The coronavirus pandemic is slowing in Italy, where the government is under pressure to lift containment measures and revive an idle economy.
More than 13,000 people have died according to official figures, and despite a slowdown in contagion the government has extended, "at least" until mid-April, confinement which paralyzes the economy.
Poverty is increasing and mass unemployment is threatening. Experts have warned that the third-largest economy in the eurozone would experience its worst recession in decades (-6% in 2020) if the containment lasted until May.
"It is horrible to have to choose between putting the economy on standby or endangering the lives of many people," observes the American expert Paul Romer, quoted on Wednesday by the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The government needs a "credible plan to end containment very quickly, while ensuring the safety of employees even if the virus is still present," added the co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics.
The employers estimate that each additional week of blockage beyond the end of May would lead to a further reduction in GDP by 0.75 point.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told opposition leaders on Wednesday: "We need to plan for a return to normalcy, and this must be done gradually to allow everyone to return to work in safety". But no plan has yet been announced.
- "Large scale" -
For his Minister of Finance Roberto Gualtieri, the recession forecasts are "realistic", but he warns against any precipitous restart: "The more rigorous and efficient we are in the fight against the epidemic, the sooner we will be able to restart."
His ministry plans economic support measures worth 500 billion euros, he said in an interview.
According to official figures, more than 110,000 people have been infected in Italy, but experts believe that there could actually be between 700,000 and 6 million cases, up to 10% of the population.
This could mean that a large number of people have had the virus without showing symptoms and could return to work.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (center left) pleads for large-scale tests and the end of confinement. "We're going to have to live with the Covid-19 for months, maybe years. Those who tell you something else are lying. We can't stay locked up in our house, we have to find a way to get out safely and work in respecting the rules. "
Paul Romer argues for "a policy of intelligent isolation, which means that people are tested several times, every two weeks". Those who are negative can work, the others remain in isolation.
"You have to test on a large scale for at least two years," he said. "In the wars of the past, countries have mobilized the means of production to produce new equipment. They must do it again. All European countries are rich and developed enough to do so."
- "Simple equation" -
Italy has blood tests capable of quickly identifying who has the virus and who has antibodies, but they are still in the experimental phase, according to Guido Marinoni, leader of a doctors' union in the region of Bergamo (north ), one of the most affected in the country.
Such tests could provide important data on "the population's temporary immunity to the virus," he said.
According to the Italian virologist Roberto Burioni, the tests reveal the antibodies about 14 days after infection, but "we do not yet know the extent of the defenses provided by these antibodies".
Once the epidemic slows down, a few people still infected "are enough to launch a new wave and we return to square one," warns Guido Marinoni. "The concern is that as the situation begins to improve, we repeat the mistakes made at the start of the epidemic."
The virus in Italy has so far concentrated on the rich north, while the poorer south has been relatively spared. If the coronavirus were to contaminate the south, where the health system is less efficient, the situation could be even more catastrophic.
Holger Schmieding, chief economist at the Berenberg Institute, told AFP that prolonged confinement would do less damage than a relapse: "The equation is fairly simple. Italy must reduce the spread of the virus to one bearable pace for the health system, which is not the case at the moment. "
© 2020 AFP