Health care privatization linked to severity of COVID outbreak in Italy

Ottawa (30 Nov. 2020) — A New York Times article is suggesting that the reason that Italy was hit so hard by COVID-19 pandemic in the spring was the privatization of health care services in the Lombardy Region of Italy. According to the article, private companies focused on specialized services that generated higher profits so primary care and preventative health care services were both starved of resources.  

Lombardy hardest hit region in Italy

While Lombardy has less than 20% of Italy’s population, roughly half of the COVID-19 deaths in Italy were in Lombardy. As a New Statesman article from April pointed out, the death rate in Lombardy was 3 times the rate of a neighbouring region, Veneto, that was also hit hard in the initial stages of the pandemic. The difference between the two is that, while in Lombardy the private sector is getting 50% of the health budget, in Veneto the private sector receives only 7%. 

What the New Statesman article also pointed out is how privatization affected publicly controlled health care services in Lombardy. In Lombardy, competition for public health care funding forced public health care providers to focus on more lucrative services. 

That wasn’t the case in Veneto. As a result, in Veneto when the pandemic hit, the medical system was able to do widespread testing, provide primary care, and set up specialized hospitals. 

Italy not the only place where privatized health care a problem

Italy is not the only place where privatization has contributed to the devastation caused by COVID-19. In Canada, studies have found that the death rate in private for-profit long-term care homes was higher than the death rate in publicly owned and operated homes. In England, a combination of privatization and austerity policies have undermined efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 and the country now has one of the highest death rates in the world due to COVID-19.

The real cost of private health care

The model for funding health care used in Lombardy — for-profit companies competing with public health care providers for public funds — is one that has been suggested in Canada. What residents of Lombardy have gone through during the COVID-19 pandemic shows why we need to continue to oppose it and other types of privatization.

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