Coronavirus: It’s like ‘you are at war’ says Italian doctor on the frontline of the Covid-19 outbreak

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A doctor on the frontlines of Italy’s coronavirus crisis has described how the country’s health system has been overwhelmed, in a matter of weeks, by the wave of patients stricken with the disease.

Italy has become the country in Europe worst affected by the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, known as Covid-19, which has spread across the globe from China’s Hubei province since the close of 2019.

In response to the soaring death toll from the disease — the number of dead in Italy rose by over 30 per cent to a total of 827 in 24 hours on Wednesday — the country has introduced the most severe public restrictions in Europe since World War Two.

For health workers stretched to breaking point by the disease, comparisons to 1945 are not unreasonable. “You are at war,” a doctor from a hospital in Lombardy, the region that has become ground zero for Italy’s public health emergency, told The National on condition of anonymity.

Even colleagues have started to become casualties.“The patients are too many to contain,” she said. “We are facing serious difficulties with logistics and personnel. Now even the staff, doctors and nurses are starting to get infected and sick.”

A woman crosses a nearly empty Duomo square in downtown Milan, Italy. AP Photo

An empty tramway runs in Milan as Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in a desperate bid to halt the spread of a coronavirus. AFP

A view of a deserted street in downtown Milan. AP Photo

A man sits in downtown Milan. AP Photo

A poster reading "Coronavirus, let's stop it together" is pictured on Piazza Gae Aulenti in Milan. AFP

People go about Piazza Gae Aulenti in Milan. AFP

Diaz square is deserted and shops are closed in Milan. EPA

Shops are closed during the coronavirus emergency lockdown in Milan. EPA

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is nearly deserted with shops closed during the coronavirus emergency lockdown in Milan. EPA

A deserted Via del Quirinale in early Thursday morning in Rome. EPA

A deserted Campo de Fiori market during the coronavirus emergency lockdown. EPA

A pigeon ambles next to the iconic Fontana di Trevi in Rome. EPA

A view of the deserted Spanish Steps and Piazza Spagna in Rome. EPA

A man pushes a pram as he walks along the Foro Traiano Roman ruins in Rome. AFP

Residents walk their dog in Rome's Prati district. AFP

Corso Vittorio Emanuele is deserted during the Coronavirus emergency lockdown. EPA

A general view shows a deserted Porta Nuova district in Milan. AFP

A resident waits in line to buy bread at a bakery in Rome's Monteverde Vecchio district. AFP

A pharmacist approaches the entrance gate of the drugstore during the national coronavirus emergency lockdown, in Genoa. EPA

A person wearing a face mask walks in downtown past closed shops in Genoa. EPA


The first cases of coronavirus in Italy were confirmed in Rome at the end of January but the first cluster emerged in Lodi province in the country’s northern Lombardy region in mid-February. From that point on, the doctor described, hospitals in Milan and its surroundings were braced for an escalating crisis.

Now, the hospitals are unrecognisable as resources dwindle and healthcare centres across the area become almost wholly devoted to treating the disease.

The number of reported cases in Italy has increased to 12,462, an increase of 2,313 in 24 hours and the biggest daily spike since the start of the outbreak. On Tuesday the number of infections in Lombardy had risen to 5,791, including 446 in intensive care.

At the doctor’s hospital on the periphery of Milan, the intensive care ward has had to double in size, surgeries have been cancelled as theatres become dedicated to the most acute cases and respirators needed to treat advanced cases are in perilously short supply.

In stark illustration of the impact of the disease, a makeshift morgue has had to be set up in unused rooms to accommodate the overflow of the dead.

Hard decisions have to be made without the necessary resources.

“It is extremely frustrating because we could have saved much more lives. But like when you are at war, unfortunately, you have to give priority to whoever has a greater chance of living, surviving,” the doctor said.

“Basically, [this means] younger people and those who are free from other health conditions or only minor conditions. Between a 40-year-old and a 50-year-old we will end up saving the younger person. I am torn because everybody deserves to live,” she added.

In the hospitals across Lombardy and beyond, doctors are working in days-long shifts to keep up with the crisis.

“I do face the day like any other day. Like always I put my soul at peace,” the doctor, one of those pressed into frontline service from an unrelated speciality, explained.

A member of the Istanbul's Municipality disinfects the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in Istanbul. AFP

Employees of the Istanbul Municipality disinfects a train of metro to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Istanbul, Turkey. EPA

Health personnel wait to check the temperature of passengers at Tunis-Carthage Airport in the Tunisian capital Tunis. AFP

A health personnel monitors a thermal scanner as passengers arrive at Tunis-Carthage Airport in the Tunisian capital Tunis. AFP

People crowed at a supermarket as they begin to stock up on provisions, in Beirut, Lebanon. AP

A Palestinian municipality worker disinfects the enclosures at Rafah Zoo in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP

A Palestinian municipality worker disinfects the chairs at Rafah Zoo in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP

A combination picture shows Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims gathering near Imam Ali shrine ahead of the holy Shi'ite ritual of Arbaeen in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq. Reuters

A combination picture shows worshippers attending a prayer at the Imam Ali shrine in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, Iraq August 23, 2019 (top), and Shi'ite Muslims at Imam Ali Shrine while it is almost empty. Reuters

A Syrian refugee student takes part in a washing hands activity as part of an awareness campaign about coronavirus initiated by OXFAM and UNICEF at Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Reuters

Syrian refugee students take part in a washing hands activity during an awareness campaign about coronavirus initiated by OXFAM and UNICEF at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Reuters

People queue in front of a bakery in Kuwait City . AFP


“There is no time during the day where you can stop and think that you might get infected. Then, of course, there are moments of fear. You can cry, my colleagues cry, they don't sleep. But at work you must be active,” she said.

Italy has found itself weeks ahead of its European neighbours in terms of the size and scale of its coronavirus emergency, which experts say has not yet peaked there.

In response to the growing crisis, Italy’s Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte has ordered the closure of bars, hairdressers and restaurants along with other previously imposed restrictions.

“The numbers tell us that we are having a large growth in people in intensive care and, unfortunately, the deceased,” Mr Conte said.

Italians who do travel can only do so with a valid reason and face fines or jail time if they are found moving without one.

In nations neighbouring Italy, governments are also scrambling to respond to their own coronavirus crises. In France, 2,281 cases of Covid-19 have been recorded. On Wednesday authorities in Paris banned gatherings of over 1,000 with some exceptions.

In Germany, gatherings of the same size have also been banned with Chancellor Angela Merkel issuing a stark warning that two in three Germans may become infected.

The doctor in Lombardy urges caution to those in countries preparing for the virus to escalate. “Behave like this virus has already arrived. It will be silent but when it comes, you won't even know that it is there,” she said.

“These are the drastic measures that we need to take and nobody likes them but there are vital. Social Isolation has shown in history that it is the only way to stop pandemics,” she added.

Updated: March 12, 2020 08:04 PM

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