Italy's prime minister has called for calm as the coronavirus spreads to other parts of the country, while lockdowns, closures and "fake news" provokes panic among the public.
As of Wednesday midday, there were 374 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 12 deaths. Italian media said that Lombardy had reported its first cases among minors, with four children infected with the virus.
Infections are now being seen beyond the original epicenter in the north, with cases now confirmed in Tuscany, Le Marche, Emilia Romagna, Alto Adige, Piedmont, Liguria, Lazio and Sicily, far south of the capital in Rome. The virus has spread rapidly; there were only three known cases last Friday morning. They have now tripled over the last two days, rising to 374 confirmed diagnoses from 124 on Monday, according to Italy's Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization.
Eleven towns in the most heavily-affected northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto remain under lockdown with schools, universities, businesses and many public venues closed. The outbreak has prompted further tensions in Italy's fragile coalition government, and arguments between Rome and authorities in Lombardy.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for calm and less sensationalist reporting on Tuesday.
"It's time to turn down the tone, we need to stop panic," he said, according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The paper added that he had asked the chief executive of public broadcaster Rai to tone down its reporting of the virus.
He also sought to reassure the public who are worried about school closures and food running out, after panic buying led to empty supermarket shelves in some towns.
"Panic is a completely unjustified reaction that compromises the overall efficiency of the system and triggers regrettable speculations on the prices of some products," Conte told the Corriere della Sera newspaper Tuesday.
"The food supply will be ensured with appropriate measures especially in the 'cluster' areas. Calm is brought back through punctual and transparent communication," he said.
The virus has affected all aspects of Italian cultural life, from the early shutdown of the Venice Carnival to the closure of churches. On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that it was shutting all the catacombs open to the public for the time being, as the humidity and limited space in the underground burial sites favored the spread of the virus.
Tensions are running high; the price of face masks and sanitizing hand gels has skyrocketed and the government is so worried about misinformation that Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio is reportedly preparing an international plan to combat "fake news" about the outbreak in Italy. "There are too many fake news out there," Di Maio said in the Council of Ministers Tuesday.
As the virus spreads in Italy, neighboring countries have become nervous — as well as those further afield — with many advising against travel to the country, and businesses and organizations (and even the European Commission) suspending trips to the affected regions. On Wednesday, Conte said it would be unacceptable if other countries imposed travel restrictions on Italians.
There are fears that Italy's already fragile economy — the third-largest in the euro zone — could tip into recession due to the shutdown of businesses, which has had the greatest impact so far on Italy's wealthiest northern regions and around the commercial and touristic hotspots of Milan and Venice.
Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said that Italy's economic situation "is good" and that the country had "all the resources to face the needs of the country and also those to face the emergency of the virus."
Even so, it was suggested Tuesday that the EU could give Italy some leeway over its budget commitments to help mitigate the economic impact of the crisis.
The World Health Organization has sent a mission to Italy and said Tuesday that the country had taken "pretty strong" measures. But the chief of the organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the sudden rise in cases of the new coronavirus in Italy, Iran and South Korea was "deeply concerning" on Wednesday.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza and European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, met in Rome Wednesday to discuss the outbreak. Speaking at a news conference webcast by Italy's Health Ministry, Kyriakides said the EU was in the "containment phase" but said that it was crucial for public health-care systems in the region to be prepared to deal with more infections, given how quickly the situation can change.
"This is a situation of concern, but we must not give in to panic," she said. "We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation as well as xenophobic statements which are misleading citizens and putting into question the works of public authority," she said.
The fact that the authorities have still not found "patient zero," the first carrier of the virus in the country, is a problem, however. The outbreak has caused tension between the government in Rome and regional authorities, particularly in the north, and especially after Conte suggested that an unnamed hospital had not followed the correct procedure to deal with the outbreak.
Marco Protopapa, an economist at JPMorgan, said in a note Tuesday that "there are major questions marks about why Italy is the only western country where the virus is spreading despite the major precautionary that had been previously taken."
"A possibility seems that the virus spread from a hospitalised patient who was initially treated for other conditions without the application of the safety protocol for the virus. In general, though, this is the first instance among Western countries where the containment measures have not been effective, and it suggests that the virus may end up spreading elsewhere despite authorities' best efforts," he said.
With the virus taking hold in countries outside China, and most acutely in South Korea, Iran and Italy, the World Health Organization has said the world should do more to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic.
That warning was echoed by a top U.S. health official Tuesday; Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told reporters that "it's not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of when this will happen."