By Giuseppe Fonte and Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Italy approved 25 billion euros ($28 billion) of spending measures on Monday to help the fragile economy survive the onslaught of coronavirus as the death toll in Europe’s worst-affected country jumped above 2,000.
The decree throws a financial lifeline to families and firms who face hardship after the government last week ordered a draconian lockdown on the entire country to stem the contagion.
“This is a weighty economic package. We never thought we could face this flood with mops and buckets,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a news conference.
Underscoring the challenge confronting Italy, the Civil Protection agency said the death toll had jumped 349 in the last 24 hours to 2,158, a rise of 19%.
However, offering a ray of possible hope, the number of new cases increased just 13% to 27,980 – the slowest rate of growth since the contagion first came to light on Feb. 21.
“Let’s hope it is the start of a trend reversal. I am saying it in a whisper, this could be the start of a trend reversal,” said Attilio Fontana, the governor of the wealthy northern Lombardy region which has been by the hardest hit in Italy.
Local authorities in one of the worst-affected cities, Bergamo, were struggling to deal with the surging number of fatalities. Hearses entered the local cemetery through the day, while the local crematorium was operating around the clock.
The hospital and cemetery morgues were full, meaning coffins were now being laid out in a city church.
“In the All Saints Church there aren’t any more pews, just coffins,” Giacomo Angeloni, in charge of Bergamo’s graveyards, told Reuters. “The situation is dramatic … (but) we are trying to maintain decorum.”
In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, the government has closed restaurants, sporting events and most shops across the country and told Italians to stay at home.
Looking to prevent people from heading to the island of Sicily, which accounts for less than 1% of the total number of national virus cases, the local government severed almost all travel links with the mainland.
“We cannot joke around with the coronavirus,” said regional chief Nello Musumeci.
Analysts say the crisis will plunge Italy into its fourth recession in just 12 years and batter company balance sheets. The Milan bourse lost a further 6% on Monday, meaning it has now fallen 40% in barely three weeks.
The government said it would freeze any attempts by companies to sack staff from Feb. 23 and it increased funds to help firms pay workers temporarily idled due to the lockdown.
Monday’s decree also suspended loan and mortgage repayments and offered state guarantees for banks. It extended parental leave and offered funds to families to pay for babysitters, with schools closed until April 3.
The government also prepared to re-nationalize the perennially troubled airline Alitalia, according to a draft decree seen by Reuters.
“We can speak about an Italian model not only due to our strategy to curb contagion, but we can also start to talk about it regarding our political and economic strategy to tackle this great political and social emergency,” the prime minister said.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante in Rome and Elisa Anzolin in Milan, Editing by William Maclean)