No let-up in Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak as deaths soar above 4,000

ROME —Italy’s coronavirus crisis, the world’s deadliest, showed no sign of abating on Friday, as a record single-day dead count of 627 raised the country’s total to more than 4,000.

The grim milestone came a day after Italy surpassed the number of dead in China, and one month since the first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed in the northern Lombardy region.

In its daily bulletin, the Italian Civil Protection Agency reported 4,032 fatalities, up 18,4% from Thursday, and 47,021 overall contagions, up by almost 15%.

Recoveries were up by 15.5% to 5,129, while the number of intensive care patients —a closely watched figure given an acute shortage of hospital beds —rose by around 6%, to 2,655.

Lombardy, which surrounds Milan, remained the region worst hit by the outbreak, with more than 22,000 cases and 2,549 deaths. Lazio, the region that includes Rome, reported 1,008 cases and 43 deaths.

Italy has been under national lockdown since March 10, but as the virus keeps spreading, authorities further restricted social interactions.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza ordered the closure of all parks and banned outdoor leisure activities. He said individual physical exercise was still allowed, but only close to home.

He also closed down bars and restaurants in train stations and petrol stations, and said people could no longer move to their second homes on weekends.

Italians are under strict orders to stay home, but can still go out if they cannot work from home, to take the dog for a walk, or for urgent errands like buying food and medicines.

Meanwhile, a senior French minister and the head of the European Commission gave their backing to Italian calls for eurozone financial solidarity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

In an interview with Britain’s Financial Times newspaper, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for the eurozone bailout fund (ESM) to be brought into play.

“The ESM was crafted with a different type of crisis in mind, so it must be adapted to the new circumstances so that we can make use of its full firepower,” he said.

The ESM, set up in 2012 in the wake of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, has lending capacity of up to 500 billion euros (537 billion dollars).

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen indicated that the eurozone could jointly issue government debt —or so-called coronabonds.

“Whatever helps will be deployed,” she told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “That also counts for coronabonds —if they help, if they are correctly structured, they will be deployed.”

Risk-averse member states such as Germany and the Netherlands, fearful of having to cover for more profligate EU peers, have opposed the use of eurobonds in the past.

In a separate, unprecedented move, the European Commission suspended the eurozone’s budget discipline rules to allow national governments to spend as much as needed on the coronavirus crisis.

The decision followed on the heels of a 750-billion-euro emergency bond-buying program announced by the European Central Bank (ECB) on Wednesday.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire insisted that it was vital for the European Union to come to the aid of Italy. European Council President Charles Michel also stressed the need for solidarity.

“If it’s everyone for themselves, if we abandon certain states, if we say, for example, to Italy ‘work it out by yourselves’, then Europe will not recover,” Le Maire told LCI television.

Michel addressed Italian President Sergio Mattarella in a public letter. He said: “I should like, through you, Mr President, to offer your citizens a simple and heartfelt message: ITALY IS NOT ALONE.”

The coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown measures governments are adopting to contain it are expected to have a crippling effect on economies, starting from Italy’s.

On Friday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cut the country’s economic growth forecasts for 2020 to minus 0.6%. In January, it had predicted modest growth of 0.5%.

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