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On empty streets of northern Italy, gloom and some rainbows of hope

Last Saturday, a week ago, when talk of a lockdown suddenly overwhelmed conversation in this provincial town in Italy’s northwest, the virus had still seemed far away. Then, a little after 2 am on Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a lockdown of much of the country’s north — Italy, he said, was facing a national emergency.

In the week that followed, every day brought new horrors. By Saturday evening India time, the number of confirmed coronavirus infections had reached 17,660, hospitals across the country were overflowing with patients, and 1,441 people had died — the biggest toll from the pandemic anywhere outside China. Piedmont, along with neighbouring Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, as well as Veneto, are the worst affected.

In Bra, a town of 30,000-odd inhabitants to the south of Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region, it is not difficult to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Life moves slowly, and revolves largely around epicurean endeavours — this, after all, is where the Slow Food Movement was born. The day’s major tasks include collecting fresh produce from the farmers’ market and tasting the region’s wines — some of Italy’s best reds are produced in Piedmont — at tony wineries. Gastronomes from across the world come here for an education at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in the adjoining administrative district of Pollenzo.

But as the panic increased, social media was flooded with videos of people catching late-night trains to the south. If northern Italy was to be shut down, they wanted to be home. Many in the expat community spent large sums on last-minute tickets to fly out. Those who left are believed to be the ones who carried the virus to the south of the country.

“I too want to be with my family but I am scared that I could be a carrier and could end up giving it to my parents who are old. We all need to act responsibly. I barely know anyone here. It gets lonely, but I think staying in quarantine is in everyone’s interest,” said 28-year-old Valentina Del Mastro, who moved to Bra a month ago from Avellino, Campania.

The morning after the lockdown was announced, Bra’s normally teeming streets had emptied out, you could no longer hear the cacophony of accents that is the town’s soundtrack, and the mood was of uncertainty, tinged with fear. Over the next couple of days, schools, the neighbouring university, offices, shops, the cinema, restaurants and bars, all shut. The town was cowering from the pandemic.

If you were out of doors, you had to have a reason — and a government-issued piece of paper stating what it was. A lapse attracted heavy fines or even jail. People went out only to buy medicines or food.

“I went to the supermarket yesterday to stock up on essentials. We were all given a number and told to wait for our turn. Only 25-30 people were allowed in at a time, and were given plastic gloves,” said food and drink writer Bruce McMichael, 58, who arrived in Bra from London last year. The rules are being followed by businesses and consumers, he said, “easing the panic that a situation as surreal as this might otherwise have caused”.

Not everyone has been able to take the crisis with equanimity, though. The stress has come out in incidents of xenophobia and racism usually not seen in multicultural Bra. Vietnamese-American Madeline Nguyen posted on Instagram how children had screamed “Corona!” as she passed by. “The racialisation of the virus doesn’t surprise me, but it does make one feel alone,” she said.

Some believe the lockdown came too late. “This could have been anticipated 10 days ago,” Milan-based food blogger Carlotta Panza, 23, said. “Now this has become a dead city. A few days ago we went to a bar (they were at the time allowed to stay open until 6 pm) where you normally have to wait at least an hour to be seated, and there was no one there.”

The strain the pandemic has put on Italy’s healthcare system is showing in the lack of space in intensive care units, and a shortage of ventilator machines and even doctors and nurses. The Italian College of Anaesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) has issued guidelines saying that instead of offering supervision to all patients, the need of the hour is to follow “the most widely shared criteria regarding distributive justice and the appropriate allocation of limited health resources”.

This essentially means that patients with a bigger chance of therapeutic success should have a greater right to medical care. Those who may be deemed too old to recover should be denied intensive care, the paper has proposed.

“Imagine your mother has to go to the hospital and there’s a 25-year-old who is also there and they take priority over your mother. Your mother could just die,” Panza said.

The loss of incomes is worrying many. “My office has shut down and my mother has taken a few days off from the municipal corporation of Avellino, where she works. My father, who is a coach-builder and has his own workshop, has no money coming. If the situation remains like this, he won’t be able to pay next month’s bills. We understand that we need to put our health first but we are scared of losing work,” said Del Mastro, who is currently interning with Slow Food Italia. The government’s announcements on wage subsidies, tax cuts, and exemptions from paying utility bills have not eased many anxieties.

In the midst of the gloom, some younger residents of Bra have clung to hope. Their schools and universities are shut, and they have been leaving notes across the town — on doors, street lamps, windows of shops — bearing rainbows and the slogan: “Andrà tuttobene (Everything will be all right)”. They know that it takes both rain and shine to make a rainbow.

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