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Rome music school bans all East Asian students from class amid coronavirus fears

Staff and students at a prestigious Rome music school were left shocked and angry after the director banned all East Asian students from classes amid fears of the coronavirus. Rhys Talbot reports from Rome.

Rome music school bans all East Asian students from class amid coronavirus fears
Photo: AFP

The director of Rome's Santa Cecilia conservatory, Roberto Giuliano, told school professors of the suspension in an email sent on the afternoon of January 29th, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported.

The blanket ban applies to “East Asian students (Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc.), as well as others from affected countries”, the director wrote, irrespective of whether those students had recently travelled to areas affected by the disease.

The ban will remain in place until students are cleared by a medical exam organised by the university, the email stated.

“The conservatory doctor will visit them all on Wednesday February 5th. Only those who pass the check can be readmitted to attendance.”

Staff and students raised concerns about the indiscriminate testing of all students of certain nationalities, with one music teacher saying he felt “shocked” at the director's message, and calling it “insane.”

“It will discriminate, spread fear, it's absurd,” the teacher told La Repubblica.

The teacher also disputed a claim made by Giuliano in the email that “the conservatory's doctor” would perform the ordered examinations, saying: “What doctor? We've never had one.”

READ ALSO Coronavirus: Spike in reports of 'racist' abuse of Chinese people in Italy

The 81 East Asian students at Santa Cecilia have asked to meet with the director and other senior staff, without success at the time of writing.

“We've just seen the director leave the building and walk away,” said Kim, 25, and Hwang, 24, two South Korean students who had gone to the conservatory to demand answers.

Neither of them have ever visited China.

“I haven't even been home to Korea in two years,” Kim told The Local. “We're not against checks in themselves, but this is madness – it's wrong for them to test only Asian students.”

They claimed that while they themselves had not yet tried to enter the building, another Asian student had been refused access by security staff.

William, 24, a Chinese student of opera at the conservatory, told The Local he questioned the motives of the direction, complaining that the move was “quite racist”.

He questioned why Chinese students who had not visited their home country in more than six months, and therefore had as much probability of exposure as their Italian classmates, were being treated differently. Nonetheless, he thought it would be appropriate for Chinese students who had visited China over the past two months, since the beginning of the current outbreak, to be isolated and tested for the virus.

READ ALSO: How concerned should you be about the coronavirus in Italy?

The director's move came on the heels of previous accusations of unequal treatment of East Asian students at Santa Cecilia.

In November 2019, tuition fees for foreign students from certain countries, including Japan, China and South Korea, were raised significantly – to up to 8,000 euros per year for certain courses while Italian and EU students pay a maximum of 1800 euros.

A group of students from these three countries has asked for legal advice from the Chinese embassy to fight against the raise in fees.

Kim gave voice to the frustrations of many of her classmates: 'We pay 6,000 euros a year, and they treat us like this?'

Chinese people in Italy have reported suffering discrimination this week amid the coronavirus scare. Photo: AFP

Other music schools in Italy have adopted less dramatic measures. The Como Conservatory has asked all students returning from trips to China to not come to classes for fourteen days after the date of their return.

A Chinese student at the Franco Vittadini Conservatory in Pavia, who recently returned to Italy after a trip to his hometown near Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, was accompanied to hospital by his tutor for testing. Although the results of the tests were negative, the University has advised the student to quarantine himself for fourteen days.

The controversy unfolded amid growing fears of the spread of the coronavirus, shortly before the first two cases in the country were confirmed in Rome.

Two Chinese tourists, thought to be husband and wife, who were staying at a hotel in central Rome tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

The Italian government on Thursday night suspended all flights to and from China as a result.

Over 6,000 tourists spent Thursday stranded on a cruise ship at Civitavecchia, a port north-west of Rome, after authorities said two Chinese passengers were feared to have the coronavirus.

Those two suspected cases tested negative, and passengers were allowed to disembark on Thursday night.

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COVID-19 RULES

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.

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