Empty streets and paranoia as northern Italy goes into lockdown

By: AFP      Published: 01:02 AM, 9 Mar, 2020
Empty streets and paranoia as northern Italy goes into lockdown
A photo taken on March 8, 2020, shows a deserted Colosseum monument in Rome, after it was closed along with some of the city's other landmarks and museums as the Italian government approved drastic measures in an attempt to halt the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.–AFP

The sun shone on deserted squares in Milan and empty gondolas in Venice on Sunday as a quarter of Italy’s population came to grips with being cut off from the rest of the country, under new rules strictly limiting movement in and out of the new red zone.

While some packed their bags and fled, most in northern Italy stayed to brave a lockdown imposed by the government on some 15 million people, as it ramps up the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

The country on Sunday recorded the second-highest coronavirus toll in the world, after reporting a sharp jump in deaths—up 133 to 366 -- and overtaking South Korea on infections.

“The virus closes the heart of the north,” the Stampa daily’s headline read, while Il Messaggero went with “Half of Italy shuts”.

It was not clear, however, how strictly the order would be enforced, or how authorities could prevent people from leaving.

The decree said that only people with a “serious” reason that cannot be postponed, such as urgent work or family issues, would be allowed in or out of the quarantine zones, which cover Lombardy and 14 provinces in four other regions.

But it does allow for the return home of those who were in the affected areas but live elsewhere, including tourists.

The outspoken head of Italy’s opposition far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, demanded clarity from the government for the “millions of worried Italians”.

“Who can do what? Where can they go? Who can work? Who can travel? And what about borders with other countries?”

Milan and Venice airports were open, but Alitalia said it was suspending national and international flights to and from Milan Malpensa airport, and operating only domestic routes from Milan Linate.

It was business as usual at train stations. The borders with Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia remain open.

‘Spreading Paranoia’

Pina Antinucci, a psychoanalyst in her 60s who lives in Milan, said told AFP she was suffering nightmares and felt the state was “bombarding us with anxieties, spreading paranoia”.

“I’d like to know if I’m infected... it would be better to know if I have that unwanted guest who occupies our homes, minds and lives,” she said.

With more than 230 fatalities, Italy has recorded the most deaths from the COVID-19 disease of any country outside China, where the outbreak began in December.

The new rules came shortly after the news that the number of people infected had jumped by over 1,200 in a 24-hour period.

‘Uncertainty, anxiety, confusion’

The plan was leaked to the media on Saturday, infuriating Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who slammed it as “unacceptable”, saying it had created “uncertainty, anxiety, (and) confusion”.

Expert Massimo Galli, the head of a team of doctors from the Biomedical Research Institute in Milan who managed to identify the Italian strain last month, told AFP it had been a “disastrous communication error” and “absolute idiocracy”.

Italian virologist Roberto Burioni described the leak on Twitter as “pure madness”.

“The draft of a very harsh decree is leaked, sparking panic and prompting people to try and flee the (then) theoretical red zone, carrying the virus with them,” he said on social media.

“In the end, the only effect is to help the virus to spread. I’m lost for words”.

Vincenzo Tosetti, a 34-year old actor and Venice resident, told AFP “many people I know have fled, mainly from Milan.

“My cousins, my friends, they packed bags and left last night”.

“This is going to test the Italians’ ability to behave responsibly, and I have to say that up until now they’ve been failing. There’s been an exodus”.

Fellow Venetian Giancarlo, 49, who did not want to give his last name, said it was “a lovely sunny day, but you can feel the anxiety in the air”.

The floating city was also virtually empty of tourists, which was “a big blow”.

“First the city was hit by record floods, now this. Venice is very fragile right now,” he said.

‘Turn around’

Italy has found itself at the forefront of the global fight against the virus, with more than 5,800 infections recorded in the past seven weeks.

The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions and the first deaths are being recorded in Italy’s less well medically equipped south.

The head of the Puglia region in southern Italy pleaded with anyone thinking of returning from Lombardy and the other 11 provinces in lockdown—which include the cities of Parma and Rimini—to “stop and turn around”.

“Get off (the train) at the first station, don’t get on the flights to Bari and Brindisi, turn your cars around, get off the bus at the next stop. Don’t bring the epidemic to Puglia,” he said on Facebook.

“You are carrying to the lungs of your brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and parents, the virus that has severely strained the health system in northern Italy,” he added.

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