Newt Gingrich: I Am in Italy Amid the Coronavirus Crisis. America Must Act Now—And Act Big | Opinion

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic poses two threats: public health and economic.

I am living in Italy, where my wife, Callista, is the ambassador to the Holy See.

I have watched first-hand as the Italian government has worked hard to contain the coronavirus by imposing strong public health measures to try to get the epidemic under control. These measures will lead to significant economic challenges.

As I write:

  • All schools are closed in all of Italy.
  • All churches are closed (including St. Peter's Basilica).
  • All weddings and funerals are postponed.
  • All restaurants are closed.
  • In fact, all stores except grocery stores and pharmacies are closed.
  • People are urged to work from home unless they work in special designated factories

The streets are almost empty.

These steps are not an overreaction. The coronavirus is out of control of in Northern Italy. As of 6 p.m. local/1 p.m. EST on March 10, there were 15,113 total cases in Italy, with 12,839 active cases, 1,016 deaths and 1,258 recoveries. And there were 162 total cases here in Rome.

The hardest-hit region around Milan has had to improvise as its health system has been deeply stressed by the sheer number of patients. In Milan and Brescia, field hospitals have been set up in the fairgrounds as the local hospitals have been drowned in patients.

Because the demand for respirators and intensive care has been beyond any previous planning, doctors have been forced into the kind of triage thinking developed for intense battlefield casualty situations. There are reports that emergency room doctors are allotting respirators to those with higher life expectancy due to the limited equipment in the hardest hit areas of the province. If you are older or have other illnesses, you may simply not be eligible for treatment.

The impact of restricting travel is clear and continuing. The No. 2 airports in Milan and Rome are being closed. The main airports in Italy's two largest cities have radically decreased flights—and many of them are almost empty.

Yesterday, 158 passengers arrived in Rome on direct flights from the United States. Italy depends for 14 percent of its total economy on tourism. Last year, Rome attracted 15.2 million tourists. The Colosseum alone attracted an average of 21,000 tourists a day. Now, the Colosseum is closed.

There are some significant lessons from Italy for Americans who want to get through this pandemic with minimum loss of life and economic damage.

President Donald Trump was right to cut off travel from China as soon as it was clear how big the pandemic was going to be. He saved American lives and bought time for America to be more prepared as the pandemic developed.

When you realize that the current 1,016 deaths in Italy with a population of 60 million would be the equivalent of 5,400 deaths in the United States instead of the 41 deaths we have had so far, you can see what milder, slower and less aggressive responses might have cost in lives. Then we would have needed to move to truly draconian measures of isolation and shutdowns.

By the same standard, Trump was exactly right to ban travel from Europe. In fact, he was following the advice of his best medical experts.

As ABC News reported:

"Dr. Anthony Fauci, the widely-respected director the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, appeared before the House Oversight Committee for a second day of questioning Thursday and backed President Trump's travel ban from much of Europe.

"'The real risk in general right now, and this is why the president took the action he did last night, within the world now over 70 percent of the new cases are linked to Europe,' Redfield said. 'Europe is the new China, and that's why the president made those statements.'"

ABC continued:

"California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez raises Trump's various travel restrictions, asking if the European travel ban will have a significant impact on reducing the spread of community cases, Fauci said, 'A firm yes.'

"'Because if you look at the numbers, it's very clear that 70 percent of new infections in world are coming from that region, from Europe,' Fauci said. 'Of the 35 or more states that have infections, 30 of them now, most recently, have gotten them from a travel-related case from that region.'

"'It was pretty compelling that we needed to turn off the source from that region,' Fauci said."

While these have been the right steps, and while the Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Pence has been making progress, there are some big things that need to be done on both the public health and the economic fronts.

Faced with a pandemic threat, history teaches us it is far better to be over prepared than underprepared.

As I indicated earlier, if America begins to have the Italian scale of deaths, we would be losing 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 Americans. If it really got out of control, the rates could go higher.

Italy has a unique vulnerability to coronavirus, because it has the second oldest-aged population in the world (only Japan has older citizens on average). This virus especially hits the elderly, and in Italy the average age of death is 81. The tragic experience of the Washington state nursing home simply reinforced the sense of vulnerability of older people.

However, America has a uniquely vulnerable population, too. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. If the coronavirus ever began spreading among those folks, who already suffer from malnutrition and other health problems, the losses could be catastrophic.

While Trump's decisive actions have bought us time, it is important to recognize that we must use that time to think through the health threat in every component and react accordingly.

Rome Coronavirus
Via della Conciliazione with the St.Peters Basilica is seen completely empty on March 13 in Rome. Marco Di Lauro/Getty

We should be planning for a worst-case pandemic and using the kind of intensity of implementation which served us so well in World War II. Getting enough ventilators, masks, intensive care units, treatment medications and aggressive community-wide testing are the minimum steps to saving lives and stopping the pandemic.

The Pence-led Coronavirus Task Force has begun to pull things together, but it should have a planning group that creates a worst-case projection and then devises the steps necessary to smother the pandemic and minimize its impact.

At the same time, we are solving the public health crisis we also must solve the economic challenge.

Italy has a worrisome economic problem, because it was already sliding into a recession and the necessary steps to isolate the disease will also crush the economy. There is a real danger that the Italian banks will fail and will pull the European banks down with them.

As Trump and the Congress consider what we must do to keep America growing and prosperous, they have to recognize that we may need to grow strongly enough to help pull Europe out of a deep recession by this fall. We can't just think about what is happening economically in the United States. A collapsing Europe would have huge impact on the entire world economy, including America.

We do not need a "stimulus" package or a "recovery" package. We need an economic growth package that stimulates and invests in the kind of development that grows a bigger, better, more productive, more competitive American economy for the future.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated, the Congress has to stay in session until it passes the program necessary to both defeat the pandemic and regrow the American economy.

The lesson of Italy is that the sooner you act, the fewer lives you will lose and the less damage you will do to your economy.

Trump's address this week was a good start, but we have a lot to do before these two challenges are met.

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The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.