Rome CNN  — 

Italy is entering its fourth week of the worst national crisis since World War II with no end in sight.

More than 60 million people are living under an increasingly unbearable lockdown that is growing tighter by the day. The stores that remain open are shuttering earlier and police are patrolling in ever-greater numbers, chasing families out for walks back into their homes and ensuring no one is outside without a valid reason.

Even so, the number of novel coronavirus cases in the country is rising at a rate of around 3,500 new cases or more every day, and the death toll has topped 2,500.

The highest concentration of cases is in the north of the country, where the dead are being stacked up to be buried as funeral services are strictly prohibited. But the living are stacked up too, with coronavirus patients being treated in field hospitals and lined up in corridors inside the bursting public hospitals. Doctors and nurses are being infected, due to a lack of adequate protection.

Many wonder how this is going to end, and whether the economic cost of the lockdown is worth it. There are encouraging signs that the number of new cases in the original red zone in northern Italy may be leveling off, but experts say it is far too soon to consider this a reliable trend.

A medical emergency helicopter takes off from Brescia hospital in Italy. Experts say it is too early to say if cases are leveling off.

No signs of change yet

There are more than 2,000 people in intensive care units across Italy – the worst-affected country in Europe – according to the latest official figures. Most are concentrated in Lombardy, where the crisis exploded on February 23, but many fear there will be new hotspot areas further south, where infrastructure is was already weaker and where fewer people are adhering to the lockdown measures. Police have given citations to nearly 200,000 people across the country and have said they will clamp down even more, starting this weekend, if people continue to flout the restrictions.

Dr. Giorgio Palù, the former president of the European and Italian Society for Virology and a professor of virology and microbiology of the University of Padova, told CNN he’d hoped to see the first signs of a change after just over a week of nationwide lockdown, but that has yet to materialize. “Yesterday we expected to have a change after almost 10 days of this new measure … but it’s still rising,” he told CNN. “So I don’t think we can make a prediction today.”

Palù said that looking at the number of new cases on a graph, the slope of the curve is still rising, making it hard to impossible when the lockdown will start to reap tangible benefits. And while the outbreak remains concentrated in the north, it’s hard to compare regions. “The virus has no border. Not even (in) Italy,” he added.

But he believes there’s no alternative to the lockdown as long as everyone cooperates with it, and that the rights of citizens cannot overrule safety. “We cannot adopt democracy in information, you must rely on experts.”

The lockdown should have been wider and stricter earlier, Palù believes, rather than just focusing on the 11 communities initially placed in the red zone, and it should be tighter now. “We should have done more diagnostic tests in Lombardy where there was a big nucleus. There is no sense in trying to go to the supermarket once a week. You have to limit your time out, isolation is the key thing.”

He says the Italian government lagged at first. It was “lazy in the beginning… too much politics in Italy.”

“There was a proposal to isolate people coming from the epicenter, coming from China,” he said. “Then it became seen as racist, but they were people coming from the outbreak.” That, he said, led to the current devastating situation.

The usually packed Fontana di Trevi in Rome lie empty during the lockdown imposed nationwide by the Italian government.