In the storm of infection and death sweeping Italy, one big community stands out to health officials as remarkably unscathed — the 50,000 ethnic Chinese who live in the town of Prato.
Two months ago, the country’s Chinese residents were the target of what Amnesty International described as shameful discrimination, the butt of insults and violent attacks by people who feared that they would spread the coronavirus through Italy.
However, in the Tuscan town of Prato, home to Italy’s single biggest Chinese community, the opposite has been true. Once scapegoats, they are now held up by authorities as a model for early, strict adoption of disease-control measures.
“We Italians feared that the Chinese of Prato were to be the problem. Instead, they did much better than us,” said Renzo Berti, the top state health official for the area, which includes Florence.
“Among Chinese residents in Prato there isn’t even one case of COVID contagion,” he said.
Ethnic Chinese make up about one-fourth of Prato’s population, but Berti credits them with bringing down the entire town’s infection rate to almost half the Italian average — 62 cases per 100,000 inhabitants versus 115 for the rest of the country.
Prato’s Chinese community, originally built around the textile industry, went into lockdown from the end of January, three weeks before Italy’s first recorded infection.
Many were returning from the Lunar New Year holiday in China, then the epicenter of the epidemic. They knew what was coming and spread the word: stay home.
So as Italians headed to the ski slopes and crowded into cafes and bars as normal, the Chinese inhabitants of Prato had seemingly disappeared.
Its streets, still festooned with Lunar New Year decorations, were semi-deserted, shops shuttered.
There is some anecdotal evidence that Chinese people elsewhere in Italy took similar precautions, although national data on infection rates among the community is unavailable.
The Italian Ministry of Health did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Milan-based restaurateur Francesco Wu, a representative of Italian business lobby Confcommercio, said that he in February urged Italian counterparts to shut down their businesses, as he had done.
“Most of them looked at me like a Cassandra,” he said. “No one could believe it was happening here... Now Troy is burning and we are all locked inside.”
When Chinese-born businessman Luca Zhou on Feb. 4 flew home from China to rejoin his wife and 28-year-old son in Prato, he put himself into quarantine in his bedroom for 14 days, separated from his family.
“We had seen what was happening in China and we were afraid for ourselves, our families and our friends,” said the 56-year-old, who has a business exporting Italian wine to China.
After emerging from his self-quarantine, he ventured outside in mask and gloves, he said, adding that the few other Chinese on the streets also wore them, anxious not to spread the virus to others.
“My Italian friends looked at me oddly. I tried many times to explain to them that they should wear them ... but they didn’t understand,” Zhou said.
“When I came back to Prato, no Italian authority told me anything. We did it all by ourselves. If we had not done it, we would all be infected, Chinese and Italians,” he added.
Italy was one of the first nations to cut air links with China, on Jan. 31, although many of its Chinese residents found their way home via third countries. On Feb. 8, almost a month before closing all schools, it offered students returning from vacations in China the right to stop attending classes.
“In Prato, there was a boom in take-up,” Berti said, adding that families had been obliged to contact his agency if they wanted to pursue this option.
It was then that he began to realize how differently the Chinese were behaving.
More than 360 families, or about 1,300 people, registered as having put themselves into self-isolation and also signed up to his agency’s health surveillance scheme, which monitored symptoms remotely and communicated with them in Chinese.
As infections began to take off in late February and early last month, some families, many of whom retain Chinese citizenship, even began sending children to relatives in China, alarmed at the attitude and behavior of Italians around them.
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