Letter from Italy: new year under Covid shadow

As in many other countries, things are not going well in Italy

During the summer, when the incidence of new Covid cases fell to a few hundred a day, there was a widespread feeling that the pandemic was over; that the strong vaccination campaign covering 85% of the targeted population had succeeded in building up herd immunity; and that life could get back to normal

But from mid-Oct, cases starting rising once again

From a trough of 1,500 new cases a day in mid-Oct, there has been an ever accelerating increase of cases

Just before Christmas, on Dec 23, new cases totaled nearly 45,000

This was the highest number ever! At this stage most cases were still the Delta variant

But the Omicron was rapidly taking over

From a few isolated cases a few months ago, Omicron accounted for 30-40% of new cases, many of them among younger people

The government has been issuing new restrictions on wearing of masks, access to bars and restaurants, use of public transport, and workers in public services and private enterprises

The pre-Christmas acceleration led to other restrictions such as compulsory face mask in shopping areas in big cities, and cancellation of public celebrations on New Year such as firework displays and concerts

There were also strong suggestions to do a Covid test before participating in family events

Still, 2022 has started badly

New cases on Jan 1 were at 141,000, with one in every eight people tested being found to be positive — a tripling of cases in just over a week

But despite these alarming numbers, there is feeling among the public that things are not so bad

The numbers of infected people with serious symptoms remain low and deaths are 100-200 per day — well below the peak of 700-900 during the different waves in 2020 and 2021

Moreover, the bulk of serious cases were among those not vaccinated

There was also a consensus among mainstream scientists that although the level of immunity provided by vaccines went down after some months, a booster jab would ensure immunity against both Delta and Omicron

So, can we look forward to a better 2022? On the positive side, Italians are increasingly getting their booster shots; the greater restrictions on the unvaccinated are making gradual inroads into the ranks of the vaccine sceptics; and the health services so far seem to be coping

Also there is basic political and social consensus around key government actions

The ‘State of Emergency’ was once again extended, until March 2022; the new budget law was passed by parliament; and a comprehensive set of reforms agreed as part of the EU-funded recovery plan are slowly being legislated and implemented

But uncertainty looms on many fronts

On the medical side, there is uncertainty about how the pandemic will play

Big questions include: when, and at what level, will the rate of new infections taper off (on Jan 2, over 20% of those being tested were positive)? How will Covid infections interact with the flu virus that will start having an impact in the coming months as winter sets in? And, will other Covid variants emerge — a highly likely event given the low rate of vaccination in many countries? On the economic front uncertainties range from global trends related to energy prices and supply bottleneck, to local problems such a possible impact of the increasing numbers of sick people on essential public services such as those related to education, health, law & order and public transport, as well as the supply of labour to private and public enterprises

And then there are political uncertainties

The current PM is a ‘technician’, a former central banker, not belonging to any political party

He enjoys wide public support and a high level of credibility internationally, and is tolerated by the parliament and political parties despite an imperious style

Unfortunately, it appears that he also has aspirations to be President — which is a largely ceremonial role but has increased in importance in recent years

It is a seven-year appointment and hence attractive to the current PM as it would keep him active, employed and in the limelight

However, if he is elected President, the political parties may not be able to agree on his replacement which could plunge the country into a period of uncertainty and turmoil

Hopefully the Italians with their peculiar genius for creativity and compromise will navigate the turbulent time ahead

Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2022

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Date:07-Jan-2022 Reference:View Original Link