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Italians grumble over school closures as virus spreads

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Rome (AFP)

Some Italian schools managed to stay open through the darkest days of World War II.

But more than 8.5 million children and teens began missing classes Thursday because of the new coronavirus -- and neither Italians nor their ministers seem to agree on whether this is wise.

The World Health Organization's Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi called it "useless and harmful" because closing schools for 10 days is insufficient to stop a virus whose incubation period stretches for two weeks.

The government's own Scientific Technical Committee called the idea of closing shools to halt the spread of a disease that has killed 107 in Italy "devoid of scientific evidence".

And even Education Minister Lucia Azzolina said she hoped "the pupils will return to school as soon as possible".

Some lobbied against it because it forces working parents to stay home with their kids.

So why exactly is Italy shutting down its 58,000 schools and nurseries along with public and private universities until March 15?

Italian newspapers and commentators think the government's main fear is that a virus whose spread has been contained to pockets of the richer north will start appearing across the poorer and less developed south.

The Mediterranean country's health system is regionally organised and the south's hospitals may simply not be able to cope with a flood of contagious patients.

Italy already has first-hand experience of what that could mean: its very first cases stem from a single man who was hospitalised for pneumonia but not immediately diagnosed for the new viral strain.

He was isolated from the others only when it was too late.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte effectively admitted as much in a video he posted on Facebook after a day of chaotic government meetings and debates.

"In case of exponential growth (in the number of cases), not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation," Conte warned.

- 'Freedom taken hostage' -

Yet critics point out that closing schools seems like an unusual way to go about halting a disease that mostly kills the elderly and the infirm.

The government has repeatedly stressed that the overwhelming majority of the deaths were among people in their 80s and 90s and who were suffering from other disease.

And EU statistic show Italy with the oldest population in Europe by almost any count.

It has the lowest percentage of young people and the highest percentage of those over 65 -- 22.6 percent as of 2018 -- than any of the other 27 members in the EU bloc.

Just 67 people were born in Italy for every 100 deaths in 2018.

The WHO's Ricciardi said his primary concern was that the schools were not being closed long enough to make a meaningful impact.

The government is adopting a range of other measures altering Italians' everyday lives.

Football matches and other sporting events will be played behind closed doors for a month.

People are being advised not to greet each other with the customary pecks on both cheeks.

Cinema goers are being kept rows of seats apart and just about everyone is being advised to stay an arms-length away from others in a crowd.

"Freedom has been taken hostage," the La Repubblica newspaper grumbled in an editorial.

La Stampa praised Conte for having the "courage" to make an unpopular decision on schools -- "even if it is not a given that it is the right one".

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