Latest figures show 6,077 people have died from the infection in
barely a month, making Italy the worst-affected country in the
world, with close to double the number of fatalities in China, where
the virus emerged last year.
However, testing for the disease has often been limited to people
seeking hospital care, meaning that thousands of cases have
certainly gone undetected.
"A ratio of one certified case out of every 10 is credible," Angelo
Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, told La
Repubblica newspaper, indicating he believed as many as 640,000
people could have been infected in the country.
He said the biggest difficulty facing Italy was a shortage of masks
and ventilators - a problem that has dogged the health system since
the contagion first surfaced in the wealthy northern region of
Lombardy on Feb. 21.
Italy is trying to import stocks from abroad, but Borrelli said
nations like India, Romania, Russia and Turkey had halted such
sales. "We are contacting the embassies, but I fear no more masks
will be arriving from abroad," he said.
The epidemic looks certain to leave Italy's already fragile economy
in tatters, with most businesses shuttered.
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The government wants a bailout fund for member states of the shared euro
currency to be deployed without restrictions - a demand that puts Rome at
loggerheads with richer northern nations.
Currently, the so-called European Stability Mechanism (ESM) can help euro zone
countries only on condition they adjust their economic policies to overcome the
problems that led them to seek financial assistance.
But Deputy Economy Minister Antonio Misiani told Reuters the coronavirus
emergency made such restrictions redundant.
"The only acceptable conditionality is that of using the ESM resources to manage
the health and economic emergency," he said, setting up a possible battle with
Brussels over how best to emerge from the crisis.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Giuseppe Fonte; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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