ROME: Italy vowed on Wednesday (Mar 11) to spend up to 25 billion euros (US$28 billion) to fight a coronavirus epidemic that has already killed 827 people and put the country’s hospitals and economy under intense strain.
Analysts noted that the size of Rome’s rescue was the same as one the European Union announced for the entire 27-nation bloc on Monday.
“It shows that Italy alone is supposed to make as much effort as the EU as a whole,” Allianz chief economist Ludovic Subran said.
Italy’s Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said half the money would be used immediately and the other half stowed away and tapped should the health crisis spiral out of control.
The announcement came as Italians grappled with a nationwide clampdown on public gathering that has emptied streets and shuttered everything from churches to restaurants.
AFP photographers spotted masked sanitation workers in white nylon suits and rubber gloves spraying Florence’s empty Saint Mark’s Square with disinfectant through a long hose.
“I can’t even recognise Rome now,” 30-year-old Muscovite Yekaterina said while posing alone for a photo by the usually bustling Trevi Fountain in the heart of Rome.
Anything still open across Italy must close every evening by 6.00pm. Cathedrals posted hand-written signs cancelling mass and cafes apologised to their regulars for having to turn them away.
Part of the government’s cash injection is meant to help small businesses that are suffering the brunt of an implosion in the number of tourists who visit Italy’s art-filled churches and achingly beautiful hills.
“With economic activity liable to fall more deeply and broadly in the near term, we mist provide stronger support,” Gualtieri wrote in a letter to EU officials who must still approve Rome’s spending boost.
The government also put more meat on the bones of an emerging plan to let families temporarily suspend some mortgage and social tax payments.
Gualtieri said “partial state guarantees” were being discussed to help Italy’s creaking banks survive a resulting cash crunch.
Italy has witnessed nearly 60 per cent of the deaths recorded outside China since the epidemic first started spreading from the Asian giant’s central Wuhan province in January.
The government responded to the outbreak last month by quarantining 50,000 people in 11 villages that were worst affected in the north.
READ: COVID-19: All of Italy to be placed under lockdown, says PM
That was followed on Sunday with social distancing measures in Milan’s Lombardy region and surrounding areas in which more than 15 million live and 40 percent of the nation’s economic activity occurs.
The Lombardy measures were extended to all of the Mediterranean country’s 60 million people on Tuesday morning.
The restrictions have had a profound effect on the way Italians live and work.
The central streets of Rome were deserted on Wednesday evening and buses that are usually crammed with commuters ran almost empty.
Tourists have essentially disappeared and the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Square has closed to all but those who want to enter the basilica to pray under its soaring dome overlooking Rome.
People have been told to keep at least a metre from each other and handshakes are frowned upon. Italians have found themselves starting to talk to each other a few steps apart – while often laughing about the regulations along the way.
Florence’s Uffizi Gallery reported hundreds of thousands of views a few hours after posting a virtual welcome to its now-shuttered permanent collection online.
“As soon as the emergency has passed, we will organise a free carbonara day for doctors, nurses and healthcare workers,” a closing note by a restaurant in Rome’s popular Trastevere neighbourhood said.
But Lombardy region leader Attilio Fontana urged the government in Rome to close all stores and public transport for 15 days across the north because “the situation is approaching a dangerous moment”.
He said only essential services such as garbage collection should continue during the total clampdown on public life.