Alessandra Bocchi

Italy’s family unity could be its biggest weakness against coronavirus

Italy still currently has the highest reported fatality rate in the world, at 12.7 per cent. And that death toll is widely thought to be even higher than officially reported. In comparison, Germany has a recorded fatality rate of two per cent. Yet both countries have similar levels of infection rates. Italy has 143,626 confirmed coronavirus cases; Germany has 114,257.

Italy’s disproportionately higher death toll with similar infection and testing rates compared to a country like Germany raises crucial questions on how and why Covid-19 affects some countries more than others. In Italy’s case, the answer may well be that the country’s greatest strength, united families, are now its biggest weakness. In Italy, the elderly live with their extended families more. Countries such as Germany, which have more segregated families, are more able to prevent fatalities.

The numbers tell the story. The median age for confirmed cases of coronavirus in Italy is 63-years-old. In Germany, it is 48. The epidemiologist Giovanni Rezza, who is also director of research at Italy’s National Health Institute (ISS), stressed to me the role of Italian familial unity in infecting the elderly. “The distribution of the sick has a massive impact on the death toll and it is very different across European countries. The social structure of the Italian family is crucial in understanding why its fatality rate is so high.” This is a variable that Italian politicians seem to have either missed or ignored.

Among Germans aged 60 or over, only 6.9 per cent live with children, while that number is 27.4 per cent for elderly Italians, according to a UN report. Lorenzo Castellani, a political analyst and researcher at the LUISS University in Rome, told me how Italy’s large families are now its biggest liability. “In Italy, extended families live together and grandparents are considered the backbone of the family,” he said.

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