2020.04.01 11:15 GMT+8

From being discriminated against to being praised: How Italy's Chinese help beat COVID-19

Updated 2020.04.02 13:06 GMT+8

Businessman Luca Zhou, 56, wears a face mask on the streets of Prato, home to the biggest ethnic Chinese community in Italy. /Reuters

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy keeps surging, the city of Prato, home to one of the country's largest Chinese communities, became an unlikely oasis of calm in a land consumed by panic.

Two months ago, the community of about 50,000 ethnic Chinese was the target of ugly discrimination, the butt of insults and violent attacks. Once the presumptive enemy of locals, now they are held up by authorities as a paragon for early, strict adoption of infection-control measures.

The community has yet to register a single case, standing out to health officials as remarkably unscathed.

"Among Chinese residents in Prato there isn't even one case of COVID contagion," Renzo Berti, a local state health official, was quoted as saying by Reuters on Wednesday.

Ethnic Chinese make up about a quarter of Prato's population, but Berti said they've brought down the entire town's infection rate to almost half the Italian average — 62 cases per 100,000 inhabitants versus 115 for the country. The coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has killed almost 13,155 people in Italy, more than in any other country in the world, with more than 110,000 infected.

"We Italians feared that the Chinese of Prato were to be the problem. Instead, they did much better than us," said Berti.

A screenshot from Coronavirus Resource Center of Johns Hopkins University, shows the confirmed coronavirus cases of Italy standing at 110,574 as of 9:43 local time (EDT).

Prato is Tuscany's second largest city after Florence and has been embracing waves of Chinese migrants since the 1980s. The migrants are mostly from Wenzhou, a city in China's Zhejiang Province.

From the end of January, Prato's Chinese community went into lockdown, three weeks before Italy's first recorded infection. Many were returning from new year holidays in China. They knew what was coming and spread the word in the community: 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.

Francesco Wu, a restaurant owner in Milan and a representative of Italian business lobby Confcommercio, began urging his Italian counterparts to shut down their businesses in February. However, no one believed him, he said, and most of them looked at him like a "Cassandra."

Luca Zhou, a Chinese-born businessman, put himself straight into quarantine in his bedroom for 14 days, separated from his wife and son, after he flew back to Italy from China on February 4. He told reporters that he knew what was happening in China and he worried about his family and friends, so he willingly went into a self-isolation.

Another who went into self-isolation after returning from China was 23-year-old university student Chiara Zheng. The student told reporters that she was aware of the gravity of the situation, so she felt it's obliged to self-quarantine to protect friends and other people around.

The same happened in Canada, too. A Chinese man, in his 50s, who flew to Toronto from Wuhan to join his family on January 25, called 911 immediately after he got sick with relatively minor symptoms. He was placed in isolation in Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital and his wife kept herself in home isolation without authorities telling her to do so. Luckily, she was not infected.

A deserted street after Italy reinforced the lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus disease, March 21, 2020. /Reuters

In Italy, as infections began to take off in late February and early March, many Chinese families offered to put themselves into quarantine and sign up to the local authority's health surveillance scheme, which monitored symptoms remotely.

On February 8, almost a month before closing all schools, many children from Chinese families stopped attending classes after the Italian government offered students returning from holidays in China the right to do so. Some, alarmed at the attitude and behavior of Italians around them, even began sending children to relatives in China. 

At the beginning of February, many Chinese faced discrimination around the world, including Italy. Some of them decided to go back to China, where they felt safer.

The Guardian reported earlier that when a Prato councillor visited the canteen of an elementary school. A Chinese girl asked her: "Aren't you afraid of eating next to me?" Another Chinese boy asked her: "So can I sit here, too?"

The revealing conversation disclosed that some Chinese children once walked on eggshells at school. A secretary of the buddhist Pu Hua Si temple in Prato said that Chinese children at school had been called "Cinavirus" and there were also physical attacks on them.

Now, things seem to getting better in Italy, with its government reporting on Wednesday its lowest daily death toll from coronavirus in six days, although the overall number of new infections is still growing. The government has extended a national lockdown until at least the middle of April.

(With input from agencies)

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