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What Australia Can Learn From Italy's Coronavirus Crisis

An Italian-Australian health policy expert is begging Aussies to sacrifice temporary happiness for the greater good, pointing to his home country's escalating coronavirus crisis as a warning.

Italy has become the new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. More than 7500 deaths have been recorded in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 database -- more than double the number in China's Hubei province.

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Italy is also just days from overtaking China as the country with the most cases -- with nearly 75,000 cases among its 60 million population, compared to 82,000 in China. Terrifying scenes of overwhelmed hospital intensive care units have emerged, especially in Italy's north, as citizens remain in strict lockdown to mitigate the virus spread.

A patient treated by doctors in Rome on March 21. Image: Getty

Dr Francesco Paolucci is a professor of health economics and policy at both Australia's University of Newcastle and the University of Bologna in Italy. A citizen of both countries, Paolucci was in Italy as the coronavirus crisis began. He said Australians should look overseas to see why the outbreak should be taken seriously -- and prepare for a potentially uncomfortable period.

"People must be prepared to give up temporarily -- and that's very important, temporarily -- some of our freedoms," he told 10 daily.

"That's the cost to not suffer more heavy costs, more deaths, more loss of jobs and more. We need to sacrifice this, not only for us but others, for the most vulnerable."

Paolucci has family members -- including his father -- in healthcare, directly at the coalface of the Italian response. He has also advised chief health officials in regions currently hit hard by the crisis.

Italy is currently in lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak. Image: Getty

Paolucci said Italian national and regional governments took "quick and harsh decisions" to battle the virus. In contrast, he questioned Australia's government response, and praised ordinary citizens for taking more stringent measures -- such as voluntary self-isolation -- than recommended.

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"Possibly some people didn't agree with the relaxed approach, which took a long time to come in because of government concerns about the economy, as they decided to watch and see," Paolucci said.

"This is anecdotal, but maybe people thought they would apply social distancing. This might have been the learning as people are looking at what happened in Italy, saying 'maybe the government isn't doing much, but we can do it ourselves'."

Dr Francesco Paolucci. Image: supplied

Australia had 2423 confirmed cases of coronavirus and eight deaths as of 3pm on Wednesday, the latest federal statistics available. Four more people have died overnight, three in Victoria and one in Queensland, bringing the total to 12 -- but those numbers are still far smaller per capita than comparable countries like the United States and United Kingdom.

However, experts say the trajectory of cases in Australia is a week or two behind other countries, and fear numbers may start to exponentially spiral.

Paolucci said Australia's unique characteristics, including being a large continent with sea borders and having a low population density, may help quell the spread of the virus, but warned against complacency.

Australia is facing stricter coronavirus measures. Image: Getty

"We are better positioned. I wouldn't say we're in a safe place, as we don't know the virus and cases are increasing, but I hope we got it right," he said.

However, he also questioned the government's speed and consistency in enacting measures and safety messaging, saying things could have been done better.

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The federal government has come under fire for awareness and advertising campaigns criticised as confusing, with many not heeding calls for social distancing -- such as large crowds gathered at Bondi Beach.

State governments in NSW and Victoria have pushed for stronger federal directions, and have flagged they may enact their own stricter lockdown measures.

Crowds at Bondi last Friday. Image: AAP

"More consistency and firmer restrictions would have been the safeguard," Paolucci said, noting unclear communication of messages around schools between governments.

He said most Italians had been "positive" in complying with lockdown and social distancing rules, noting strict enforcement -- including fines and jail time. Paolucci said Australia could have enacted tougher rules sooner, which could have kept case numbers lower.

"The lesson from Italy is that if we don't behave, if we don't follow indications from other countries, this can spiral exponentially," he said.

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Many have claimed a strict social lockdown would not be adhered to by Australians, who are used to the freedom of being outside and socialising in groups. But Paolucci said such social culture was perhaps even stronger in Italy, yet citizens there have accepted new rules for the greater good.

"The cost is to suspend social life, and it is huge, especially for young people," he admitted.

"There are also a lot of consequences, including mentally, or families who have to keep kids home in a domestic situation that isn't healthy. That is a concern.

"But with the numbers we are seeing, we may need a more conservative approach, and to suspend what we can."