Police at checkpoints, events cancelled as virus fears shake Italy

AFP , Sunday 23 Feb 2020

Police patrolled the perimeters of virus-stricken northern Italian towns Sunday as Italy put tens of thousands of people under lockdown and cancelled festivals and sporting events in an attempt to halt Europe's worst outbreak of the new coronavirus.

An elderly cancer patient became the third person who has tested positive for the virus to die since Friday in the country, with 149 confirmed cases nationwide.

The mounting number of infections has sparked fears of further contagion and prompted the government to effectively quarantine 11 villages.

High profile events including fashion shows in Milan, Serie A football matches and the last days of the Venice Carnival have been disrupted, even those well outside the lockdown areas.

"Virus -- Northern Italy under Siege," read Sunday's headline in the Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, as television stations delivered a steady stream of images of masked locals and hospital workers in protective suits. "Virus Paralysis," read La Repubblica.

Health officials in Lombardy region, the centre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak, said an elderly woman being treated in hospital for cancer who had tested positive for the virus had died.

If coronavirus is determined to be the cause of death, the woman will be the third person in Italy to have died from COVID-19, the official name of the disease that was first detected in China at the end of last year and has since spread across the world.

In Italy over 50,000 people in 11 towns have been ordered not to leave their areas, most of them centred around the small town of Codogno, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) southeast of Milan.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Saturday that residents could face weeks of lockdown, enough time for any potential infection to incubate.

In one affected village, Casalpusterlengo, police set up checkpoints to stop all vehicles travelling in both directions on the road that leads to Codogno, a 10 minute drive away.

"We're going to quickly enforce a total blockade," said one police officer.

"We're letting people know that if they come in, they won't be able to leave. I have to admit they're taking it pretty well, you can see they were expecting it, that they were prepared in some way."

Earlier in the day, queues formed at local supermarkets as anxious people, many wearing surgical masks, stocked up on provisions, fearing a long period of isolation.

- Fears hit Fashion Week -

Concern over the spread of infections began to be felt beyond the quarantined areas on Sunday, particularly in Milan, the banking and fashion centre of Italy and the biggest city in the Lombardy region where most cases have been reported.

At the city's Fashion Week, which had already seen a sharp drop in Chinese buyers in attendance, top designer Giorgio Armani said his fashion show Sunday night would be guest-free and live-streamed instead.

Milan's storied opera house, La Scala, said its performances were being suspended "in relation to the spread of the coronavirus as a precautionary measure."

And in Venice, the exuberant annual carnival that attracts tourists from all over the world was cancelled from Sunday night, according to the region's president Luca Zaia. It had been scheduled to continue through Tuesday.

Schools are to be closed throughout the Lombardy region for a week, including those in Milan.

- 'Really scared' -

In Casalpusterlengo, the Lidl grocery store was allowing shoppers to enter in groups of 40.

Although one woman in the crowd downplayed the virus, telling other shoppers it was "not fatal" if properly treated, others were less sanguine.

"I'm really scared, we're going through a really tough situation," said another woman, Emanuela, a nurse who works in the area.

A policewoman in the affected zone told AFP earlier that teams had been sent in from Bologna, Turin and Genoa to help local law enforcement.

The quarantine appeared largely dependent on individuals to respect the system but the government said those found in violation could face fines and even three months in jail.

The government has also said the army was prepared to step in if needed to enforce the perimeter.

On Sunday, the head of the civil protection department, Angelo Borrelli, said during a news conference that thousands of beds were at the ready in military barracks or hotels to house quarantined or sick individuals, if needed.

The virus has so far killed more than 2,400 people globally, with some 80,000 infected, though China remains by far the worst hit.

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