Italy has become the flash point of the coronavirus pandemic, with a death toll at 6,077 and counting — the highest in the world. More than 2,000 Italians have been killed by the virus in the past four days alone.
The staggering toll stands for now as a worst-case scenario for what happens when a country is caught unprepared. Italy’s high elderly population has exacerbated the problem.
But while some unique aspects have amplified the scale, doctors and health officials say other countries should regard Italy not as an outlier or an example of missteps, but as a harrowing preview for the hardships they might soon have at hand.
Other countries could easily follow the pattern in Italy, with the number of casualties soaring weeks after an initial, drastic spike in cases.
The disaster in Italy does not stem from gross government negligence. Rather, analysts say it is partly a consequence of the weeks between the emergence of the outbreak and the government decision to absolutely lock down the population. And though many in Italy now argue their government waited too long, democracies across the West have been mulling the same decisions — and in some cases have acted less decisively.
Neither is the crisis in Italy a product of an especially feeble health system. Italy has fewer acute-care beds relative to its population than South Korea or Germany, but more than Britain or the United States. The death toll is being intensified by breakdowns at hospitals, but the strains are the same as could happen anywhere in the developed world that sees such a surge in coronavirus cases.
“This emergency is something so huge that all over the world, not just in Italy, you’re going to be forever unprepared,” said Massimo Galli, head of the infectious disease unit at the Sacco Hospital in Milan. He said governments everywhere “are taking this classic attitude to face the problem slowly.”