for everyone to “stay home and maintain distance” from each other.
Some stores are ordering shoppers to put on disposable plastic gloves.
The northern region of Emilia-Romagna took the extra step of banning jogging and walks — exercise that the national government in Rome had encouraged for health reasons.
Conte’s most tangible response to the crisis has involved putting together a 25-billion-euro ($28 billion) economic rescue package designed to help the worst affected industries.
The tourism operators’ union said Thursday it expected the number of visitors to drop to levels last seen in the mid-1960s.
But Conte looked for the silver lining in the crisis.
The economic warning signs have forced ministers to “make the biggest effort in dozens of years to simplify the investment process — something that nobody (in Italy) has ever done,” Conte said.