Italian president visits Chinese schoolchildren to allay coronavirus fears

ROME (Reuters) - President Sergio Mattarella paid a surprise visit on Thursday to a Rome school with a large number of Chinese students, looking to dispel fears in Italy over the coronavirus, which has triggered anti-China sentiment.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella meets children from the "Daniele Manin" school in Rome's Chinese district, Italy February 6, 2020. Paolo Giandotti/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Chinese businesses operating in Italy have reported a sharp drop in trade after news of the infectious virus, that originated in China, hit the headlines. Asians have reported discrimination and hostility in the streets.

“This is a wonderful surprise. Thank you,” said Manuela Manferlotti, the headmistress of the Daniele Manin Elementary School in the Esquilino neighbourhood as the president entered a classroom.

“We were just talking about this very topical issue of friendship, peace and inclusion.”

While Mattarella made no direct reference to the virus, a source in his office said he wanted to send a very clear message by visiting a school with a large migrant intake.

“This was an effort to sooth anxiety and show friendship towards China,” the source said.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also denounced on Thursday any prejudice and hostility arising from the coronavirus.

“Discriminating against the Chinese, against Chinese children, as is happening in some classrooms, is absolutely stupid,” he said on the sidelines of a conference on bullying.

More than 560 people have died from the virus in mainland China, while there have been more than 28,000 confirmed infections around the world, including two Chinese tourists who are in quarantine in Italy.

About 310,000 Chinese nationals live in Italy, according to government statistics, while an estimated three million Chinese tourists visited the country in 2018.

Italy last week declared a six-month state of emergency over the illness and banned all flights to and from China in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. But it has failed to contain knee-jerk, anti-Chinese sentiment.

“(There is) a shameful wave of sinophobia in our country,” Gianni Rufini, head of Amnesty International in Italy, said in a statement.

“People of Chinese nationality, Italian citizens of Chinese origin, Asians suspected at first sight of being Chinese are seen as spreaders of the disease regardless of who they are.”

Rome’s leading music school last month banned all students from eastern Asia, not just China, from courses until they could provide medical certificates to prove they are well, while Chinese restaurants in the capital reported a slump in clients.

Four governors from northern Italy also raised eyebrows by demanding that children returning from trips to China be barred from school for two weeks to make sure they were not ill. The government dismissed the request.

Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Angus MacSwan