Northern Italy Grapples With Rapidly Expanding Coronavirus Outbreak

As the number of confirmed cases skyrockets, residents tell the Register that churches and schools are closed and that fearful shoppers, stocking up against quarantines, have emptied supermarket shelves.

As coronavirus hits Italy, tourists wear protective masks at the Wiktor Emanuel II Gallery in Milan Feb. 22.
As coronavirus hits Italy, tourists wear protective masks at the Wiktor Emanuel II Gallery in Milan Feb. 22. (photo: praszkiewicz/Shutterstock)

When Serena Santoro left with her family to the Italian Alps last Sunday, people were nervous in her hometown of Milan about coronavirus.

Within 24 hours, the situation deteriorated dramatically.

“The emergency just exploded. By the time we arrived in the mountains last Sunday, there was a complete escalation on social media and TV. Coronavirus is all they are talking about, 24 hours a day. The government is constantly having press briefings, and it is making the public panic,” said Santoro.

According to a Feb. 29 news conference in Rome, the total number of infections is now 1,128, with 29 possible virus-linked deaths. This was a jump from only 17 cases on Feb. 21. The biggest pocket of infections is in Italy’s Lombardy region in the north, where 11 towns were put under quarantine near Milan — putting 50,000 people under lockdown.

What has been confusing to the public is that scientists are being interviewed on TV — oftentimes saying different things. City governments have also been unclear, at times, seeming to make contradictory statements.

Last week all the schools were closed in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Liguria. On Saturday it was announced that schools would continue to be closed all of next week in Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto.

“The situation is very bad,” said Santoro. “There is a great deal of alarm and panic. Supermarkets have been emptied. It is as if we were about to face a war. All the masks in Italy have been bought up. There are none left. There are no hand sanitizers left. Even bleaching products have been totally bought out.”

Dr. Silvia Longhitano was also traveling to the Alps from Milan last Sunday with a group of families. The news of coronavirus was so frightening that many of her friends decided to cancel their vacation plans out of fear.

“The Archdiocese of Milan has canceled all the Masses, even on Sunday. All the universities have closed, with exams canceled. This is a difficult moment,” said Longhitano. “There is a lot of panic, with the idea that this could become a pandemic. People don’t know how it will evolve.”


Deserted Streets

The images of Milan show eerily empty streets with barren supermarkets. All commercial fairs have been canceled, which is disastrous for the region’s economy.

“People in Milan have been told not to go to the emergency room if they feel sick. Instead, if they develop symptoms, they have to call a special green number [1-800 number],” said Longhitano. “The city of Milan had put out two different green numbers for the public to call, but so many people called and overloaded the system, that they had to put out a third number.”

In the Trentino mountains, where Longhitano is staying with families from her children’s Catholic school in Milan, the hotel manager put all the guests on notice that if even one person in the hotel develops a fever, all 300 people in the hotel will be put under quarantine. No one will be allowed to leave their hotel rooms.

“I am trying to live this situation with gratitude,” she said. “We are privileged to be here. I am trying to give strength to my relatives, especially my mother down in Sicily, who is very worried about me. I am not panicked. Those who are most at risk are the elderly and those who already live with an underlying condition. This is similar to the influenza, except that we have a vaccine for the flu. This virus doesn’t have a vaccine yet.”

Still, on Monday Longhitano must report to her hospital in Milan, where she works as an anesthesiologist. She is hopeful that everything will be fine, despite the news that 10% of those infected in Italy are health-care workers.


Genoa’s Precautions

When the city of Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy announced that schools would be closed for a week on Feb. 23 on account of coronavirus, residents of this northwest part of Italy were shaken.

“There was panic. People went to the supermarkets and bought everything. You know how we Italians are,” said Claudia Arena from Genoa. “I went to the store with my husband, and we bought one week’s worth of food.”

The decision to close schools was taken despite the fact that Genoa has not had one confirmed case of coronavirus. However, there have been cases of coronavirus in the region right outside of Genoa.

“Besides schools, theaters were closed, discos, any place that brings together crowds — stadiums. This Monday is an important soccer match, but the city may decide to hold it without any spectators in the stands,” said Arena.

Churches have also been closed. Masses are being watched on TV and on Facebook.

“No church had Ash Wednesday Mass in Genoa last week. Also, we have a tradition here that, during Lent, the parish priests go to your house to bless your home. That has been stopped,” said Arena.

Because schools were closed unexpectedly, many parents who work had to make arrangements with grandparents or other relatives throughout northern Italy to take care of their children.

“At work, we have been told to wash our hands frequently and to use hand sanitizers. In my company, they decided to stop client visits until the end of March. Many businesses are making emergency plans for people to work from home,” she said.

Many of Genoa’s restaurants are empty, and people are worried about the city’s economy should the port be closed.

“It would be a disaster,” said Arena.


Economic Fallout

For Santoro, the biggest concern is what effect coronavirus would have on Italy’s economy, which had already been on the verge of a recession. Some believe that the coronavirus outbreak in Italy will lower the country’s GDP by 2 percentage points.

“My company has asked for people to work from home. If you have to go in, you must have your fever checked at the front door of your office. They give you a thermometer, and you must check your own fever and report it. All meetings are now being held by video conference,” said Santoro.

South of Milan is an agricultural region where much of the nation’s meat and milk is produced. This area is now considered a “red zone.” Therefore, roadblocks have been set up with army trucks. This means that milk trucks cannot come in or out — which will cause the entire dairy industry in the region to fail.

“I don’t know what to think. I think we need to be calm and tranquil,” said Santoro.

Barbara Costanzo lives in the Piedmont town of Gravellona Toce, which is one hour outside of Milan. The Piedmont region had 40 cases of coronavirus. There are still some to be confirmed. The schools in her area were closed all of last week but will reopen this coming Wednesday.

“These decisions were taken to stop this contagion, impeding people from meeting. We have avoided a worse situation,” said Costanzo.

Carnival was canceled in her region. Churches were closed last week but will reopen this Sunday.

“Churches had to empty their holy-water receptacles, believe it or not. They had to have Masses by Skype, where there was only one priest and four nuns in the congregation,” she said.

She agrees with the way the Italian government has reacted.

“The risk was that those infected with coronavirus would have overloaded the hospitals. We don’t have enough nurses or enough medicines,” said Costanzo. “Many Italians haven’t understood the need to contain this virus and have protested. But for those who understand, we think it has been a good idea. It was the only way to deal with it.”

Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.