Coronavirus: Why is Italy the second worst affected country after China?

The country is in lockdown amid moves to contain the virus Credit: AP

As the number of coronavirus cases in Italy soars to more than 10,000, the country now has the largest number of cases outside of China - the epicentre of the outbreak.

Here's a look at why Italy has become the second worst affected country worldwide.

  • How bad is the situation in Italy?

People wearing masks on Milan's subway system amid the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: AP

The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy has passed 10,000 cases.

Schools have been closed, football matches cancelled and long queues formed at shops as people panic buy in an attempt to have enough supplies to stave off the virus.

The country's government has told people to remain at home in a bid to curb the virus - it's a massive culture change for usually social Italy, which millions of people in quarantine.

Experts have pointed to the lifestyle of Italians - a culture that enjoys the outdoors. Credit: AP
  • Coronavirus may have gone undetected in the country since late January

The first person to test positive in the north of Italy who had not been to China was confirmed to have coronavirus on February 21.

By that stage the 38-year-old man had already infected his wife and several doctors, nurses and patients at the hospital where he had attended with flu-like symptoms three days earlier.

Experts now think the virus may have been present and spreading in northern Italy since at least the second half of January.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

The Covid-19 virus broke out in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019. Credit: PA Graphics
  • Italy has a high population of older people

The high death rate in Italy has been attributed to the fact that the country has the world’s oldest population after Japan, according to Dr Giovanni Rezza, head of infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health.

Most of the death toll from Covid-19 have been individuals who are elderly and with previous health issues.

Professor Marina Della Giusta from the department of economics at the University of Reading said it is for that reason the death rate is higher than average.

She said: "The little we know so far of this virus is that it has much higher mortality rates for older people, at least that’s what the Chinese data suggests so far.

"Italy is the oldest country in Europe probably so that won’t be surprising.

"The demographic affected is way bigger than it would be in lots of other places."

Authorities have encouraged volunteers to help their elderly or vulnerable neighbours amid the lockdown. Credit: AP
  • The country has a sociable, outdoor culture

Prof Della Giusta also pointed to the lifestyle of Italians - a culture that enjoys the outdoors and is more tactile that some others.

She said: "The interpersonal physical space in Italy is a lot shorter than it is in the UK.

"Their habit is to kiss each other when you say hello.

"There is higher physical contact anyway around the Mediterranean between people and people are outdoors more at this time of year than they are in other parts of Europe, where it’s still a bit colder."

A woman in a face masks watches on as a couple kiss in Rome. Credit: AP
  • Movement between regions did not stop when schools were shut

Experts also point to the apparent failure of early intervention measures brought in by the Italian government.

Professor Della Giusta - who is originally from the Piedmont region in the north-west of the Italy - said many people did not take self-isolation measures very seriously when schools were first closed in northern regions a few weeks ago.

"When schools got shut in Lombardy a lot of people just took their kids and went off on holiday to their holiday homes in the mountains and at the seaside in the other regions.

"They thought they were making their kids safe by taking them away, but this kind of behaviour is really very damaging."

Red Cross personnel prepare for the transport of a coronavirus patient during a simulation, in Rome. Credit: AP
  • Will the latest, more extreme measures work?

Some experts have described the country-wide lockdown as not only unprecedented, but also unsustainable.

Professor John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said it will probably only have a short-term impact.

"If they can't be sustained for the long term, all they are likely to do is delay the epidemic for a while," he said.

But Prof Della Giusta said Italy's current measures are "excellent" and "entirely appropriate", adding that the government had reacted too slowly initially.

Soldiers and police in Italy have been enforcing travel bans - here a traveller arrives Rome's Termini train station. Credit: AP
  • Would a lockdown work for the UK?

As cases of coronavirus in the UK continue to rise, questions are being asked about the measures the Government could bring in to force.

England's deputy chief medical officer has said an Italy-style lockdown of the UK cannot be ruled out as the country braces for a "sharp rise" in cases.

Dr Jenny Harries said while a country-wide quarantine is not inevitable and not the "best measure" for the UK currently, "we shouldn’t rule anything out".

Professor Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia said a lockdown probably would not be appropriate here but that measures in this country are likely be stepped up as the disease progresses.

He said: "We are currently seeing a much more gradual increase in numbers and these are already distributed throughout the UK, unlike the situation in Italy where cases were concentrated in a single region.

"More rigorous social distancing measures are likely to be implemented in the UK over coming days or weeks as case numbers increase.

"But the timing of their introduction will be chosen to hopefully maximise the benefit whilst minimising the harm to British society."