In Italy, enough wine and some post Covid-19 dreams

By Anh Ngoc   March 11, 2020 | 10:37 pm PT
In Italy, enough wine and some post Covid-19 dreams
A man drives an electric scooter along a deserted Via del Corso, Rome, Italy, after a decree orders for the whole country to be on lockdown in an unprecedented clampdown aimed at beating the coronavirus, March 10, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Remo Casilli.
Stella Vu thought she was dreaming. Her mind was full of plans to celebrate her husband's birthday. But, overnight, Piedmont was locked down.

It was March 8, International Women’s Day. At around 2 a.m., when millions of citizens and residents were still fast asleep, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte issued the lockdown order.

The Lombardy region, along with 14 provinces in northern regions Emilia Romagna, Marche, Veneto and Piedmont, would lock people in until April 3 as the Covid-19 outbreak swept through the country, infecting over 7,300 and killing 366 at that point in time.

Actually, Vu, a Vietnamese woman married to an Italian, did feel a bit worried on her way home to hear that Italy was considering putting certain cities under a lockdown as the Covid-19 disease continues to spread. But she and her husband never thought that Domodossola City, where they live, would be included as well.

"The news came faster than we could respond," said the 28-year-old woman. "I was stunned for a few seconds, and I thought I was dreaming," she said.

Vu called her sister, who was studying in Turin City and then her mother in Vietnam to inform them of the situation. Her husband hurried to finish his leftover work before going with Vu to the supermarket for food.

Calm amidst chaos

In the supermarket, instead of people shoving each other in order to buy and hoard stuff, the people were calm, said Vu. There was no rush for vegetables or toilet paper, and only around half the people bought more than usual, she noticed. The one noticeable change was that the supermarket employees had started wearing gloves.

"Maybe it's because most Italians are elderly and might have not kept up with the news. Or because, while people were not allowed to get out of lockdown areas, they could still get around the city. I just reassured myself that staying in the lockdown zone isn't so bad; at least it would prevent me from getting into contact with people from outbreak areas."

A supermarket in Milan, Italy is still full of items on March 9, 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo by VnExpress/Trung Kien.

A supermarket in Milan, Italy, is full of items on March 9, 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo by VnExpress/Trung Kien.

The first thing Trung Kien, a Vietnamese graduate in Milan, did the day the lockdown order came into effect was to visit the supermarket to stock up on necessities for the coming days. Several restaurants, bars and Asian supermarkets had closed down by then, with no notice on when they would reopen. Streets were a bit emptier than usual, but public transportation was still functioning, he said.

One thing he was happy to note was that no one displayed any discriminatory attitude towards him, an Asian wearing a face mask.

"They politely got in line in front of the cashier, and allowed those who bought fewer stuff to pay first," Kien said. "There was no food hoarding. Those who did buy a lot were mostly Asian, Chinese in particular. They bought dozens of water bottles, canned meat, vegetables, eggs and so on, filling their carts to the brim," he added.

Face masks had also become a rare commodity where Kien lives, constantly out of stock for several weeks. Only one person could go into a pharmacy at a time, so as to prevent infection, so everyone had to line up, he said.

"Compared to last week when only one in 10 people wore masks, there are three in 10 these days. People also wear scarves over their noses and mouth as well. Some wear their masks to cover their mouths, not noses," Kien added.

Just 24 hours after the lockdown order, Italy recorded nearly 2,000 more infection cases, making it the second worst-hit country after mainland China, the disease's epicenter. The lockdown order was expanded nationwide Monday night until April 3, meaning everyone is advised to stay home and all transportation in the country is restricted.

Kien found a silver lining, though. He felt safer, knowing that his building's cleaners are using disinfectants to clean doorknobs and other areas that humans touch frequently.

Hard decisions

An empty street corner in Venice, Italy following a lockdown order on March 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Hung Vuong.

An empty street corner in Venice, Italy, following a lockdown order on March 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Hung Vuong.

There are around 900 Vietnamese students in Italy at the moment, said Pham Hung Vuong, president of the Vietnamese Student Council in Italy. Sixty live in Lombardy, mostly in major cities like Milan, Brescia, Pavia and Varese. For a fortnight now, many have stayed at home and studied online.

Besides those having personal businesses in Italy, many Vietnamese have decided to return home instead. Schools with exchange students in Italy have also called for their students to return to Vietnam.

"It's understandable. If someone has to go to the hospital, any student from a foreign country would have communication difficulties. The fees might be high as well," said Vuong.

When Italy's first lockdown order was issued, many Vietnamese students in areas not yet affected by order had planned to return. But when it was expanded nationwide, they have been caught between a rock and a hard place. They have approached the council for help. Some who still want to go home did not know how to report their situation to Italian authorities and whether their request to go home would be approved.

"People can only be allowed to move due to job or health-related reasons or when the situation absolutely calls for it. If you have a summoning letter from Vietnam, it should be translated to Italian," Vuong said.

Vuong, who's in Venice, advised people to stay put, stock food and keep themselves updated with the latest news. He personally doesn't plan to return to Vietnam, partly because of his job, partly because the virus is a global problem and would not go away for a while.

"Ever since the outbreak, the council has published official announcements on Facebook to inform students on preventive measures against the novel coronavirus. The Vietnamese Embassy in Italy has also created a hotline to support its Vietnamese citizens. No Vietnamese has been infected in Italy at the moment."

Those who are staying behind are recommended to self-quarantine themselves and even if they test positive, treat themselves with advice given by the hospital. They have been asked to go to hospital only if the symptoms become severe.

Businesses have been affected by the outbreak, of course.

Stella Vu and her husband's winery has had several orders cancelled by foreign clients since February, with an advisory against travel to Italy. A restaurant and hotel that the couple runs has also suffered, like many other establishments in the city. Some restaurants have downed shutters as the number of customers aren't enough to meet their expenses.

"When the lockdown came, people started to realize that this is more serious than they thought," said Vu, adding that employees have started to use scarves and gloves when interacting with customers. They have also been instructed not to hug or shake hands in greeting, she added.

"The Italian government had to close down an entire region, and then the whole country, knowing that it would severely impact its economy. I just hope that people understand and abide by the rules to help control the disease," she said.

Just a day before, her husband had bought some chicken to raise at home, as also vegetables to plant as temporary sustenance during the trying times.

"At least we still have enough wine. And if we make it through this epidemic, a book about our experience in the lockdown zone just might be a bestseller."

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