Italy is boosting its financial stimulus to assist its coronavirus-hit economy this week as the number of confirmed cases of the virus continues to rise, and hospitals in the worst-hit region are forced to turn to the private sector for help.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 2,041 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country and 52 deaths. Hospitals in the region of Lombardy — the epicenter of Italy's outbreak with 1254 cases of the virus, 38 deaths and where 10 towns remain under lockdown — are struggling to cope and have called on the private health sector to come to their aid.
Private hospitals in the region have been asked "lend" beds in their intensive care units to the public healthcare system, creating "mini-wards" for patients who have tested positive for Covid-19, newspaper La Repubblica reported Tuesday. One lead virologist in Milan described Lombardy's hospitals as being close to breaking point, in "severe crisis" and registering an "overload" of patients, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Meanwhile, Milan's Mayor Beppe Sala called on the Italian government, and Europe, for financial assistance. "Milan is a city that has always given, at this moment it must be in a position to ask," he said in the City Council Monday, the newspaper Il Giorno Milano reported.
The impact of the virus has felt the most in Italy's wealthiest regions of Lombardy and Veneto, where the financial hub of Milan and the tourism hotspot of Venice are located. Italy's lucrative tourism industry is expected to be particularly badly hit, with mass hotel cancellations reported and several countries, including the U.S., advising against travel to Italy.
On Sunday, Italy's Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri announced that 3.6 billion euros (around $4 billion) would be injected into the economy to help sectors such as tourism and the logistics and transport industry, which have been badly impacted by the virus.
The measures will include tax cuts, tax credits for companies that reported a 25% drop in revenues, and more money for Italy's healthcare system. The government is currently finalizing the measures which could be signed off by Italy's Council of Ministers by Friday.
The latest spending plan is in addition to the 900 million euros of support that was unveiled on Friday. Announcing the aid package, Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri tweeted that Italy "must face the emergency with determination, cohesion, and trust."
The leader of the opposition Lega Party, Matteo Salvini, has said that the 3.6 billion euros is not enough, likening it to giving "aspirin to people with bronchial pneumonia," Italian news agency ANSA reported. He argued that at least 50 billion euros was needed.
"Tourism is on its knees, the cancellations for Sardinia and July are already arriving," Salvini said Monday. "The problem does not only concern those 10 municipalities in Lombardy and Veneto, but is national". Hence the request not to "suspend taxes, but to cancel them."
There was some good economic news for Italy on Monday, however, with the first formal accounting of the national budget deficit for 2019 coming in below previous targets, at 1.6% of total GDP, well below the targeted 2.2% and the European Commission's permitted level of 3%.
Italy is now hoping for flexibility from the EU regarding its budget deficit target, given the coronavirus crisis and spending plans to help relieve businesses hit by the outbreak.
In the meantime, life is on hold for citizens in Italy's most impacted regions where around a dozen towns remain under quarantine and schools, sports arenas, churches, theaters and bars are closed. The quarantine measures are expected to be in place until at least March 8.
The global Catholic community was relieved Tuesday on word that the Pope had tested negative for coronavirus, Rome-based newspaper Il Messaggero reported Tuesday. Pope Francis had canceled a Lent spiritual retreat for the first time in his papacy because he was suffering from a cold, fueling speculation that the 83-year-old leader of the Catholic Church might have contracted the virus.