People line up in the rain outside a supermarket after the Italian island of Sicily closed them on Sunday, as it tightens measures to try and contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Catania, Italy March 23, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)
Police with batons and guns have moved in to protect supermarkets on the Italian island of Sicily after reports of looting by locals who could no longer afford food.
The novel coronavirus has claimed more than 10,000 lives across the Mediterranean country, about a third of the world's total, creating the worst emergency Italians have known since World War II.
Simultaneously, it has eroded the economy, which had been the third-largest in the European Union before the new illness reached Italian shores from China last month.
A lockdown designed to curb contagion has shut almost everything across the country since March 12, depriving millions of steady incomes.
The building sense of desperation reportedly boiled over on Thursday in Sicily, long one of Italy's least developed regions.
According to La Repubblica daily, a group of locals ran out of one of Palermo's supermarkets without paying.
"We have no money to pay, we have to eat," someone reportedly shouted at the cashiers.
In other Sicilian towns, small shops owners that are still allowed to stay open have been pressured by the locals to give them free food, Il Corriere della Sera said.
The paper wrote of a ticking "social time bomb" in the region, which is home to around five million people, and which has officially recorded 57 deaths from COVID-19.
"I am afraid that concerns shared by much of the population -- about health, income, the future -- will turn into anger and hatred if this crisis continues," Giuseppe Provenzano, Italy's minister overseeing southern regions, told La Repubblica.
An AFP reporter saw four armed policemen guarding one of Palermo's supermarket entrances on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
They stood silently, hands behind their backs or tucked into the straps of their bulletproof vests, their faces partially hidden by green masks.
They did not speak or interact with the shoppers, a silent presence seemingly aimed at showing a government still in control.
"People who attacked the supermarket are ignorant," said Carmelo Badalamenti, a local who like others stuffed his red cart with groceries before everything shut down for the day Sunday.
"Plundering the supermarket will not solve anything."
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appears aware of the building sense of anxiety, stress and fear gripping the nation.
Making one of his increasingly regular evening television appeals to the nation Saturday evening, Conte promised to send food vouchers to those who cannot afford groceries.
"We know that many suffer but the state is there," Conte said.
His government is earmarking 400 million euros ($445 million) for the emergency food relief programme.