ROME—The sign taped to the glass door of a popular gelateria in front of Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain is perfectly clear, and perfectly ugly. Written in both Chinese and English, it states what pretty much everyone in a country of hypochondriacs and the rest of Europe is thinking: “Due to international safety measures, all people coming from China are not allowed to have access to this place.” The writer then apologizes for any inconvenience.
Italy has confirmed just two coronavirus cases despite quarantining 7,000 people on a cruise ship this week over a feverish woman from Hong Kong who had, as it turned out, nothing but the flu. A full 24 hours after the woman was cleared, citizens of the port town of Civitavecchia near Rome staged a protest at the port, demanding that all 750 Chinese passengers on board be tested for the disease before anyone could get off the ship.
The two cases that actually are confirmed in Italy are a Chinese couple who traveled from Wuhan to Milan and then across the peninsula on a bus tour with more than 100 other Chinese tourists over the last five days, sparking a panic across the entire country as authorities alert everyone at every stop of their tour—highway rest areas included. The hotel where they were staying, just a block from the Colosseum, was cordoned off with armed police on Friday, prompting passersby to ask each other if there was a terrorist threat.
You would think the epidemic has reached plague proportions.
On Friday, Italy’s civil protection authority announced a six-month “state of emergency” over the health crisis—the first time in the country’s history. Twelve people who are tied to the confirmed cases are in Rome’s Spallanzani Infectious Disease Hospital under surveillance. But Chinese restaurants, Chinese-owned convenience stops, and even coffee bars with Chinese staff have been empty all week. In Tuscany, where the town of Prato has the highest concentration of Chinese residents in the country, Italians have stopped sending their children to school out of fear they’ll contract the virus.
About five million Chinese tourists visit Italy each year, pouring millions of euros into the economy, but the Rome Tourism Bureau told The Daily Beast that many tour guides have called off group tours for Chinese people “until things blow over” out of fear their very presence will make other tourists feel uncomfortable.
There are also 300,000 Chinese residents living and working across Italy, many in the service and fashion industries. The lack of government guidance on how to handle the epidemic has angered the Chinese community across Italy, many of whom feel betrayed that the government seems to be scapegoating them, according to the head of Rome’s Chinese Community in Italian media interviews.
A Chinese woman who runs a small convenience store in the bustling neighborhood of Trastevere told The Daily Beast that she has simply started wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves because Italians wouldn’t enter her store. “I haven’t been to China for more than 10 years, but they are so scared of us, it just makes sense to show them I’m being safe,” she said. “It’s either this or risk closing if I lose business.”
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s xenophobic far-right League party, didn’t miss an opportunity to exploit the situation. “Every day dozens of flights arrive in Italy from China,” he said at a recent rally. “We need checks, checks, and more checks.”
At a civil protection press conference in Rome on Friday, the panel of doctors meant to calm fears continued to insist that only people with symptoms were contagious despite confirmation last weekend that the opposite is true.
There have also been troubling reports of blatant racism and bullying in the Italian press including how a Chinese-Italian boy playing in a school soccer match in Milan was told by an opponent, “I hope you get the virus, too.“
Roberto Giuliani, director of the prestigious Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, was sanctioned by the institution after telling students from China, Japan, and even South Korea that they needed a doctor certificate to attend class—even if they had not traveled to China recently.
The same paranoia has sparked a race debate in France, where six cases have been confirmed. There, Chinese citizens have started using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus or “I am not a virus” after the local newspaper Le Courier Picard used the race baiting headlines “Yellow Alert” and “Yellow Peril” over a photo of a Chinese woman wearing a white surgical mask.
The French aren’t only stigmatizing Chinese people but all Asians, it seems. Shana Cheng, a 17-year-old Paris resident of Vietnamese and Cambodian origin, told the BBC that she was hassled on a Paris bus last weekend. “There's a Chinese woman, she is going to contaminate us, she needs to go home,” Cheng says she heard two passengers say. Then she said they looked at her “in a disgusted way, as if I was the virus.”
Another woman tweeted, “Not all Asians are Chinese. Not all Chinese were born in China and not all have been there. An Asian who coughs doesn’t have the #coronavirus. Insulting an Asian because of the virus is like insulting a Muslim because of the bombings.”
In Germany, the only other continental European country with confirmed cases so far—six and counting tied to the automotive supplier Webasto in Stanberg—things aren’t much better. A 33-year-old German who worked there is the first human-to-human contact case in Europe after attending a training session hosted by a visiting Chinese colleague who has since returned to Wuhan. All such training sessions with Chinese visitors have since been suspended.
As the number of confirmed cases grows across Europe, fear will surely spread, too. And a continued lack of guidance by authorities about how the virus is actually transmitted and who potential carriers are will undoubtedly feed racism and xenophobia, which risks becoming a worse epidemic than the disease itself.