The progression of the epidemic
Italy was the first European country to be affected by the epidemic. By February 23, 100 cases of infection had been identified in the peninsula: the spread then accelerated at an exponential rate. The symbolic threshold of 1 000 cases was crossed on February 29 and on March 10, more than 10 000 people were infected by the virus in Italy. The death toll followed an equally dramatic curve: between February 29 and March 15, the number of deaths linked to the virus rose from 30 to 1 800. On Tuesday, April 28th 2020, Italy recorded almost 200 000 cases of infection and 27 000 deaths, the highest death rate of all European countries at that date.
As with the figures from other countries, these official figures should be viewed with caution as they depend largely on the number of tests performed. On April 10, the Italian government's Special Commissioner for Coronavirus, Domenico Arcuri, announced that just under one million tests had been carried out in Italy since the start of the pandemic, and that 2.5 million tests would be distributed in the peninsula the following week. According to OECD figures, as of April 26, Italy was carrying out 29.7 tests per 1,000 people, more than Germany (25.1), while the number of tests being carried out in France was still uncertain. The proactive stance of Italy with regards to testing can be explained by the success of the strategy adopted by the Veneto region in the north of the country, which used mass testing to curb the rate of infection.
According to a study by the Instituto Cattaneo from April 1 2020, the effects of the crisis on mortality in Italy could be much higher than the government's figures seem to indicate. Comparing Italy's mortality over the period from February 21 to March 21 compared to previous years, the study reveals an excess mortality of 8 740 people, while the number of people whose death is officially linked to the virus over this period is 4 825. At a time when every state is counting its human losses, only this comparative analysis of excess mortality will make it possible to determine the true human toll of the crisis.
The industrial North particularly affected
When analysing the figures for infection and death in Italy, the very wide disparities between regions should be taken into account. With 73 000 cases of contamination and 13 400 deaths - almost half of all the deaths in Italy - Lombardy is by far the main victim of this crisis. By way of comparison, Emilia-Romagna, the second most-affected region, has "only" had 25 000 cases of infection and 3 400 deaths, with Sicily having 3 000 cases of infection and 230 deaths.
The fact that many Italians residing in the north left for the southern regions upon the announcement of the quarantine of the "red zone" did not result in a spread of the virus, which could have had dramatic consequences in the Mezzogiorno. The people who returned to their regions of origin were aware that they had come from strongly-affected regions and that the fragile health care system in the southern regions would not be able to cope with a dramatic increase of cases. They adopted social distancing measures that were essential for controlling the epidemic - thus complying with the appropriate communication campaigns developed by the southern regions.
The rapid spread of the virus in Italy remains a subject of discussion. If, in the popular imagination, the "game zero" in Milan on February 19th between the Valencia and Bergamo soccer teams acted as a "biological bomb" by accelerating the spread of the virus, experts now agree that the virus had already been circulating in Lombardy since January. The particularly high population density in Lombardy’s cities, the high incidence of social contact - higher in Italy than in other European states - and the European and international dimension of these regions largely contributed to accelerating the spread.