Italy Epidemic Follows China Ties, Although Origin Remains Mystery

March 24, 2020 Updated: March 26, 2020
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News Analysis

About every two minutes, someone in Italy dies because of the CCP virus, a pandemic of a SARS-like disease that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allowed to spread around the world by covering up the existence of the initial outbreak in China.

Italy has been the hardest-hit country after China, with more than 80,000 confirmed infections and more than 8,000 dead as of March 26. It’s still not exactly clear how the Italian outbreak started. The province at its epicenter, though, has especially intense business ties to China and the country as a whole has been criticized for getting too close to the “Red Dragon.”

Seed of the Epidemic

The first two cases of the virus in Italy were a couple from the central Chinese city of Wuhan—the epicenter of the infection. They arrived in Milan on Jan. 24 and for the next week traveled south to Rome, where they developed symptoms. Another case was an Italian man who tested positive after returning from China in late January.

None of these are believed to have caused an outbreak. For nearly two weeks, the number of confirmed cases stayed at three.

Then, on Feb. 18, a 38-year-old man showed up at a hospital in Codogno, a small town about 30 miles southeast of Milan. Two days prior, he was prescribed influenza medicine at the hospital, but his symptoms failed to improve, Italian paper La Repubblica reported. The man didn’t disclose any connection to China and no quarantine protocols were engaged.

One day later, he started to have breathing problems, and his wife recalled that he met a friend who returned from China several weeks before. A test was administered and came back positive. The difficult work of reconstructing the man’s activities over the prior few weeks began.

“He met more people in those days, between work and sport, than I did in six months,”  Giorgio Scanzi, the hospital’s chief physician, said.

The man’s pregnant wife and personal doctor became sick, and some of the hospital staff became ill.

The number of cases in the area started to climb. First by dozens, then by hundreds, then by thousands. As of March 25, nearly half of all the confirmed cases in Italy are concentrated in the Lombardy region around Milan. The province of Lodi, which covers Codogno and the surrounding towns, has more than eight infected per 1,000 residents—about eight times the national average.

But something wasn’t adding up. The sick man worked as a research and development manager for Unilever, a multinational food and hygiene corporation. The company has an extensive presence in China, including a research and development facility in Shanghai, but it isn’t clear whether the man could have come in contact with the virus even indirectly through Unilever operations. The company didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

His friend who had returned from China later tested negative. So where did the man contract the virus? There’s no clear answer. Italian authorities are now focused on the epidemic itself, rather than chasing the country’s “patient zero.”

China Ties

One thing is clear: If any place in Italy has close ties to China, it’s Lodi. The city with a population of about 230,000 did more than $2.6 billion worth of business with China in 2018, according to a local Chamber of Commerce (pdf). That’s more than $11 million a head—a rate nearly four times that of neighboring Milan.

Other hard-hit areas in Lombardy also have significant ties to China. Of all Italian provinces, Milan does the most business with China in absolute numbers—about $9.4 billion in 2018. The province has more than 6,000 virus cases.

Bergamo, the province with most confirmed cases (more than 7,000), has long had a twin relationship with Yanbian Prefecture, a Chinese autonomous region at the North Korean border. The prefecture even opened an office in the Italian province. Bergamo’s China trade reached nearly $1.6 billion in 2018.

Brescia, home of the firearms manufacturer Beretta, is doing more than $1 billion worth of business with China a year. It now has nearly 6,600 cases of the CCP virus.

Nationwide, the regions that do the most business with China are also the ones hit the most by the virus: Lombardy, which does more than $20 billion worth of business with China and has more than 32,000 cases; Emilia Romagna, with more than $6.2 billion and more than 10,000 cases; Veneto, with more than $6.4 billion and more than 6,400 cases; and Piemonte, with more than $4.6 billion and more than 6,000 cases.

But the correlation isn’t absolute. Campania, the most densely populated region in the country, has fewer than 1,200 cases. It also does quite a bit of business with China, some $2 billion a year.

The virus is expected to function better in colder weather. That may be a part of why the southern regions, including Campania, have seen fewer cases.

At the same time, the mere presence of Chinese immigrants doesn’t necessarily align with outbreak hot spots.

The central province of Prato has been known for its large Chinese community. Thousands of Chinese textile factories, often staffed by illegal immigrants, have sprouted in the recent decade or two, outcompeting long-established local businesses by importing cheap Chinese fabrics, breaking Italy’s tight labor laws, and sometimes dodging taxes.

But the province has had only 178 virus cases.

Belt and Road

The Italian government has in recent years boosted its ties to China, even as the European Union urged Italy in vain last year against joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, or One Belt, One Road). That’s Beijing’s infrastructure project to connect itself to Europe, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Oceania, Latin America, and Africa through a web of ports, roads, and railways.

The project has been criticized for steering developing countries into debt traps and for expanding the CCP’s military and political sphere of influence.

Italy saw in China a source of investment for its struggling economy, as well as a market for its products. But those prospects have been slow to materialize. In 2018, less than a quarter of a percent of all foreign direct investment in Italy came from China.

While the CCP has enjoyed the public relations effect of having one of the G-7 countries join the BRI, Italy hasn’t realized many benefits. The RWR Belt and Road Monitor, which tracks Chinese investments under the initiative, has spotted just one deal so far: Jetion Solar (China) Co. and Eni SpA are to invest about $2.2 billion into new solar projects.

Meanwhile, Italy continues to run massive trade deficits with China, including more than $200 billion in 2018 alone.

The virus now adds another perspective to the risk equation of China entanglements, according to Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedove, a member of the foreign affairs committee of Italy’s conservative Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party.

“Of course, the coronavirus opens a disturbing scenario,” he told The Epoch Times in a previous interview. “It tells us that interdependence from China can be a problem not only from an economic or industrial etc. point of view, but also from a national security, national health prophylaxis.”

Update: The report has been updated with March 26 figures on the spread of the CCP virus in Italy.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab