Vietnamese citizens in Italy try to crack coronavirus ‘mystery’

By Anh Ngoc   March 16, 2020 | 11:00 pm PT
Vietnamese citizens in Italy try to crack coronavirus ‘mystery’
People stand besides a street, on the third day of an unprecedented lockdown across of all Italy imposed to slow the outbreak of coronavirus, in Naples, Italy March 12, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Ciro de Luca.
On February 23, Huyen's daughter went to the local airport to depart for Germany, not knowing students had been banned from leaving Italy.

It was the morning just two days after Italy had confirmed its first Covid-19 infection. 

"The decision (to ban students from traveling abroad) shows that the government reacted quickly," said Tran Ngoc Huyen, who has been living in Rome for ten years and working for several agencies under the United Nations.

On January 30, when two Chinese nationals entered the European country with the deadly virus, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte promptly banned all flights from and to China. At the same time, 56 passengers from the epidemic epicenter Wuhan had to be quarantined.

Twenty days later, the first case in Italy was detected - a 38-year-old man living in Lombardy who had not been to China. Ten towns in northern Italy ordered their schools and bars to close while more than 50,000 residents were asked to stay indoors. All outdoor activities such as festivals, sports events and mass gatherings were halted.

That was when Huyen's daughter left home for the aborted excursion to Germany.

However, within three weeks, the number of Covid-19 infections skyrocketed to the thousands in Italy. On March 8, around 6,000 people had tested positive, and the Lombardy region and 14 neighboring provinces had been quarantined.

A day later, the number of patients climbed up to 9,000 and Italy became the first Europen country to be in lockdown mode to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

"These days, Italy has become an example to show Europeans are paying the price for being indifferent and careless. In fact, in just a couple of days after Italy had its first patient, things got out of control despite the government’s reactions," Huyen said.

Trung Kien, a graduate student at the Polytechnique University of Milan, said he does not blame the Italian government for its outbreak management.

"Ordering a total lockdown is not an easy option for a European country like Italy," Kien said, adding that local government was rattled in isolating numerous areas right after the infections were confirmed.

"I think public awareness is a crucial factor. When the northern parts were locked down, people blamed the government and tried to flee at night," he said.

The panicked and the calm

The Vietnamese student categorized Italians into two groups: the panicked and the calm. While the former, mostly young and middle-aged citizens, try to run away from quarantined areas any way they can, the latter, mostly senior people, face the issue, listen to the government's recommendations by buying enough food and staying away from crowds. 

When the virus found its way to Italy, young people did not give up on gathering at local bars in the afternoon, said Kien, adding his housemates still held several parties at home after the outbreak.

"The number of people wearing masks was minor, from policemen to guards and cashiers, except for bus drivers, since they have special masks."

Huyen concurred with this assessment, saying the local government had told people to wear masks only when they are sick in order to save more of the item for those who needed the protection, such as medical staff. 

"They do not have the habit of wearing masks like Asian people, and there are not enough suppliers," said Huyen.

Stella Vu in Domodossola City in the Piedmont region, a Vietnamese national married to an Italian citizen, also said the above-mentioned reasons have kept Italians from wearing masks. In her neighborhood, she said, people were fighting against the virus by taking in more vitamin C and washing their hands with soap.

"I have realized that many young people assumed the Covid-19 was a common flu, which kills many people annually, so they thought it (the outbreak) was normal," she said.

As of Tuesday, with nearly 28,000 confirmed cases and some 2,160 deaths, Italy had reported the largest outbreak outside of China. The fatality rate of the country is 7 percent, double the worldwide average at 3.4 percent.

In the Italian epicenter of Lombardy, more than 80 percent of beds in hospitals are for Covid-19 patients. Many hospitals are overwhelmed with overworked doctors and nurses. Unessential operations have been canceled to save space for Covid-19 infections. 

"Medical officers said that many people had been infected before the first Covid-19 infection was confirmed. In the town of Codogno, there were many cases of pneumonia before," Huyen said, quoting Stefano Paglia, a local medical officer. 

People stand a meter away from each other while waiting outside a supermarket in Italy on March 11, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tran Khanh Huyen.

People stand a meter away from each other while waiting outside a supermarket in Italy on March 11, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tran Khanh Huyen.

Another factor that Huyen highlighted was that the number of Covid-19 patients in Italy was high because it was the European country conducting the highest number of tests, all done for free. Until March 7, 42,000 Covid-19 tests had been done in Italy.

An old population

On the country’s high death rate, Huyen noted that the Italian population was the oldest in Europe. According to the Italian National Institute of Health, many of Italy's deaths have been among people in their 80s, a population known to be more susceptible to severe complications arising from Covid-19.

"I took my child to the hospital in Rome twice. He was tested, examined, treated and served for days without any bills," Huyen recalled, adding that it was difficult to see any country providing good medical service at low prices, as Italy does.

Stella Vu noted that all Italians have medical insurance and get free treatment. However, they have to wait for a long time if their problem is not severe or serious. When hospitals are packed with Covid-19 patients, those who have mild symptoms can be examined remotely to reduce the burden on the Italian medical system, she said.

"When there were more lockdown orders, people realized that it was serious and they should also be serious about fighting the outbreak."

While the streets in her area are much quieter, supermarkets have remained open with people keeping the recommended one meter distance from each other. All cashiers wear masks, gloves or scarves to cover their faces. People are all calm and there is no panic shopping, Vu noted.

"I see that more people are wearing masks and they do not discriminate against Asians wearing them," Kien said, adding that the punishment for people getting out of locked down areas has been effective since no one wants to be in jail for three months and pay €206 ($228.7). 

On social media, Italian netizens are calling people who’ve fled to come back and self quarantine themelves.

Kien bought enough food for the next week and avoids hitting the streets. He washes his hand and his mouth carefully and follows other advised protective measures.

Huyen is doing the same thing. She said she was trying to be optimistic and to boost her immune system. 

She said, somewhat wistfully: "Vietnam is controlling the epidemic very well. I hope Italy will get over this soon, too."

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