Brussels – The European Commission announces a further 232 million euros (251 million dollars) to tackle the current coronavirus outbreak, after a surge in cases in Italy, while urging member states against rash responses without weighing up the scientific evidence.
Preparation “at all levels”
“With more than 2,600 lives lost already, there is no option but to prepare at all levels,” says EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic.
Measures such as border closures within Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone should only be based on risk assessments, scientific advice and proportionality, Lenarcic says.
EU member state experts are due to meet on Monday, and a team of WHO and EU experts are due in Italy on Tuesday.
Around half of the announced funding is to help the World Health Organization (WHO) improve preparedness and response work in countries with weak health systems. The bulk of the remaining funds will go towards scientific research, for example into vaccines.
Sweden will also give 40 million kronor (4 million dollars) to the WHO’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies, announced Peter Eriksson, minister for international development cooperation.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the support.
“The past few weeks have demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world, causing widespread fear and disruption,” Tedros said in a brief video feed from Geneva.
He noted that data from China “continued to show a decline in new cases, which shows that the strategy of containment is having an impact in China.”
Tedros however reiterated the WHO’s concern about “the rapid increase” in recent cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea.
Spread of Coronavirus in Italy
Italy on Monday reported five deaths and more than 200 coronavirus cases, amid growing anxiety about the spread of the virus in the heart of Europe.
Two virus clusters developed last week in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto. Infections have also been reported in the neighbouring regions of Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont.
Civil Protection Agency chief Angelo Borrelli reported 219 cases of contagion, including the five dead and three pre-existing Covid-19 patients in Rome, one of whom has recovered and has left the hospital.
The figures make Italy the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Europe, and the third in the world after China and South Korea.
All of the Italian deaths, including two announced on Monday, concerned people aged 68 and above, most of them with pre-existing health problems. A woman who died on Sunday, for example, was a cancer patient.
Borrelli said there were 167 cases in the Lombardy region, home to the city of Milan, 27 in the Veneto region around Venice, 18 in Emilia-Romagna and 4 in Piedmont.
In response to the crisis, the Italian government decided on Saturday to seal off 10 towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto identified as two separate virus clusters, isolating tens of thousands of people.
In addition, schools, museums and universities were closed in much of northern Italy. Venice’s famous Carnival was called off, and landmark monuments like Milan’s Duomo cathedral were shut.
Italy’s neighbouring countries worried
Concern was spreading to Italy’s neighbours.
Overnight, Austria briefly blocked incoming rail traffic from Italy after two suspected cases were detected on a Venice-Munich train. They tested negative for the novel coronavirus.
Italy’s government has proposed a meeting with health ministers from neighbouring countries, and insisted that closing national borders – essentially suspending Europe’s free-travel Schengen rules – was no solution.
Further afield, 40 Italians from Lombardy and Veneto were refused disembarkation from an Alitalia flight upon landing in Mauritius, and told they had to go under quarantine.
In a statement, Alitalia said it was arranging for their “immediate” return home, and added that the 40 had not reported any symptoms of the disease.
Meanwhile, Borrelli stressed that Italy was still safe for foreigners.
“We have recorded two clusters in our country, we intervened with extensive and tough measures and therefore we think that our country is safe and that you can come [here] with no problems,” he said.