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.
“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.
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.