THIS handout photograph taken and released by Rome’s Fiumicino Airport Authority on Saturday shows a closed passenger area of Ciampino airport, near Rome, during the COVID-19 outbreak.—AFP
THIS handout photograph taken and released by Rome’s Fiumicino Airport Authority on Saturday shows a closed passenger area of Ciampino airport, near Rome, during the COVID-19 outbreak.—AFP

THE cobblestone streets are the same, yet I have trouble recognising them. Rome has never been so empty of people before, so drained out of life.

“The show must go on,” the waiter says to me as he quickly clears the table and folds the tablecloth away. Two policemen are sitting on their motorbikes on the opposite side of the square, their eyes pointing directly at him. He knows the clock is ticking. He has to shut down the restaurant by 6pm. Some customers are still finishing their food and drinks. He brings them takeaway boxes for the food and tells them the drinks are on him, but they really need to leave. A police car is patrolling the square, ready to take action.

On a normal day, Piazza Campo dei Fiori would be buzzing with tourists walking around the vibrant square, as locals shopped from the noisy street vendors at the market. But this is not a normal day. The World Health Organisation just declared a pandemic. I ask the waiter if he knows, and he says: “I know this! What I don’t know is what I’ll be doing from tomorrow.”

When the coronavirus broke out in China, it sounded like something so distant and was treated as such by the media. Italians did not feel like it was their problem too, until on Jan 29, a couple of Chinese tourists fell sick and were hospitalised, becoming the first two cases reported in the country.

Suddenly, the virus was here. The irrational reaction of the population was to start avoiding Chinese restaurants, shops, and people. There were racist attacks on public transport, cases of children being bullied in school, even vandalisation of property.

The hashtag “IAmNotAVirus” started trending on social media, but it could not protect the Chinese community. For a long time in Italy, fear has been used as a tool to conduct political propaganda. Italians have been dealing with the migration crisis incessantly since 2013, when 366 migrants drowned just a few miles off the coast of the Sicilian Island of Lampedusa. A lot has changed since then.

The solidarity people felt towards “the other” has disappeared and a sense of insecurity prevails, often exasperated by the media’s reporting on the crisis. The fear of “the other” has made it easy for racism to proliferate.

As an expert virologist and social media celebrity Roberto Burioni said in an interview to news agency, “the new coronavirus is very democratic, because it can affect anyone: ordinary people, doctors, politicians, journalists”.

By the time people began to realise that the problem was not the Chinese community, it was too late. Clusters of autochthonous coronavirus cases were being identified in the north of the country. And then it was suddenly us, the Italians, known for their rich history, good food, and amazing art, who became the “diseased”. The country in which every street reminds you of a film set, whether it’s a Hollywood production like James Bond’s Spectre, or Bollywood’s Bachna Ae Haseeno, now seems “untouchable”.

It is ironic how the much desired Italian passport became worthless overnight. We were the ones being discriminated against. We were the ones being denied entrance to other countries. Former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, now leader of the opposition, made “close the ports” his motto, when referring to migrants and refugees arriving via sea to Italy. This slogan won his extreme right, xenophobic party third place in the 2018 elections. Now, we, the people, had to close those ports.

The risk of the coronavirus was initially underestimated by the majority of the population. The media invited politicians alongside scientists to discuss the outbreak, often sensationalising the story rather than informing the audience. But the strict and prompt response by the Italian government changed things. The country has come to a complete halt amid a nationwide lockdown that began on March 9.

Italy has the highest number of coronavirus cases reported outside China. At the time of writing, that means 15,113 people affected, 1,016 deaths, and 1,258 recoveries. Italy began testing for COVID-19 based on people who had contacts with the people who first tested positive. This method helped concentrate the government’s efforts and identify the “red areas” much more quickly, allowing for them to be isolated in order to avoid the spread of the virus.

The WHO has declared Europe to be the new epicentre of COVID-19. France will be shutting down schools on Monday, Germany intends to do the same, but the UK is yet to follow suit. After 20 cases were reported in Pakistan, the country is taking serious measures to contain the outbreak. Now is definitely the time to act. In Italy there are not enough beds in the intensive care units for all the patients suffering from complications. Doctors and nurses are facing moral dilemmas every day as they adopt wartime triage criteria and select patients based on their chances of survival. Many lives can be saved simply by prevention, and the sooner the world understands this, the better.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020