President Donald Trump’s “decisive actions have bought us time” on the coronavirus outbreak, but “it is important to recognize that we must use that time to think through the health threat in every component and react accordingly,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
“There are some significant lessons from Italy for Americans who want to get through this pandemic with minimum loss of life and economic damage,” Gingrich wrote for Newsweek on March 13.
Gingrich said he is currently residing in Italy, where his 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,” Gingrich wrote.
Trump “was right to cut off travel from China as soon as it was clear how big the pandemic was going to be,” Gingrich wrote. “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.”
Italy, Gingrich noted, “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.”
Gingrich continued: “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.”
At the time his column was published, Gingrich noted some of the steps the Italian government had taken:
- 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
“These steps are not an overreaction,” Gingrich wrote. “The coronavirus is out of control 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.”
Gingrich continued: “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.”
Trump “was exactly right to ban travel from Europe,” Gingrich added. “In fact, he was following the advice of his best medical experts.”
Gingrich continued: “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 under-prepared.”