ROME–Ah, the smell of hand sanitizer in a public space. At least that’s the first thing you notice almost anywhere in Italy right now. The next, of course, is the masks and furrowed brows. While words like “epicenter” and “emergency” seem to tell the story of a massive plague gripping the country, the reality is that the real problem is not fear of catching the virus, but fear of getting caught up in the global reaction to it.
Even while European Union health ministers braved the “threat” and came to Rome this week to announce solidarity and plead that there is no need to close the borders to stem the spread, several countries and lots of companies are doing it anyway.
Late Friday, the Trump administration raised the safety threat level to the ominous “level 3,” which will almost certainly set off a global panic attack about this country.
Yet, even so, half a dozen American study abroad programs had already yanked their students out of Florence even though the city is not part of the current lockdown and there are only a couple cases in all of Tuscany. Most of the rest followed suit after Trump’s heightened alert. British Airways cancelled direct flights to Milan citing a “decreased demand” and Israel and Mauritius banned all flights from Italy no matter where they take off from. An Italian journalist even got shut out of a hotel he had reserved in Greece just because he was coming from Rome. Greece! How could you?
Italy’s hotel federation says that just one week into the crisis, the cancellation rate for reservations has shot to 70 percent in Milan and 40 percent in Rome. Those numbers will skyrocket now that the U.S. has told Americans to “reconsider” travel to Italy. That’s bad news for this tourism-dependent country since one of the biggest tourist seasons is Easter, a few weeks away.
But does cancelling your trip to the bel paese make sense? The experts say no.
Dr. Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer of Healix International, says it is far too late to restrict travel to and from Italy and other places. The virus is now in nearly 60 countries, and he says trying to single out a few with higher numbers of infections is counterproductive. “You cannot stop air travel without huge repercussions,” he told The Daily Beast. “To restrict travel now would be to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted! And anyway, how on earth would you do it on the continent? It's practically impossible.”
Hyzler notes that the World Health Organization put out a statement saying travel restrictions should be “consistent and proportionate to local risk assessment” which means cancelling travel to a city like Rome, where just three people were infected, including two Chinese tourists and a researcher who flew in from China who have since recovered completely, doesn’t make sense.
Still, the number of cancellations will almost definitely strain, if not destroy, the smaller tourism entities. “The world's governments are trying desperately to calm the understandable panic as this would paralyze the world, with much greater knock-on effects for health care, poverty and the economy.”
It is hard to deny that infected Italians are spreading the virus. The first cases in at least 14 countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria, have been infected Italians who traveled to those regions from northern Italy, possibly subjecting everyone on their flight along the way. But experts argue that it would have likely happened anyway, it’s just that the Italians got there first.
Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch suggested to The Atlantic this week that trying to stop the unstoppable will only make it seem worse. “I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable,” he said, adding that many who test positive won’t even know they have it. “It’s likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic.”
It could also be a case of what you don’t know really won’t hurt you. In Italy, authorities concede that perhaps they’ve gone a little crazy with the number of tests they have carried out, which has topped 18,000 so far with more than 821 positive results, compared to under 500 carried out in all of the U.S. The civil protection agency in Italy gives daily statistics, like they do when there is a major earthquake or other natural disaster. But the number of infected now also includes the number of positive cases where the person has no symptoms at all in an attempt, it would seem, to keep the population yet unaffected from freaking out completely. The figure is near half of all positive cases who wouldn’t even know they were carrying the virus had someone not stuck a swab down their throat or up their nose.
The 29 deaths so far in the country all occurred in patients who had serious health conditions. They most likely died “with” coronavirus, not because of it.
Still, the world is panicking and now those Italians who wouldn’t go into Chinese restaurants when the virus first broke the confines of China are feeling xenophobia against them. When four Italian guests tested positive in a resort in Tenerife in the Canary Islands off Spain, travel companies started calling other Italians to say they needed medical certificates if they lived in the north of the country. Would you feel uncomfortable if an Italian group checked in to the hotel room next to you?
“In just over 48 hours we have gone from a safe country, without a single valid or logical reason, to be a European cluster,” Italy’s tourism federation said in a statement Friday. “Part of that is due to hysterical communication that does not take into account the real security conditions of the country. The consequences are an avalanche of cancellations, missed reservations, and closing of the Italian travel market that have no justification.”
It must be noted that while Italy will have a hard time denying that it is not part of the problem at the moment, closing the country off is almost certainly not the solution.