COVID-19 | A range of factors are at play behind Italy’s coronavirus disaster

From Italy’s relatively high age to its strained healthcare system to some old fashioned bad luck, experts list a range of factors.

March 21, 2020 10:15 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 06:44 am IST - Rome

A man being checked in Ostia, Italy.

A man being checked in Ostia, Italy.

Loads of people have been wondering why the beautiful Mediterranean country of Italy has become the new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts list a range of reasons — from Italy’s relatively high age to its strained healthcare system to some old fashioned bad luck — that add up to a disaster not seen in generations.

None of the answers alone explain why the nation of 60 million accounts for over a third of the nearly 11,500 deaths officially reported across the 7.7-billion strong world.

Median age

One of the first factors almost everyone who looks at the figures points to is Italians’ average age. It is high.

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The median age of the overall population was 45.4 last year — greater than anywhere else in Europe. It is also seven years higher than the median age in China and slightly above that of South Korea. Figures released on Friday showed the age of Italians dying of COVID-19 averaging out at 78.5. Almost 99% of them were also suffering from at least one pre-existing condition or ailment. Italy’s mortality rate among those infected with the virus is thus a relatively high 8.6%. Yet, Japan’s median age of 47.3 makes it an even older nation than Italy — and it has just 35 officially registered deaths. So age is clearly not the only factor.

Some scientists think that it could really have been almost any other country after China. “I think the question of ‘Why Italy?’ is the most important question and it has a simple answer: No reason at all,” Yascha Mounk of Johns Hopkins University told Canada’s CBC television. “The only thing that makes Italy different is that the first couple of (locally-transmitted) cases arrived in Italy about 10 days before they arrived in Germany, the United States or Canada.”

Also read: Your COVID-19 queries answered


The grim reality learned across Italy’s devastated north is that diseases start spreading much faster once the healthcare system reaches its saturation point.

Old and frail patients who are turned away are extremely contagious.

More testing needed

The world has suddenly realised that it does not have enough test kits to screen for COVID-19. Nations such as Italy dealt with this problem by only testing those who already exhibited symptoms such as a fever and a dry cough. South Korea had the kits and the means to conduct more than 10,000 tests a day. Germany followed a similar model and its death rate began to drop once even the mild COVID-19 infections began being counted. This partially explains both why Italy’s mortality rate is so high and why COVID-19 was contained faster in some other countries.

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