COVID-19: Why was Italy the first badly affected Western country despite being half the world away from China?

Chinese tourists and business persons, elderly population, not maintaining social distancing, and the delay in imposing full lockdown — all these factors made Italy the first Western country to be badly affected by the COVID-19.
Bahauddin Foizee

When the CoronaVirus, and the deadly COVID-19 disease it causes, started to spread across China, and in particular Wuhan, the politicians, policymakers, analysts, researchers and public-at-large from outside China did not even for once thought that the disease would spread so quickly in so many places across the world.

But it did. Now all continents in the world except Antarctica are affected by it. The outbreak has — directly or indirectly — impacted entire global human population.

Italy’s people too perhaps did not predict that the CoronaVirus could reach their doorsteps from half the world away.

However, in a sharp contrast to their understanding, the CoronaVirus did reach Italy and the disease, COVID-19, took away many Italian lives and still continues to do so. Italy currently has the third largest number of confirmed virus cases, with the USA and Spain having the largest and the second largest numbers.

Why is Italy, despite being half the world away from China, has been so adversely affected by a virus that first started spreading in China?

There are four reasons: the Chinese who came to Italy for tourism and business purposes, a substantial number of elderly people within the population, people’s negligence in maintaining social distancing and taking the risk lightly, and government’s delay in imposing full lockdown.

CHINESE TOURISTS

Italy is a vibrant country where tourists come in huge numbers from across the world. The country’s food, culture and landscape make it an ideal destination for the tourists to get good value for what they spend.

Like tourists from other parts of the world, Chinese tourists too prefer Italy as a good tourist destination. Chinese tourists’ spending of €650 million in 2019 alone stands as testimony to this preference of destination.

In late winter (2019) when the tourist season started, a large number of tourists came to Italy from across the world including China. They had brought with them not only the money that Italian restaurants, fashion outlets and tourism-related-businesses wanted, but also the deadly virus that was already wrecking havoc in China, and in particular Wuhan.

CHINA-ITALY BUSINESS TIES

As China has a significant business tie with Italy, Chinese people visit Italy the year around. This means that the carrier of the virus were not only the tourists from China, but also those Chinese people who visited Italy for business or other commercial purposes.

It is worth noting that Italy has been increasingly leaning towards China-led initiatives in order to exploit economic opportunities. Italy became the first EU as well as G7 state to officially endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the recent times, the Italian leaders appear to have preferred extending even political ties with China, perhaps believing that such political ties could bring-about economic benefits.

NEGLIGENCE IN MAINTAINING SOCIAL DISTANCING

What made the situation worse was the some cultural and traditional habits of Italian people, including close proximity, random social dealings, frequent social gatherings, random hugs and kisses. Although these are certainly good habits in normal circumstances, these habits helped the virus to spread even faster in this unwarranted crisis.

SUBSTANTIAL NUMBER OF ELDERLY PEOPLE

Italy has the second highest elderly dependency ratio in the world, second only to Japan. For obvious reasons, the body functions of the elderly people decline with age and their organs start failing. This makes the elderly people the easy targets of a virus like the one that is wreaking havoc around the world. Indeed, the majority of the Italians whose lives were lost to the COVID-19 were above 70 years of age.


Bahauddin Foizee is a geopolitical, political and investment Threat/Risk Analyst and an international affairs columnist, with a major focus on overlapping Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific/Indian-Ocean mega-regions and Middle East. He also, infrequently, writes about other issues including climate crisis, social awareness, law and refugee crisis.