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Explained: Why coronavirus presents special challenges for open-borders Europe

The outbreak in Italy is the biggest in the world outside of Asia, and has triggered widespread fears across Europe.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: February 25, 2020 1:26:58 pm
Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organisation (WHO) attends a news conference of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Covid-19 about its investigation of the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, China, February 24, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Thomas Peter)

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy had risen to 152 on Sunday, leaping several times since the three confirmed on Thursday.

More than 100 of the confirmed cases in Italy are in the northern Lombardy region bordering Switzerland. At least four people had died until Sunday, including a 77-year-old woman and a 78-year-old man. At least 26 patients were in intensive care in hospital, officials said.

The outbreak in Italy is the biggest in the world outside of Asia, and has triggered widespread fears across Europe. Austria stopped all trains to and from Italy after it was feared that two passengers on board a Eurocity train from Venice to Munich were possibly infected.

Italy has cancelled the famed Venice Carnival, besides football matches and theatre performances, and shut schools. The idea of a rapidly escalating threat got oxygen from coverage in newspapers and on TV, and commentary on social media, which suggested that leaders of Europe could be facing their greatest challenge since the migration crisis of five years ago.

Why is Italy facing this crisis?

University of Florida virologist Ilaria Capua said on state media that the high number of cases in the country was due to the government and health agencies “actively seeking them out”. Italy has tested more than 3,000 people for the novel coronavirus. Most of these individuals had had direct contact with infected individuals.

“It is likely that the more we look, the more we will find,” Capua was quoted as having said.

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Importantly though, the government also underlined that the infection had a low mortality rate, and that a much larger number of people had died as a result of seasonal flu in the country this year. Health experts have said that all those who have died after being infected by the novel coronavirus were elderly, and two of them were seriously ill even otherwise.

What is the fear in Europe?

The 2015 migration crisis unleashed powerful political forces in the European Union, and changed the landscape of politics in a number of member countries while exposing some key institutional weaknesses.

Should the coronavirus infection spread across the continent, it will severely test the fundamental principle of open borders that is the foundation of the European idea, and can also put great strain on the much vaunted public health systems of European countries.

Mindful of this potential situation, Italy has responded aggressively to the threat, locking down more than 50,000 people in 10 towns and cities in Lombardy, and enacting emergency measures throughout the country.

Residents of locked down areas are prohibited to move out without permission. Police and armed forces personnel wearing face masks have been deployed on monitoring duty at the entrances to the affected towns and cities.

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A top European official was quoted as saying that the EU was in constant contact with the authorities in Italy; the French Health Minister, Olivier Veran, said on Sunday that his country was closely watching the “problematic situation” in Italy.

The EU’s health security committee was meeting on Monday to discuss the situation in Italy and Europe, and a team of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were supposed to visit Italy.

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