Italy seeks emergency funds, coronavirus cases rise in Spain

Rome/Madrid, Mar 11 (efe-epa).- Italy is looking to earmark 25 billion euros ($28 billion) to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus that has seen the whole country placed on lockdown as cases surge above 10,000, in the worst global cluster outside China.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government has asked the European Union to extend the country’s budget deficit allowance by 0.8 percent, to 3.3 percent GDP, in order to free up the “extraordinary sum.”

Italy’s shaky economy is strictly monitored by Brussels but Conte’s latest announcement, coupled with last week’s decision to make 7.5 billion euros available, will require flexibility from the EU as its hardest-hit member state takes drastic measures to suffocate the spread of the virus.

In a statement, the Italian government said the emergency funds would be allocated to the healthcare system, the civil protection department and businesses and families affected by the infectious disease.

“Considering the previous request, the programmatic target of net debt may increase up to 20 billion euros, corresponding to approximately 1.1 percentage points of gross domestic product (GDP),” the statement said.

Italy’s financial capital Milan is located in the Lombardy region, the first to go into full lockdown last week, but the number of cases has continued to increase.

The outbreak has killed 631 people so far in the country, while 1,004 people have recovered from the virus.

Conte said that the extra funds would not be spent “immediately” and that part of the figure would be set aside for any future interventions. Roberto Gualtieri, the economy minister, said the extent of the dent to the deficit would not be known until the final expenditure was tallied.

Covid-19 cases were also on the rise in Spain, where officials in several regions deemed to be hotspots have closed down schools, urged people to work from home and banned public gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

Fernando Simon, the head of Spain’s emergency health department, said in his daily press briefing Wednesday morning that the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had risen by 363 to 2,002 in the last 24 hours.

A total of 47 people have died from the virus, the majority in the Madrid region, where 1,204 cases and 31 deaths have been registered, while some 136 have recovered. Most fatalities in Madrid were older people who had underlying health problems.

The expert in epidemiology warned that there was a delay period in confirming the nation’s exact figures given that diagnosis can take between four and five days.

Any patterns derived from the figures should therefore be treated with caution, he said.

He pointed to Italy as an example, where peaks and troughs in new coronavirus cases were observed at the beginning of the outbreak before numbers shot up to be the second-highest in the world.

Simon said there were no plans so far to place the Madrid region under de facto quarantine.

Classes for all ages have been suspended for at least two weeks in Madrid and the northern region of La Rioja, another hotspot in the outbreak. There were also preventative measures in place in the Basque city of Vitoria, which is experiencing a localized outbreak, and in a municipality in Castile and Leon.

Many of the cases in La Rioja, the Basque region and Castile and Leon can be traced back to one funeral. Along with Madrid, these regions account for 78 percent of coronavirus cases in Spain.

“The rest of the regions should not let their guards down,” Simon said. “In fact they should do the opposite.”

The Fallas festival in Valencia was one of the first major cultural events to be shelved in a bid to stem the transmission of Covid-19. The celebration, which features on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage lists, draws in thousands of revellers every year. Spain’s LaLiga on Tuesday announced that the next two rounds of fixtures would be played behind closed doors in line with measures to limit public gatherings.

Some clubs, such as second-tier Real Oviedo, have asked for the games to be postponed rather than played without fans.

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