Feature: Italian companies switching over to strategic production as country faces coronavirus

Source: Xinhua| 2020-03-25 23:28:19|Editor: yan
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by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, March 25 (Xinhua) -- Italian government officials have said the country is on wartime footing as it pulls out all the stops to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. Italian companies appear to be taking that view to heart.

Hundreds of Italian companies -- big and small -- have announced they are either dramatically stepping up production of products vital to the country's efforts to weather the crisis created by the global pandemic, or they are changing the output completely to help the effort.

"Companies are stepping up to address needs of strategic national importance," Patrizia Tullini, a labor law professor at the University of Bologna, told Xinhua. "It's a kind of war-time conversion we are seeing again today."

Tullini said that trade unions have generally dropped objections to allow more flexibility among their workers during the crisis.

Newspaper stories are full of such examples.

Automobile maker Fiat Chrysler has repurposed one of its factories to produce surgical face masks. More than 60 distilleries that normally make grappa and whiskey are instead using the ethyl alcohol they produce to make disinfectants. Fashion brands including Prada and Gucci are among at least 200 companies that have begun producing surgical gowns and masks. Sports car icon Ferrari is making respirators.

The most significant of all these companies may be a company that is not changing what it does, but rather dramatically increasing what it was already doing.

The Siare Engineering Company is Italy's only domestic producer of ventilators. The company usually produces around 160 of the machines per month. Now they are working around the clock to produce ventilators at the rate of 600 a month or more.

Ventilators play a key role in Italy's fight to save lives during the crisis. The complex machines can supplement or in some cases replace a sick patient's respiratory system, pumping oxygen into the patient's blood to keep vital organs healthy as the patient recovers. Without the use of ventilators, most intensive-care patients would die.

As of Tuesday, Italy had nearly 3,400 patients in intensive care -- and almost the same number of ventilators in hospitals. But the number of seriously ill patients is growing faster than Italian hospitals can acquire new ventilators. Siare is doing everything it can to help keep up with the needs of Italian intensive care units.

The company has not only increased the number of shifts its workers are working but also changing the way they work.

"Before, one worker would take ten separate parts and make a unit independently, from the bottom to the monitor on top," Gianluca Preziosa, the company's general manager, said in an interview. "Now we changed the process so that each worker focused on one section, more like an assembly line."

Preziosa said that Siare usually sells in around 60 countries and regions, with domestic sales accounting for only a tenth of their revenue. But that is reversing now, given the crisis Italy is facing. Some orders that were being readied for sale outside Italy were held back for use domestically and, at least for now, almost all of its production is destined to stay in-country.

"This was a national emergency and our country needed our help," Preziosa said. "We knew we had to deliver."

By Tuesday evening, the cumulative number of coronavirus cases in Italy had reached 69,176, the most outside China, and 54,030 people were currently positive for the virus, according to official data.