A fourth person infected with the coronavirus has died in Italy, officials said on Monday as the government struggled to contain an outbreak of the illness and financial markets slid on fears over the economic impact.
More than 200 people have come down with the virus since Friday, latest data showed, the vast majority of them in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.
Looking to slow the worst flare-up of the disease outside of Asia, authorities across the north have shut schools, universities, museums and cinemas for at least a week, and banned public gatherings including the famed Venice carnival.
Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy close to Italy’s financial capital Milan, with a combined population of nearly 50,000, have been placed under effective quarantine, with similar measures in place for a small town in neighbouring Veneto.
“To be honest, nobody thought the spread (of coronavirus) would be so aggressive. The illness is not serious, but it must not be underestimated,” Attilio Fontana, the regional governor of Lombardy, told 102.5 RTL radio.
He added that emergency measures imposed at the weekend would be effective and that “in a matter of days, the spread of the virus will regress”.
Italian shares fell 4.2% on Monday morning, with businesses most at risk from an expected spending slump such as electronic payments group NEXI losing more than 6%, while Banco BPM, which has its roots in Lombardy, plunged nearly 7%.
Analysts say the outbreak could shunt Italy’s fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years. Government bonds took a swift hit.
Lombardy, the worst-hit region, announced 53 new cases of coronavirus overnight, bringing the total there to 165 in just four days. Some 25 people had the virus in Veneto, while a handful of infections were also recorded in the adjacent regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna.
The fourth person to die of the highly contagious virus came from Lombardy, officials said. He was an 84-year-old man who had been in hospital for treatment for an unrelated illness when he was struck down by the disease.
The three other people who have died of the illness were also elderly and at least two of them had serious underlying health problems.
Milan, a city of 1.3 million people, was much quieter than normal for a Monday morning. Trials were cancelled, some supermarket shelves were empty, and even the city’s imposing Gothic cathedral closed its doors, disappointing tourists.
“We were only meant to spend three days in Milan and then go to Venice for the carnival but everything is shut,” said Russian tourist Viola Beloved, 50, wearing a face mask as she took photographs of the shuttered Duo cathedral.
“I hope we won’t have to cut our trip short,” she said.