‘A strange, absurd situation’: Life in Italy’s coronavirus ‘red zone’

At the edge of the northern Italian town of Casalpusterlungo, residents are slowly getting used to the isolation measures descending around towns like theirs, the centres of Italy's outbreak of the new coronavirus.

'A strange, absurd situation': Life in Italy's coronavirus 'red zone'
The town of Codogno, one of 11 under coronavirus lockdown in northern Italy. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Here the frontline of the fight against the virus is an unassuming roundabout in the middle of the Lombard plain.

Two of the roads leading up to it are blocked by police cars. An officer — not wearing a mask — automatically covers his face with a scarf as he approaches drivers.

Beyond this point is the “red zone”, where the centres of infection have been identified.

MAP: Which parts of Italy are most affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

Italy has become the first European country to take drastic isolation measures as it grapples to get its COVID-19 outbreak under control.

Since Sunday more than 50,000 residents in 11 towns in northern Italy have been put under quarantine.

In theory, virtually all traffic is banned from entering the “red zone”, with exemptions for those such as police, medical personnel and lorries carrying essential supplies.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The same goes for those leaving, although AFP saw certain vehicles and cyclists being allowed through the cordon.

“They're not residents in the area, they're just passing through,” explains a soldier, while admitting that there is a still a margin of flexibility while the quarantine measures are being put in place.

However, many motorists and lorry drivers were turned away, prompting the odd heated reaction. “Where am I meant to go, what do I do?” asked one, adding: “Country of idiots!” as he turned away.

Nevertheless the soldier insists: “The residents have generally been very cooperative.”

A sign in the lockdown area reads “Coronavirus, the ordinance with the requirements of the Ministry of Health is available on the municipal website”. Photo: AFP

Italy has recorded five deaths since Friday, with more than 200 cases of infection.

In the Lombardy region, the capital of which is Milan, authorities have closed schools for a week and cancelled all cultural and sporting events.


But at the edges of the red zone, for the moment any fears are being kept in check.

“If we started being scared, what would happen?” asks a smiling Gianluca Bragalini, who works for a drinking water distribution company and was preparing to go into the red zone with around ten other colleagues.

“We have to guarantee that public services keep running,” he says. “Can you imagine what would happen if drinking water started to run out?”

Cafes and bars have shut down in the towns affected. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, others are looking out for four-legged residents under lockdown. Angela Grechi, from a local cat protection association, has arrived on foot at the roundabout in an attempt to deliver food for 80 cats in Somaglia, one of the towns in the red zone.

She admits it might seem “silly” to be worrying about cats, but says their food supply is about to run out. “I was hoping to deliver the food here but you need an authorisation from the local prefecture,” she sighs.

A few kilometres on from Casalpusterlengo, another roundabout, another checkpoint.

Again the atmosphere is calm but presents some unsettling scenes, like the ambulance speeding into the red zone with a driver wearing a full-body protection suit and a mask over his face.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Stefano Medaglia, a 32-year-old carpenter, arrives at the roundabout on foot, along with his wife and their baby in a pram.

“We're keeping our distance from other people, we're taking precautions,” says Medaglia, from Bertonico, one of the towns under quarantine.

“It's calm there, there's no panic. But it's a strange, absurd situation,” he says, adding that he fears for his family business in Somaglia. “I came to ask the police if it's possible to move within the red zone from one town to another,” he explains.

He has to make to do with a vague answer. Here again the rules governing which vehicles are allowed in don't appear entirely clear.

“As long as they stay on the main roads, it's fine, they just need to avoid going into the villages on the small roads,” explains a policeman.

But how can they check who's going where?

He answers with a shrug.

By AFP's Cécile Feuillatre

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”