ROME: Italy on Friday recorded its highest one-day death toll yet from cases of the new coronavirus, according to official data. There were 250 deaths recorded over the past 24 hours, taking the total to 1,266, with 17,660 infections overall, a rise of 2,547 since Thursday evening.
As the World Health Organisation declared Europe to be the new epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, China flew 31 tonnes of medical supplies to Rome, along with battle-hardened experts from the region where the virus first took hold.
Italy’s health care system is straining under the outbreak and the country is on near-lockdown, with citizens ordered to stay at home except for travel to work and other necessities. All shops except food stores, pharmacies, newspaper stands and tobacconists have been closed.
The deputy head of the Chinese Red Cross, Yang Huichuan, who was heading the team of nine experts, said the supplies that arrived in Rome overnight included equipment for intensive care units.
The experts were also ready to provide Italian authorities with the latest version of the country’s control and prevention plan for the disease, Yang said at a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Chinese ambassador to Italy Li Junhua.
The experts had all served in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China, and were bringing the most relevant expertise to Italy, Li added.
Italy had sent aid to China when it was dealing with the worst of the epidemic, “so we are here to repay this aid that we got from Italy not long ago,” Yang said.
Di Maio earlier used the Chinese aid to criticise what many in Italy see as a lacklustre response from fellow member states of the European Union, who have refused to supply health equipment.
“There are the first 40 ventilators, there are the masks,” Di Maio said in a video posted on his Facebook page late on Thursday. “And that is what we call solidarity,” he said.
Europe “should help us and not put obstacles in our way,” he added.
In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was taking “all necessary steps to ensure an adequate supply of protective equipment across Europe.”
Germany and France last week notified the European Commission that they did not want to export safety equipment, such as masks. France has requisitioned all domestic stocks and production of face masks.
“It is not good when member states take unilateral action because it always causes a domino effect and that prevents the urgently needed equipment from reaching the patients, from reaching hospitals and the medical personnel,” von der Leyen said.
The European Commission chief said she had contacted France and Germany, and “they are willing to adapt their national measures as we requested,” though she gave no further details on that.
The commission was in close contact with protective equipment manufacturers and was working on ramping up production capacity rapidly, she said.
Italy gave a warmer welcome to a European Commission plan to relax strict budget deficit rules for countries hit by the coronavirus, after liquidity and bond-buying measures announced the previous day by the European Central Bank disappointed Rome and failed to reassure plunging stock markets.
Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said he was “satisfied” by the move, adding: “Now we must act in a coordinated way to contain the epidemic and support families, jobs and businesses.”
A Rome cardinal on Friday abruptly modified his decree closing churches in the Italian capital to contain coronavirus after Pope Francis criticised “drastic measures” by churchmen.
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis issued a new decree less than a day after his initial one, which was widely criticised by ordinary Catholics. Under the new decree, many of Rome’s churches will remain open.
Pope Francis expressed his displeasure with the move by the Italian authorities to close all Catholic houses of worship across Rome until April 3.
“Drastic measures are not always good,” the pontiff was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying in his introduction to mass.
He nevertheless urged the faithful to show “responsibility” and “cooperate with the appropriate authorities,” ANSA reported.