Italians struggle with 'surreal' lockdown as coronavirus cases rise

People living in Italian towns under lockdown described a “surreal” and “fearful” atmosphere as a sixth person died of coronavirus on Monday and the number of confirmed cases rose to 229.

Eleven towns across Lombardy, where the outbreak emerged suddenly on Friday, and Veneto have been quarantined for at least the next 15 days as Italian authorities scramble to contain the worst outbreak of the virus in Europe and the third worst in the world.

The six people killed by the virus were all elderly people who had also been suffering from other health issues. The latest victim was an 80-year-old man in Milan.

About 50,000 residents in the towns under lockdown have been told to stay at home and avoid social contact, while schools, shops and businesses – apart from chemists and some supermarkets – have been closed.

Residents are allowed to manoeuvre within the so-called red zone, for example going from one quarantined town to another to reach a supermarket that is permitted to stay open, but they are not allowed to leave the quarantined territory. People are also banned from entering the area, with transgressors facing fines, unless they are health workers or those delivering essential supplies.

The centre of the virus is Codogno, the Lombardy town of almost 16,000 people where the first locally transmitted case in Italy, that of a 38-year old man, was detected.

Two reporters stand in front of the San Biagio church in Codogno.

Two reporters stand in front of the San Biagio church in Codogno. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

“It’s a surreal situation,” Enrico Bianchi, who owns a veterinary pharmacist, told the Guardian. “People are locked in their houses for fear of going out. It is really strange to go around the town, the few people around are wearing masks.”

Rosanna Ferrari, a farm owner, said: “We’re experiencing a bit of a panic. Supermarkets have been stormed since last Friday. There are queues outside of the chemist. They said they’ll come, house to house, to collect saliva samples today. My daughter was in contact with some friends of the first person to be infected in Codogno. Those friends resulted negative. But still, we are worried.”

The first victim of coronavirus was Adriano Trevisan, a 77-year-old from the Veneto town of Vo’ Euganeo, who died in hospital while being treated for pneumonia.

One resident of the town of around 3,000 people, who asked not to be named, said: “We’re waiting to be tested, all we can do is stay at home and wait and wait. This is a flu, but if it’s left it can create problems, especially for older people.”

The 38-year-year old who was first identified as being infected is in intensive care at a hospital in Codogno. He lives in nearby Castiglione d’Adda and plays in an amateur football team in Somaglia. Both towns are under lockdown and his teammates all underwent tests.

“We are three days into the quarantine and there is a rigid system in place,” said Angelo Caperdoni, the mayor of Somaglia, a town of around 3,823 residents. “It was difficult to contain the panic at first, especially as a lot of false news was circulating on social media that people believed to be true. There is still panic regarding food provisions. Many people went to Codogno yesterday to try and stock up.”

Franco Stefanoni, the mayor of Fombio, also under lockdown, said the town’s two mini-markets had been “besieged”.

“The important thing is to maintain calm,” he said. “People have been racing to the supermarket to buy 20 kilos of pasta or 30 kilos of bread. But if the shop is restocked and open for the next few days, there is no need to exaggerate.”

The virus has affected seven of Italy’s wealthiest regions – Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria and Trentino. Milan’s stock exchange plunged 4.5% on Monday as the country’s economic engine almost ground to a halt after cases of the illness were confirmed in the city, home to around 3.1 million people.

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the new coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

How many people have been affected?

As of 20 Februrary, China has recorded 2,118 deaths from the Covid-19 outbreak. Health officials have confirmed 74,576 cases in mainland China in total. More than 12,000 have recovered.

The coronavirus has spread to at least 28 other countries. Japan has 607 cases, including 542 from a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, and has recorded one death. There have also been deaths in Hong Kong, Taiwan, France and the Philippines.

There have been nine recorded cases and no fatalities to date in the UK. As of 17 February, a total of 4,501 people have been tested in the UK, of which 4,492 were confirmed negative.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?

A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

Schools and universities have been closed across the regions and people have been advised to work from home. Museums have also been closed and festivities, concerts and sporting events cancelled, along with Church masses.

Over 3,000 tests for coronavirus have been carried out over the last few days, although authorities are still trying to identity “patient zero” – the person who brought the virus to the region. The first man infected, a researcher at Unilever, came down with symptoms after attending a dinner at which there was a colleague who had recently returned from China. But the colleague tested negative for the virus.

“The peak in Italy is partly due to all the tests being done,” said Roberta Siliquini, a former president of Italy’s higher health council. “We have found positive cases in people who probably had few or no symptoms and who may have overcome the virus without even knowing it.”

The Italian government has been criticised for hastily cancelling flights to and from China as, without coherence across Europe, people have been able to fly to other European cities and enter Italy from there.


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