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Italy calls in retired doctors to help fight virus

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Rome (AFP)

Italy on Saturday began recruiting retired doctors as part of urgent efforts to bolster the healthcare system with 20,000 additional staff and fight the escalating viral epidemic.

The measure was one of several adopted by the government during an all-night cabinet meeting that came after the Mediterranean country reported 49 more deaths.

Friday's toll from the novel coronavirus was the highest of the two-week crisis and took Italy's fatalities total to 197 -- the biggest outside China itself.

The accelerating spread of the COVID-19 disease emptied Italian train stations and airports while turning usually thronging parts of Rome into a ghost town.

Many of the city's outdoor restaurants and cafes were either closed on Friday night or had free tables overseen by forlorn staff with little to do but chat.

The expansive street that runs from Rome's Colosseum along the Forum was deserted and the magnificent ruins stood in their natural splendour -- and without being swarmed by tourists -- on a sunny, warm Saturday morning.

The sharp drop in visitor numbers is wreaking havoc with the Italian tourism industry and contributing to fears that the anaemic economy is about to tip back into recession.

But the government's most immediate concern is that COVID-19 infections that had been largely contained to pockets of the richer north will start spreading into the poorer and less medically equipped south.

The World Health Organization concluded a mission to Italy on Friday by recommending the government keep "a strong focus on containment measures".

The government said its medical recruitment drive should help double the staff of hospitals' respiratory and infectious disease departments.

It should also increase the number of intensive care beds from 5,000 to 7,500 in the coming days.

The number of Italians receiving intensive care treatment for the COVID-19 disease reached 462 on Friday.

The total number of coronavirus infections grew to 4,636 on Friday.

The Mediterranean Sea island of Malta that sits just south of Sicily reported its first case on Saturday.

- Vatican worries -

The Vatican is also unrolling unprecedented health precautions designed to keep the tiny city state's 450 mostly elderly residents safe.

A first COVID-19 infection was recorded at one of its clinics on Thursday and the results were awaited on another person who was tested after appearing at a Vatican-organised event last month.

That conference was also attended by Microsoft President Brad Smith and European Parliament President David Sassoli.

The Vatican said all attendees were being notified about the test as a precaution.

The pope himself missed that conference because he has been out of action for more than a week with a cold.

The Vatican is expected to announce Saturday whether the 83-year-old pontiff will still deliver his Angelus Prayer from a window facing Saint Peter's Square on Sunday afternoon.

There has been media speculation that the pope might deliver the prayer by video link for the very first time.

The Vatican said on Thursday is was considering changes to the pope's schedule "to avoid the dissemination" of the new disease.

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