Coronavirus — Global Brief: What Italy's (Awful) Numbers Tell Us

Coronavirus — Global Brief: What Italy's (Awful) Numbers Tell Us

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to deliver as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.


Two months into the crisis, social distancing and strict lockdowns have emerged as the only weapons in the war against COVID-19. Governments are now looking hopefully to countries like China and South Korea where a mix of tough isolation measures and mass testing have curbed the spread. Still amid extended shutdowns to daily activity, and multibillion-dollar bailouts to provide immediate relief, national leaders know they're edging closer to a lasting economic meltdown that could pose an equally real threat to people's wellbeing.

And so far, the middle-road has mostly been abandoned. Britain and the Netherlands were the latest European countries to drop the herd-immunity approach and impose lockdowns. Among the last holdouts is Sweden, where elementary schools, offices and even restaurants remain open. While some suggest that Sweden's low-regulation, high-trust model might be the way to save both lives and the economy, Swedish epidemiologists are worried, saying we know too little about the virus to experiment as Europe's coronavirus outlier. But public health authorities said in a press conference, as emergency care patients reached 180 on Thursday, that there were no ongoing discussions about lockdowns, and that "Sweden has better preconditions than Italy, and we've had the time to build up our emergency capacity."

Meanwhile, while leaders in the rest of the world scramble for a viable exit strategy, we should expect more open-ended lockdown extensions. But some experts suggest that even the strictest social-distancing measures will only bring temporary respite, as shown in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where we see reports of a sudden uptick in new cases. If cases are bound to surge again once public life picks up, it would leave the only option of continuing lockdowns until a vaccine is developed. By that time, however, the only uncertainty on the economic front would be whether the recession becomes a depression.

Carl-Johan Karlsson


Portada de La Repubblica (Italy)

WHAT THE AWFUL NUMBERS IN ITALY TELL THE REST OF US: Earlier this week, there was a glimmer of hope. After overtaking China for the country with the most coronavirus deaths overall, the number of daily fatalities in Italy decreased for several days in a row. But then on Thursday, they shot back up: 712 in the previous 24 hours, followed by Friday's all-time high of 969. There are of course many crucial questions about resources available, as well as the choices that public officials and medical teams are taking, but other countries now being hit by the outbreak are also looking to Italy to try to see if where their own respective crises might be going:

  • Where's the peak? Top Italian health official Silvio Brusaferro, quoted in La Repubblica, says that between March 19 and March 20, the number of new cases seemed to begin to slow down. "But we have not reached the peak, we have not passed it. We have signals, that the (lockdown) measures are having an effect, that we're getting closer." Still the spike in deaths at the end of the week shows that nobody should underestimate either the lethality or relentlessness of the virus.

  • It's a local thing: The majority of the cases and deaths have been concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy around Milan, with 4,861 of Italy's 8,215 fatalities. The challenge is not only to slow new cases in this region, but to be sure others don't reach similar levels. Indeed, the neighboring region of Piedmont is seeing a multiplication of extreme cases and record rise in deaths. Piedmont Governor Alberto Cirio, quoted in La Stampa, made a plea to authorities in Rome for more equipment: "We are arriving at a level of full saturation in our intensive care units." Meanwhile, far to the south, in the region of Campania where Naples is located, there were a record 145 new cases on Thursday. The challenge is containment, the fear are new clusters.

  • Elsewhere: In Spain and France and the United States, three similarly-equipped countries where the full COVID-19 onset arrived two to three weeks later, the respective death counts (769, 365, 345) are following a similar trajectory as Italy's. In other words, simply in terms of numbers, there are many countries that should get used to counting deaths in the thousands.

SOCIAL DISTANCING & CULTURE I: In the Ivory Coast, where most aspects of life are carried out in public spaces and sharing is the norm, many now have to choose between the norms of a subsistence livelihood or the government's orders when it comes to protecting oneself against the spread of coronavirus, reports Le Monde. Francis Akindès, a sociologist and professor at the University of Bouaké, notes that "in Africa, distancing yourself from others is a luxury." In the country of 25 million, 46% of the population lives below the poverty line and many are living day-to-day, without the choice of whether or not to continue work. Financially and culturally, isolating oneself or withdrawing from society is not only considered unacceptable, it is virtually impossible.

SOCIAL DISTANCING & CULTURE II: While social distancing seems to have been easily adopted in certain parts of India, like Mumbai and Maharashtra, where management has taken to drawing circles on the ground for customers to stand in to curb the spread of coronavirus, it is also shining light on another kind of social distancing that Indians have been plagued with for over two millennia, as reported by the Delhi-based news site The Wire. India's caste system, which holds deep religious, cultural and historical significance in their society, was formed based on the Brahmanic idea of different castes, or hierarchical groups, detaching or distancing themselves from the rest of the population. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, author of the essay Castes in India, writes that caste has the "virtue of self-duplication…inherent in it." Thus the Indian government's orders for a nationwide quarantine this week to stem the spread of coronavirus, calling for the physical separation among people, doesn't sound so unfamiliar.

BRAZILIAN GANGS IMPOSE CURFEWS: With President Jair Bolsonaro downplaying the threat of COVID-19, leave it to Brazil"s gang leaders to become the unexpected voice of reason in the fight to contain the spread. Brazilian daily O Globo reports that in several of Rio de Janeiro's lowest-income favelas, drug traffickers and gang members have been imposing strict curfews. Gang members in the coastal city took it upon themselves to address the 40,000 residents with loudspeakers about the new 8:30 p.m. curfew they would be imposing. As they say: Whatever means necessary.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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