By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government on Monday called upon one of the country's leading emergency healthcare experts, who usually operates in warzones, to help sort out a growing coronavirus health crisis in the southern region of Calabria.
Gino Strada, who founded the Emergency NGO to aid civilian victims of war, has agreed to work alongside a new health commissioner in the toe of Italy, which is struggling to cope with a wave of coronavirus infections, the government said.
A surgeon himself, Strada has set up hospitals in conflict zones around the world, including Sudan and Afghanistan. He made no immediate comment on Monday about the possible new role.
Healthcare in Calabria, one of Italy's poorest areas, has come sharply into focus this month, with two health chiefs being forced to quit in swift succession because of doubts over their ability to handle the coronavirus crisis.
Saverio Cotticelli resigned from the post on Nov. 7 after acknowledging in a television interview that the region did not have an emergency COVID-19 plan in place. He claimed it was not his responsibility, only to discover that it was.
With the plan already well overdue, the government immediately named a new health csar, Giuseppe Zuccatelli. But his appointment was immediately engulfed in controversy when video emerged of him ridiculing the idea that wearing masks helped contain the spread of the coronavirus.
He was also filmed saying people could only catch the virus if they kissed "with their tongues" for 15 minutes.
"The (health) minister called me and didn't need to explain anything. He asked me to resign and I did," Zuccatelli told reporters on Monday.
Political opponents have widely criticised the government's handling of the situation, asking why it had not realised sooner that the region had not produced an emergency plan and why it had not done more thorough checks before appointing Zuccatelli.
"The government is incompetent and dangerous," far-right leader Matteo Salvini said in a statement on Calabria last week.
The region is currently in partial lockdown and designated as a high-risk COVID-19 'red zone'.
Italy's regions normally have control over their own health services, but Rome took charge of the heavily indebted system in Calabria in 2010, amid accusations the local mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, had infiltrated it and was milking it of cash.
The government said the new health chief would be Eugenio Gaudio, the outgoing head of Rome's Sapienza University, with Strada named as a special envoy to focus on the COVID-19 crisis.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)