Monday 23 March 2020

Death in Lombardy

Last week 400 people died in Bergamo and 12 neighbouring towns, which is the place in the world worst afflicted by Coronavirus. 400 deaths is four times the number in the same week the previous year, according to the mayor’s office.

A fourfold increase in the mortality rate since last year is a hard and very alarming fact.

Of those 400 only 91 had tested positive for the virus. What does this mean? That only 91 had the virus, of whom most had other conditions too? Or that many of the others had the virus but hadn't been tested? The history does not relate but the latter sounds more likely to me.

If few tests are being carried out in Lombardy this would explain the very high mortality rate (expressed as the number of people who died with the virus divided by the number of people in whom the virus was detected.)

If many people who were already gravely ill die with (not by any means necessarily of) the virus this might mean that when the infection abates the overall death rate will become lower than at the same time in previous years, because many frail people would have died in March who would otherwise have died later in the year, but this does not help the huge pressure on hospitals in Lombardy now. Italian hospitals are overwhelmed and desperately ill patients are being turned away. 

Here is an account of what is happening. People in Bergamo are quoted expressing astonishment that other countries have not imposed lockdowns.

The man tasked with dealing with this crisis, while protecting his family and leading his community, is the Mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori.

He paused to speak to me in the central courtyard of one the cities magnificent public buildings.

He is handsome and dignified – and exhausted.

He imposed the lockdown and stands by it.

He told me he wants the world to see what has happened here and to learn from it.

They do not want to be guinea pigs of experience learned. But they accept that they are.

What he is in absolute incredulous exasperation about is the failure of countries, and he singles out Britain, for failing to use the time they have had to see what has happened in Bergamo and put in all the measures necessary to make sure it isn’t replicated again.

“I have two daughters, they are studying in England, one in Taunton in college and the other in Canterbury, she’s doing a Masters,” he told me.

“And when I saw what the English government was thinking about this problem, I decided to bring them back because I think that even if we are at the centre of the epidemic probably they are more secure here than in England, because I don’t understand why the government didn’t decide in time to protect their citizens.”

The vast majority of those dying here are in the high risk elderly group.
We bought one of the local papers and turned to the obituaries page. Usually it’s barely a page. Now the obituaries fill over 10 pages of single photograph portraits. And that is every day.

Many peopl
e are saying that old and sick people should be isolated and the rest of us carry on as normal. I had a lot of sympathy with this point of view but am now changing my mind. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Virginia says in his blog says many readers write to him this idea. He comments:

'Segregating old people, and letting others go about their regular business. Given how many older people now work (and vote), and how many employees in nursing homes are young, I’ve yet to see a good version of this plan, but if you favor it please do try to write one up. One of you suggested taking everyone over the age of 65 and encasing them in bubble wrap, or something.'

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