Italy’s Health Care is in Triage, as the EU Sits on Its Hands
It was the last weekend of February when Dario Leone realized matters had taken a turn for the worse.
“I was at my village bar when government ordered all schools closed, along with almost every social place, such as pubs, theaters, and gyms,” recalled Leone, 35. “The government and the political parties have worked hard to protect the population, but there were still many people who insist on going to happy hours and on holidays, even after everything that’s happened. Some still don’t believe coronavirus is real!”
Leone is an aviation, defense, and military writer, as well as the founder and editor of The Aviation Geek Club, a widely read military aviation blog. A resident of the small village of Langosco, located approximately 50 kilometers from Milan in northern Italy, Leone has been in the eye of the coronavirus storm that threatens to ravage his country.
Since that last weekend in February, millions of Italians, including Leone, have been locked down, an experience that’s just beginning here in the United States. He spoke to the author from his home. According to the most recent statistics, there are 63,927 coronavirus cases in Italy, and a death toll of 6,607.
To some, Italy’s coronavirus nightmare may seem surprising. After all, it has everything a good democratic socialist in America would want, including universal health care. In fact, prior to the outbreak, Italy was judged by at least one study to possess the world’s second-best health care system.
“It’s called ‘sanità pubblica,’ meaning that the health care system is provided entirely through taxation,” said Leone. “There are also private doctors and clinics that people typically use for urgent care, which must be paid for out of pocket.”
But Italy has also endured more than its share of economic crises in recent times and the health care system has been a casualty. “Now hospitals don’t have all the facilities needed to recover people affected by coronavirus and other diseases,” Leone explained. “But even if the health care system wasn’t at 100 percent, the population was close to it, right? After all, Italy had one of the healthiest, longest-living people in the world, before the virus hit.”
“Generally, the population was in good health prior to the outbreak,” he said. “This time of year was the period of bad colds, so coronavirus was the worst thing that could have happened right now.” He added, “the government before the coronavirus was pushing married couples for having more children, since the economic crisis has reduced the number of newborn babies.”
What was most troubling about Leone’s story was the extent to which Italy’s experience in the early stages of the crisis resembled what’s playing out in the U.S. now, a seeming portent of what’s to come.
“Unfortunately, there are still people who don’t stay home,” lamented Leone. “I went to the store before I spoke with you, but I didn’t want to. There were too many people. They continue to go to stores and empty the shelves as if we’re short of goods, but we’re not.” Apparently, panic-buying isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, serving as both a source of comfort and distress.
On Saturday, March 21, Italy struck what can only be hoped is the high-water mark—a staggering 793 dead with 6,557 new confirmed cases in one day. I asked Leone just how badly the stress on the system had become.
He put on an optimistic front, though the news was obviously grim: “Doctors and nurses are working around the clock, seven days a week, but since things have really took a turn for the worse, especially in northern Italy, they are struggling to take care of all the people affected by COVID-19.”
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing they can do until the number of affected people decrease,” Leone added. “Doctors and nurses are not resting except if they are found to suffer from coronavirus themselves. In that case, they have to stay in quarantine. Additional emergency hospitals are now being built by the Italian military and retired doctors are now being recalled to help treat patients.”
“So yes, it’s overwhelmed,” he continued. “They are trying to afford the crisis anyway by expanding the number of places to hospitalize affected people, as I’ve just explained. But basically, if you don’t feel fine, you still can’t go to the hospital. Even if you don’t have coronavirus, you still can’t go to the hospital. They have no resources left for anyone. So if you must go under surgery, now you can’t.”
It’s a lot to take in. In three and a half weeks, Italy’s public health has been completely upended, and nearly a month into lockdown, there isn’t a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Leone noted that the southern part of Italy hasn’t been as badly affected, but it still could be, which would mean more casualties in the coming months.
With respect to Lombardia, I asked how much time was left before hospitals could no longer handle the workload. He didn’t know, except to say the numbers of infected keep going up.
“Luckily, people who completely recover are growing too,” he mentioned. It’s a silver lining—a record 943 recoveries were reported the same day that deaths reached a new high. Furthermore, the Italian military is currently building a hospital capable of hosting 250 emergency patients near Bergamo, the most badly affected city.
Italy is facing this challenge largely alone. Besides the U.S., China, Cuba, and Russia, no other country has sent aid to Italy. Though understandable given the magnitude of the crisis each country faces, particularly glaring is the lack of aid provided by Italy’s European neighbors, like France and Germany, and the EU. It’s led more than one observer to ask: what good is supranationalism when it can’t be counted on when it matters most?
Leone, however, wasn’t cynical. “Initially panic and fear spread out in Europe,” he said. “The truth is all countries have had to focus on their own people first, just as Italy.”
With America in the early stages of its own coronavirus lockdown, I asked Leone if there were any thoughts he’d like to share with the American people, any lessons to impart from Italy’s experience.
“Don’t take coronavirus lightly,” was his blunt reply. “It’s not just a ‘bad cold,’ as someone in every country says. You start to understand it when someone close to you gets affected and risks death.” As the saying goes, it’s not about what you know, but who you know.
“Americans should stay at home and go out only for serious reasons such as health problems,” he continued. “If you stay locked down at the very beginning of the crisis, you will overcome it faster because less people will be affected. That’s what Italy did not do, and we are paying for it now.”
Whether the odds are in America’s favor or not remains to be seen. For now, Dario Leone can only think of his American friends and hope his pleas don’t fall upon deaf ears.
“I wish the best to the U.S. and I pray for every one of you,” he said.
Dario Leone is an aviation, military, and defense writer based in Italy. He founded and edits The Aviation Geek Club, a globally popular military aviation blog he launched in 2016.
Edward Chang is a defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Aviation Geek Club, The Federalist, The National Interest, and Spectator USA. Follow him on Twitter @Edward_Chang_8.