By Giselda Vagnoni
ROME (Reuters) – Many Italian companies and academics are urging the government to reopen factories to prevent economic catastrophe, because the world is witnessing how the first Western country to adopt a lockout could escape from unprecedented action.
The same debate is being held all over the world: how long and strict is the ban to combat the coronavirus pandemic held before irreparable damage occurs, with businesses drowning and plots of unemployed residents?
Italy faces one of the most pressing dilemmas, not only because its lock has lasted longer than most countries and it has the highest mortality rate in the world, but because the hardest coronaviruses have hit at the heart of the northern industry which produces a third of its output economy.
“How can I pay wages if I don’t make money? How can I retain American clients if I’m not in a position to honor contracts?” said Giulia Svegliado, CEO of Celenit, a producer of industrial insulation panels with 50 employees in the northern city of Padua.
Around 150 Italian academics have published letters in the Italian financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore, which is owned by the Italian business lobby Confindustria, urging the government to unblock the economy.
“Social and economic consequences will risk producing irreversible damage, perhaps more serious than those caused by the virus itself,” the letter said.
More than two weeks after the government ordered the closure of unimportant factories, Italian businesses called for the ban to be lifted immediately to avoid job losses.
Rome imposed a national closure on March 9 when the new virus, which emerged in China, killed more than 460 people. Two weeks later, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that non-essential businesses, including the production of cars, clothing and furniture, had to be closed until April 3.
The death toll has risen relentlessly and now stands at more than 16,500. The government extended the restrictions last week to April 13 and is widely expected to extend them again, for the next three weeks.
But the smallest daily increase in COVID-19 deaths for nearly two weeks on Saturday, and the first decline in the number of patients in intensive care, has given hope that the epidemic may have peaked in Italy and focused attention on the next phase of the crisis.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Most businesses appreciate the need for locking to maintain public health. After all, if the ban is lifted before the spread of the virus is overcome, people may not have the confidence to leave their homes and engage in trade.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday urged countries not to lift restrictions before their time.
“One of the most important parts is not letting go of action too early so it doesn’t fall again,” said spokeswoman Christian Lindmeier. “It’s like being sick yourself if you wake up too early and run too fast you risk falling back and experiencing complications.”
What worries many people in Italy, and elsewhere, is the lack of authoritative plans on how to safely take steps, because governments wrestle with unexpected, invisible and unknown enemies and scientific guidance develops every week.
Companies in the eurozone’s third-largest economy are pushing the government to come up with a strategy to gradually exit lockouts.
“I hope the government sets strict rules on security and then gives us the possibility to get back to work,” said Stefano Ruaro, founder of Sertech Elettronica, producer of electro-mechanical, electronic and software components in Vicenza.
So far, officials have said that work restrictions might be lifted on a sector-by-sector basis rather than a geographical basis. Social distance, wider use of personal protection devices such as face masks and a strengthened local health system have also been discussed.
Testing and “contact tracing” will be expanded, including by the use of smartphone applications and other forms of digital technology, following South Korea’s play guidelines.
‘DAMAGES THAT ARE NOT CONTINUED’
Vicenza and Padua are part of Veneto, one of the areas hardest hit by Italy along with Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. The high factory density and strong economic ties with China have been suggested as possible reasons behind the epidemic there.
“We say this very loudly to the authorities: ‘Hurry up’,” said Cesare Mastroianni, vice president of Absolute, manufacturer of the luxury cruise ship Piacenza, Emilia Romagna. “Shutdown has done countless damage.”
Unions have threatened to strike unless the government has reduced non-core activities. Protecting health from wealth, they say – and while many companies are pushing the government for plans to reopen factories, they will not risk their staff.
“I am full of orders but I cannot reopen as long as there is a risk that employees may get sick. I will reopen when the responsible bodies decide it can be done,” said Gaetano Bergami, founder of BMC, an air producer. filter for the motorcycle and automotive industry with 100 employees.
With Italy’s gross domestic product expected to fall 6% this year according to Confindustria estimates, public debt has jumped to 150% of GDP and thousands of people are asking for state-supported revenue support schemes, growing pressure on Conte to come up with detailed blueprints for recovery.
“We can’t wait for everything to pass. If we stay closed people will starve,” former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of Italy’s central ruling party Viva, told the bishop’s newspaper L’Avvenire.
Authorities in northern Italy have begun testing health workers for antibodies that can help identify individuals with immunity to the corona virus. The aim is to enable authorities to issue “licenses” for individuals with proven immunity to the virus from returning to work.
Franco Locatelli, head of the Italian High Health Council, said reliable antibody tests to find out who had contracted the corona virus, and possibly had developed immunity, would provide a better picture of the level of the Italian epidemic.
However, it might take another month before the health authorities can issue recommendations on national testing plans, Locatelli said.
Some industrialists said they would be happy to spend their own money testing employees if it would help accelerate the reopening of their activities gradually.
Roberta Mantovani, chairman of Mantovanibenne, a manufacturer of excavator pails in Mirandola, in the Emilia Romagna region, said that he supports employers to ensure that staff are inspected.
He is not alone.
“I would love to pay the bill,” said CEO Celenit Svegliado. “Instead of contracting the corona virus at work, the real risk is being pushed out of the market.”
(Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by John Chalmers and Pravin Char)
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