More than 15 million people across a vast swathe of northern Italy woke yesterday to find themselves cut off from the rest of the country, after the government imposed a virtual lockdown to prevent the coronavirus spreading.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed off on plans that strictly limit movement in and out of the north, including Venice and Milan, for nearly a month.
“The virus closes the heart of the north,” the Stampa daily’s headline read, while Il Messaggero went with “Half of Italy shuts.”
However, it was not clear how strictly the order would be enforced, or how authorities could prevent people from leaving.
The decree said that only people with a “serious” reason that cannot be postponed, such as urgent work or family issues, would be allowed in or out of the quarantine zones, which affect one-quarter of Italy’s population of 60 million.
However, it does allow for the return home of those who were in the affected areas, but live elsewhere, including tourists.
Flights appeared to be operating normally out of Milan and Venice airports yesterday, while it was business as usual at train stations.
With 233 fatalities, Italy has recorded the most deaths from the COVID-19 disease of any country outside China.
The new rules came shortly after news that the number of people infected had jumped by more than 1,200 in a 24-hour period.
The plan was leaked to the media on Saturday, infuriating Conte, who slammed it as “unacceptable,” saying it had created “uncertainty, anxiety, [and] confusion.”
Italian virologist Roberto Burioni yesterday described the leak on Twitter as “pure madness.”
“The draft of a very harsh decree is leaked, sparking panic and prompting people to try and flee the [then] theoretical red zone, carrying the virus with them,” he wrote. “In the end, the only effect is to help the virus to spread. I’m lost for words.”
Television reports showed hundreds of travelers flowing into Milan’s central station overnight on Saturday to catch trains out of the city.
An estimated 2 million people have left the underdeveloped south in the past 15 years in search of work and hundreds of thousands of them have settled in the north.
With a four-week shutdown looming, many of them are expected to try to return to their old family homes to sit out the contagion.
The governor of the Puglia region in the south pleaded with anyone thinking of returning from Lombardy and the other 11 provinces in lockdown to “stop and turn around.”
“I’m speaking to you as if you were my children, my brothers, my grandchildren,” Michele Emiliano said on Facebook.
“Get off [the train] at the first station, don’t get on the flights to Bari and Brindisi, turn your cars around, get off the bus at the next stop. Don’t bring the epidemic to Puglia,” he said.
“You are carrying to the lungs of your brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and parents, the virus that has severely strained the health system in northern Italy,” he added.
Anyone making the journey anyway would be placed in obligatory quarantine for 14 days, he said.
Calabrian President Jole Santelli joined Emiliano in urging people to steer clear, saying her region’s fragile health system could not withstand a major medical crisis.
“The government must block an exodus to Calabria, which risks triggering a disastrous bomb,” Santelli said. “Returning from the north in an uncontrolled manner endangers our land and our loved ones. Don’t do it. Stop.”
The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions. The northern regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto represent 85 percent of all the 5,883 confirmed cases to date and 92 percent of the recorded deaths.
Puglia has had just 26 cases, Basilicata has had three and Calabria four.
Additional reporting by AP
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