20th Mar 2023


Coronavirus: voices from a quarantined Italian town

  • Maria Cristina Giacomelli, a pharmacist in historic Vicenza, tells EUobserver: 'Since Friday, there has been a continuous demand for masks and disinfectant gels - but unfortunately we have exhausted all stocks' (Photo: Valentina Saini)

Vicenza is a wealthy city in Veneto, one of the two Italian regions most affected by the so-called 'emergenza coronavirus' (coronavirus emergency).

In pharmacies, mothers phone their sons. "Do you and your wife need surgical masks? Do you have any? How many do you need?"

Read and decide

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  • Abnormally empty streets, devoid of traffic - and tourists (Photo: Valentina Saini)

In supermarkets and groceries, shelves start emptying of pasta, bread, and other essentials. Maria Cristina Giacomelli, a pharmacist in the historic centre of the city, tells EUobserver: "Since Friday, there has been a continuous demand for masks and disinfectant gels - but unfortunately we have exhausted all stocks."

Italy's first coronavirus victim was announced on Friday evening (21 February), triggering one of the worst health crises in the country since the war.

The victims, seven so far, were elderly people already physically debilitated by other diseases. Infections are at 283, currently the highest number of cases in the world after China and South Korea.

"The number of cases has increased rapidly because there are two hotbeds, among other things, linked to two hospitals, and we have learned from SARS that these viruses spread mainly in nosocomial [originating in hospital] environments,» explains Giorgio Palù, professor of microbiology and virology at the University of Padua, and an internationally-renowned expert.

"Besides, northern Italy has communications with China every day because there are fairs, industries, relocated industries, and people travel a lot."

A Venetian entrepreneur who refused to be named because "the media distort everything" says "there is a lot of exaggeration and psychosis. My wife also refuses to leave the house without a mask. In any case, the economy of northern Italy is strong, some days of chaos won't manage to affect it."

Outside the doors of a supermarket in Vicenza there are three Portuguese Erasmus students. One of them says "my grandmother advised me to stock up."

His cart is full of bottles of soft drinks, mineral water, frozen pizza and pasta.

Giuseppe Valerio, a lawyer and an innovation expert based in Vicenza, says: "I think a part of the population is over-reacting. Some media, and especially the social media, are fuelling panic. I'm not worried, I think that common sense and keeping informed are enough"."

The city of Vicenza is about 30km from Vo', a small settlement of 3,000 inhabitants that ended up on the news globally when one of its fellow citizens, 78-year-old pensioner Adriano Trevisan, became the first victim of coronavirus.

Quarantined town

Now Vo', about 60km from Venice and 25 from the university city of Padua, is isolated.

No one can enter or leave.

On Sunday, when it was visited by EUobserver, you could still reach it by car, and on the street people were chatting quietly. Of course, bars and restaurants were closed, as they still are today.

Carletto Contarato owns a winery in Vo'. He is furious. "Look, we're all fine, I'm in the field working from morning till night. Of course, the restrictions of movement are giving us big troubles. We have to deliver our wine around, it was the media that created this situation. It's a simple influence, nothing more".

Ironically, there seems to be more panic outside Vo'. Many supermarkets in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy have been emptied by stockpiling customers.

Stefano Teso, an ICT researcher based in the Trentino region and originally from Venice area, told EUobserver: "I'm worried, because Italians are very individualistic, and in situations like these we need a lot of self-discipline. My mother lives in a Venetian village and she tells me about people, at the supermarket, filling carts with food, water, litres and litres of olive oil. And of course, I'm worried about my loved ones in Veneto, because they are elderly."

Italy has a long history of epidemics: the terrible plague of the 14th century, the one of the 17th century, cholera at the end of the 19th century, the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918.

In fact, the so-called 'containment measures' were first ordered in 14th century Venice.

Eugenia Tognotti, a professor of the history of medicine at Sassari University is a historian and expert on epidemics, an authority in her field.

When EUobserver reaches her over the phone, she has just finished talking to the BBC. "The last health emergency in Italy was the Spanish flu epidemic, which was so terrible that it cannot be compared with current coronavirus situation."

"Back then, the containment measures implemented were the same we are seeing today: closure of cinemas, theatres, schools, universities, the cancellation of public events, religious celebrations, and funerals of course."

"These measures may seem to belong to pre-industrial Europe but in fact we will have to get used to them. Many of the diseases that have emerged in the last 40 years are caused by viruses that come from animals due to the so-called species jump."

Tourism blow

Historic monuments are closed (Photo: Valentina Saini)

The coronavirus crisis is beginning to affect tourism, one of the main sectors of Italian economy.

Ireland, Greece, Croatia and Serbia are some of the European countries that have already advised their citizens against travelling to affected areas. A hard blow for those who rely on tourism to make a living.

Francesca works in a café in the heart of Venice. On the phone, she tells EUobserver: "there has been a sharp drop in tourists, business is falling. It's the media's fault, that they are exaggerating the situation."

Marco Davide, a bookshop manager in Venice, says: "the city has almost emptied of tourists, so we are seeing a sharp drop in customers. I'm afraid it will get even worse in March. I think there's a bit of exaggeration, the TV has pumped up a bit."

"The authorities are handling the situation well; sure, everyone decides with their own head, and someone maybe panics".

Giulio Sapelli, a professor of historical economics at Milan's Statale University says "it doesn't seem to me that Europe is acting cohesively on this crisis. I believe all countries, including the European ones, should adapt to the measures indicated by the World Health Organization and coordinate a common line of action."

"Coordination is needed, and people need to be stay calm," he added.

According to professor Tognotti, "fear is the worst enemy of unity and solidarity between people. On the other hand, panic and anxiety have always gone hand in hand with epidemics, from the time of Thucydides. The contagion has in itself an immense metaphorical value."

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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