Rome, April 19 (IANS) Tensions between Italy’s prosperous north and poorer south have increaed as the central government sought consensus on easing the restrictions imposed across the country last month to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Although the daily growth in fatalities and infections continues to diminish, Italy still accounts for Europe’s highest pandemic death toll, 23,227, and is second internationally only to the US, where the virus has claimed over 38,000 lives.

As of Saturday, the total number of cases in Italy reached 175,925.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte held a video-conference on Saturday with the presidents of Italy’s regions to discuss what the government is calling Phase 2 of the coronavirus response: the gradual re-opening of the economy starting May 4.

Arguing in favour of lifting the lockdown, Luca Zaia, governor of the northeastern region of Veneto, said: “My position is that we can open on May 4 with rules and scientific guarantees. And if we wanted to go a step farther, we could ease up immediately, in a rational and prudent manner.”

As the rate of contagion declines, Zaia said, Italy can “turn on the machine, warm up the engines and then pick up speed”.

But the national government’s special commissioner for the COVID-19 crisis urged caution.

“We must understand that it is completely mistaken to enter into a conflict between health and economic recovery. Without health, the recovery would be short-lived,” Domenico Arcuri said.

Some leaders in the south were less measured in their response to Zaia’s proposal to begin rolling back restrictions on movement and activity.

Vincenzo De Luca, who heads the regional government of Campania, said that he was prepared to stop people from the north – which accounts for the majority of the country’s COVID-19 cases and deaths – from entering his jurisdiction.

“If the regions where the contagion is so strong speed up (ending the lockdown), Campania will close its borders,” he said from Naples, noting that the region he governs includes areas with the highest population density on the European continent.

De Luca’s counterpart in Calabria, Jole Santelli, vowed not to let the people of his region become victims “of haste”.

“We are closed since March 7, even before what the government ordered, because we have tried to prevent exoduses” from the hardest-hit regions, Santelli said in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper.

Officials in southern Italy fear that northerners who take advantage of the reopening of the country to travel could cause infections to spike in the south, overwhelming a fragile health-care system.

–IANS

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