By Giselda Vagnoni, Elvira Pollina and Emilio Parodi
ROME (Reuters) – One month ago, the World Health Organization posted a video praising Italians’ “strong and effective response” to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the time, Italy had one of the lowest infection rates in the Western world and appeared to have learnt the lessons of the first wave, which killed more people than anywhere else in Europe except Britain.
Now it appears that Italy, ahead of the rest of Europe when COVID-19 arrived, was simply behind the curve when it roared back as summer ended. New cases are rising at record rates, hitting 31,758 on Oct. 31 against around 2,500 at the start of the month, while deaths are up tenfold to more than 200 a day.
To be sure, many northern hemisphere countries are also facing a coronavirus resurgence. But just as Italy became a symbol of the perils of the virus, so its inability to protect against a second wave has underscored Europe’s failure to use the summer lull to bolster its defences, notably in tracing and testing.
“It is a monumental debacle. The fact that Italy is in the same situation as other countries in Europe is no comfort to me,” virologist Andrea Crisanti told Reuters. “We had five months to strengthen our surveillance, tracking and prevention systems and instead we are heading towards a new lockdown.”
The government says it wants to avoid another national lockdown and denies failing to anticipate a second wave.
“There may have been mistakes, you can always do better but we have not underestimated the situation. We have worked on all fronts,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week.
Crisanti, who has become a celebrity with his dogged demands for more testing, published a letter with nine colleagues on Friday listing what they said were the government’s failings, along with recommendations.
One shortcoming, they said, was the system Italy had adopted to trace those who had contact with COVID sufferers and make sure they were tested.
In June, the government employed 9,000 people for this. That has risen to just 9,200, a third of the number Germany employs. The state placed adverts last week to recruit another 2,000.
“We warned the authorities from the very beginning that we would have needed much more people, and people professionally trained, for tracing COVID-19,” said Miria De Santis, head of the national association of health assistants.
“I think the authorities overlooked the risk of the second wave,” she told Reuters.
Franco Locatelli, a leading member of the scientific committee that advises the government, denies the state lowered its guard, but acknowledges that the tracing system has been overwhelmed.