February 23, 2020 / 5:50 PM / a month ago

Coronavirus clampdown spreads fear and doubt in northern Italy

MILAN (Reuters) - Some people fled, some stocked up on essentials, others simply called for calm after authorities imposed stringent measures on swathes of northern Italy to try to halt an outbreak of coronavirus.

Italy is battling the largest flare-up of the disease yet seen in Europe, with three people dying of the illness since Friday and more than 150 cases reported.

The outbreak is centered on clusters of small towns in the wealthy regions of Lombardy and Veneto, but in an effort to contain the virus, officials have imposed emergency measures across the area, including Italy’s financial capital, Milan.

Schools and universities were told to close until the end of the month, museums and cinemas were shuttered, major sporting events were postponed and Milan’s famous La Scala opera house was forced to cancel performances.

News of the restrictions sent many people rushing to supermarkets to buy emergency supplies of food.

“Today is madness. It feels like we’re in Baghdad. We can’t restock shelves quick enough,” said a shop assistant at Esselunga Solari supermarket in Milan, declining to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

Pasta and bottles of tomato sauce flew into peoples’ trolleys, while face masks swiftly sold out.

Mara Nobile, a mother of three, decided the best thing to do was leave the city. “We’re taking the children to the countryside,” she said, adding she was also cancelling a ski trip she had planned for the end of the week.

Some of those already out of town decided to delay their return. Isabella Palmi, 76, and her 82-year-old husband were supposed to come back to Milan from Switzerland this coming week, but are now planning to stay away longer.

“We will not come back to Milan for a while. We feel safer here,” she said.

Policemen wearing face masks warn drivers on the road between Codogno and Casalpusterlengo, which has been closed by the Italian government due to a coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane.

‘EVERYTHING IS CLOSED’

At least travel in and out of Milan was still permitted.

By contrast, the government has imposed a de-facto quarantine on almost a dozen towns some 60 km (40 miles) southwest of the financial hub, with locals urged to stay at home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas.

Police cars patrolled near-deserted streets while groups of shoppers, many wearing masks, queued up outside supermarkets - some of the very few businesses that were allowed to open.

“(The closures) are a good thing to keep the virus at bay. In fact everything is closed. All hospitals and public places are closed,” said Piero Forleo, 45, a resident of one of the isolated towns, Casalpusterlengo.

Milan pensioner Anna Mariani said people were worried because they didn’t know what was going to happen next.

“I think it’s good the government doesn’t seem to be panicking about it but it’s worrying just the same because you don’t know how many other cases there are,” she said.

Others were less complimentary about the government action, including Maria Rita Gismondo, head of clinical microbiology, virology and diagnostics at Milan’s Luigi Sacco Hospital.

She complained that her department was being asked to carry out a huge quantity of tests on possible coronavirus carriers, and said the alarm had been blown out of proportion.

“It seems to be madness. People are confusing an infection which is slightly more serious than the flu to a lethal pandemic. It is not like that. Look at the numbers,” she said on Instagram. “This madness will do a lot of damage.”

Slideshow (10 Images)

According to latest data just two people out of Italy’s total 152 coronavirus cases were being treated in Milan. The three deaths have been elderly people, two of whom had serious underlying conditions.

Globally, the virus has been fatal in 2% of reported cases, with the elderly and ill the most vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization.

Reporting by James Mackenzie, Silvia Aloisi, Francesca Landini, Valentina Za, Lisa Jucca, Cristiano Corvino, Elvira Pollina, Gavin Jones and Giulio Piovaccari; Writing by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Frances Kerry

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