Italy and WHO accused of hiding the lack of an anti-pandemic plan

The country's protocol had not been updated since 2006

On March 9, 2020, Italy decreed the lockdown of the country to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which by then had already claimed the lives of half a hundred people and infected more than 9,000. Two days later, it closed all non-essential shops. The transalpine country became the first in the West to be hit by the virus and the mirror in which Spain, France or Germany looked at themselves to try to anticipate their moves. The disadvantage of being the first to suffer the ravages of the pandemic in Europe was the excuse used by the local authorities to justify the mistakes made during those first weeks. However, a report prepared by World Health Organization (WHO) experts to evaluate the Italian response to the pandemic found that the transalpine country did not have an updated anti-pandemic protocol, which would have allowed a rapid and coordinated response to the covid-19 onslaught. 

An unprecedented challenge: Italy's initial response to COVID-19 is the title of the analysis that a team of WHO experts in Italy led by Francesco Zambon began drafting in late March to assess Italy's response to the pandemic and develop a model that could be used to manage the health emergency in other countries. In the 102-page document, experts say that due to the lack of preparedness, the initial response to the pandemic in Italian hospitals was "improvised, chaotic and creative".

The document notes that the Italian anti-pandemic plan was dated in 2017, but that year, instead of updating it, authorities simply confirmed the plan that was in place and had been developed in 2006 to deal with the SARS epidemic emergency. The person responsible at the time was Ranieri Guerra, then Director-General for Health Prevention in the Ministry of Health; he was appointed WHO Assistant Director-General for Strategic Initiatives in the same year. Guerra is also a member of the group of experts who have been advising the government since the beginning of the crisis.

The report was published on 13 May on the WHO website and withdrawn just 24 hours later. According to Zambon, the WHO, along with the Italian Ministry of Health, pressured his team to censor the document. The Italian expert points directly to Guerra and WHO's regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, and says he was warned that his findings could damage the reputation of the agency and the government in Rome.

Alleged pressure

In several e-mails, revealed on an Italian public television programme, Guerra suggested to Zambon that the date of the anti-pandemic plan be changed. Later, however, the WHO's number two in Europe defended his work as the head of the general directorate for health prevention and accused the authors of the report of inaccuracies which, according to his statement, led the agency to withdraw the document from the official website. For its part the ministry said it was unaware of the report before publication and denied any interference.

The disputed document has been submitted as evidence by the relatives of victims of covid-19 to the Bergamo Prosecutor's Office, which is investigating the management of the pandemic by the authorities. "This report has opened a Pandora's box of bureaucratic and political negligence into which Italy has fallen", they denounce from the Noi Denunceremo platform (translated as "We Will Report"). The association filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of 500 families to demand 100 million euros in compensation from the authorities for the alleged mistakes made during the emergency in Italy, where more than 73,600 people have died from the coronavirus.

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