Dazed Italy Bickers as It Seeks Answers for Coronavirus Spread

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Stunned by Europe’s biggest surge of the coronavirus, Italy appears to be operating in near panic mode.

The government imposed a lockdown on an area of 50,000 people near Milan, authorities canceled the remaining days of the Venice Carnival, and several universities closed. Across Italy, Chinese restaurants were shunned. The Chinatown area in Prato near Florence saw many small businesses close as Chinese nationals voluntarily remained at home for two-week periods.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party, used the outbreak to attack Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for not defending the borders. He cited the docking of the Ocean Viking humanitarian ship in a Sicilian port with 274 African migrants on board to say Italy needs “to make our borders armor-plated.” He called on Conte to resign “if he isn’t able to defend Italy and Italians.”

The rise in infections to more than 130 from just a handful a week ago has come at a bad moment for Conte’s administration, already under fire for failing to mount a coherent response to the spread of the virus. As Conte chairs a series of marathon meetings in Rome to counter the spread of the disease, his plan for tax reforms and investments to restart an ailing economy has stalled, and now businesses are set to be affected by measures against the virus.

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Conte’s government was censured by Beijing for an early ban on all flights to and from China, a decision criticized by Walter Ricciardi, a member of the World Health Organization’s executive council, because it stopped authorities from tracing arrivals as travelers could use stopovers to reach Italy.

Efforts to contain the coronavirus could have been initially thwarted by difficulty in identifying the roots of the spread.

Almost all of Italy’s cases are linked to a 38-year-old man who sought treatment at a hospital in the Lombardy region on Feb. 18. While at the hospital, he infected dozens of patients and medical staff, who then spread it further afield. Tracking efforts initially focuses on a friend of the man, a businessman who had returned from China, but tests proved negative and the origin of the contagion remains a mystery.

“Conte is on difficult ground: He’s got to find an explanation for the big spread of the virus,” said Sofia Ventura, a political science professor at Bologna University, which announced it’s closing Monday along with other universities and schools in the northern Emilia-Romagna region.

Conte hasn’t ruled out suspending the Schengen agreement that allows free movement between the borders of European Union members. To guarantee “maximum protection,” the government would take “any measure to safeguard the health of citizens,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a EU summit in Brussels on Friday. The League called for a suspension of Schengen.

Salvini’s political calculation is clear. While his League is the country’s most popular party, he was interior minister in Conte’s first coalition when his effort last year to force fresh elections backfired. He now has to contend with the resurgence of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, which has leapfrogged ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

“Borders are the perfect issue for Salvini, and he’s out for revenge, with his ally and rival Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy party rising in opinion polls,” said Ventura of Bologna University.

In his Facebook video, Salvini zeroed in on African migrants like the ones who landed in Sicily, saying “God forbid” one of them turned out to be a virus-carrier.

At the port of Pozzallo, the latest migrants to attempt the deadly journey from north Africa were placed in isolation on Sunday, while the crew were confined to the ship. None of the cases in Italy so far have been linked to African migrants.

Health authorities still don’t know the origin of the disease’s spread, according to emergency commissioner Angelo Borrelli.

“It’s difficult to express forecasts for the spread,” he said. “The only concrete and valid measure to be taken is therefore the one of closing off territories.”

Conte himself was left acknowledging that he hadn’t expected the surge.

“I was surprised by this explosion of cases, which had been kept under control until a short time ago,” he told RAI television Sunday. But he insisted: “The line of maximum precaution has paid off, even though it doesn’t appear so.”

— With assistance by Alessandro Speciale

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