How COVID-19 threatens Italy’s traditional social model

Why the country remains the hardest hit in Europe

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The Coronavirus, popularly known as COVID-19 is one of the few pandemics recorded in human history and with the current reality, the world just may witness one of the biggest disasters in its history. With a population of over 7 billion, most of which live in cities and towns, the casualty rate might be large compared to the Black Death (1331-1353), where 75 million perished and Cholera (1817-1824).

But the much more developed and sophisticated health systems today could serve as defense mechanism to the disease. Just like the threat of SARS and Ebola were overcome, COVID-19 might as well follow suit.

Historically, social problems like wars, famines, pestilences and diseases have, apart from the human and material losses, triggered a social change in affected communities and charted a new way of life for the people.

Long held traditions, customs and values have been lost to new ways of life forced on the people due to the inevitable need for behavioural change in order to check the spread of diseases or adapt to post-war social and economic realities.

For instance, the inhabitants of Hiroshima/Nagasaki in particular and Japan in general, have had to adapt to the post-war realities after the bombing of the cities. As a result, the cities and the country developed new values and measures which make Japan one of the world economic powerhouses.

The Ibos of Nigeria, who were as docile as other ethnic groups in Nigeria, suddenly picked up from the spoils of the Civil War to become one of the most progressive and industrious nations in Africa.

All these are as a result of the inevitable reality of social change, triggered by social problems like diseases and the likes. And for those who see the COVID-19 on the negative side, they need to know that the country and the world indeed, might recover from the plague, better and stronger. Health systems could be improved in backward countries, diplomacy between countries could be strengthened, behavioural change could occur in hitherto lethargic people and economies could bounce back

The worst affected country outside mainland China (where the virus originated) is Italy, a European nation which has a unique social model. With the highest number of Coronavirus cases in Europe and world’s second highest; the disease is fast spreading and threatening to alter the traditional family way of life. And considering the way social problems have altered the traditional way of life of a people in the past, Italy might just lose it cherished family traditions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urges governments to do more as virus infects more than 184,000 people and has killed at least 7,500 worldwide, and the virus has claimed 1,809 Italians, almost all above the age of 60.

Meanwhile, according to the latest Al-Jazeera report, “Italy reported 345 new coronavirus deaths in the country over the last 24 hours taking its total death toll to 2,503 – an increase of 16 percent.”

“The total number of cases in Italy rose to 31,506 from a previous 27,980, up 12.6 percent – the slowest rate of increase since the contagion came to light on February 21. Italy is the European country hardest hit by coronavirus”.

But why is Italy in particular, the hardest hit country in Europe? Well, you might think they had a poor health system or perhaps more Italians lived in China and when they returned home, came with the virus. But it is none of this and can be explained in the very Italian social structure.

According to Matt Simon, in his article titled:  ‘Why the Coronavirus hit Italy so hard’, “Italy has been hit particularly hard, with some 2,000 deaths thus far. Overwhelmed hospital staffers have had to make devastating decisions about who to treat and who they must let perish. The reason why Italy is suffering so badly, write University of Oxford researchers in a new paper in the journal Demographic Science, may be twofold: The country has the second-oldest population on earth, and its young tend to mingle more often with the elderly, like their grandparents. Such demographic research will be critical in facing down the threat elsewhere, as more countries grapple with a deadly pandemic that’s just getting started and we learn more about how the virus is transmitted within families and communities”.

He revealed that, “In Italy, 23 percent of the population is over age 65, compared to the US, where that population is 16 percent. “Extended longevity has played some role in changing the population structure,” says University of Oxford demographer and epidemiologist Jennifer Beam Dowd, lead author of the new paper. “But it actually has most to do with how rapid the decline in fertility has been in a population.” That is, it’s affected more by Italians having fewer children than it is by them living longer. At the same time, young Italians tend to interact a lot with their elders.” Dowd’s Italian co-authors note that young folks might live with their parents and grandparents in rural areas but commute to work in cities like Milan. Data on the composition of Italian households bears out this familial arrangement too…the study’s authors argue that this frequent travel between cities and family homes may have exacerbated the ‘silent’ spread of the novel coronavirus. Young people working and socializing in urban areas interact with large crowds, where they may pick up the disease and take it home. If they have no symptoms, they’ll have no clue that they’re infecting their elders, the most vulnerable population”.

Simon also revealed the physical resilience of the young over the old in withstanding the disease.

“We know now that the mortality is higher in older individuals, but what’s not clear yet is why”, says Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine at Grady Health System, who wasn’t involved in this research. For example, it could be a matter of older people having weaker respiratory systems, which could also lead to a higher mortality rate among seniors for diseases like pneumonia.Other researchers studying why children don’t seem to get that sick from Covid-19 have pointed out the corollary: Kids tend to have ‘pristine’ lungs that have not already been damaged by a lifetime of inflammation caused by allergies, pollutants, and diseases. This might make them more resistant to attack by the new virus”, he stated.

Also, according to Financial Times, in its article ‘Coronavirus hits Italy’s Social Model hard’, “emergency measures isolating elderly are affecting traditionally tight-knit families”.

It added that, “around 23 per cent of Italy’s population is aged over 65, the largest proportion in the EU. More than 4m Italians are aged 80 and over. As of Friday 35 per cent of those who have died from coronavirus in Italy were aged between 70 and 79, and 43 per cent were aged 80-89, according to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the technical-scientific arm of the country’s national health service”.

Therefore, the Coronavirus might alter the traditional ‘family-oriented social model’ according to Financial Times.

“The coronavirus is not only claiming many lives among Italy’s large elderly population, it is also challenging the country’s family-orientated social model. So-called social distancing between generations poses a particularly acute problem in a society where it is not only common for grandparents to live close to their children and grandchildren, but also to live with them in the same house”, the Financial Times disclosed

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