(Screengrab, Courtesy: al Jazeera)
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38-years-old Veronica Li had been in Italy for 21 years. She is a mother of two and runs her own restaurant close to the Colosseum. She had a normal happy life. But things took a turn for the worst with Coronavirus outbreak one cold January morning.

Zejian Peng, who had been in Italy for the past 29 years, now no more visits the shop he owns for he fears that business might go down.

“We’ve had clients asking whether our business is Chinese, people fear they might somehow get infected. One client even reassured her husband that there were no Chinese people in the shop so it would be safe. My wife, who is Italian, continues taking care of the shop. It’s frustrating, it makes me feel angry and helpless,” Peng told Aljazeera.

The country is struggling to contain the virus and the sinophobia that has emerged along with the pandemic. The number of fatalities shot up by 368 to 1,809 — more than half of all the cases recorded outside China.

Chinese people in Italy are being targeted, shamed and attacked as the paranoia over the virus is growing.

Xenophobia- Italy’s reality

Italy is known as the European country which has the highest number of Chinese tourists. But with the pandemic, these tourists are no more welcome.

It was recently that La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper published a photograph on its website featuring a cafe near the Trevi fountain in Rome which had a sign on its door which read, “all people coming from China are barred from entering.”

Italy is home to more than 3,00,000 Chinese immigrants, legal and illegal.

The notice outside a cafe near the Trevi fountain in Rome which had a sign on its door which read, “all people coming from China are barred from entering.”  (Screen-grab, Copyrights: La Repubblica)

The country had earlier been warned of its racist attack against the migrants. What is getting unleashed now is the racism and sinophobia that is inherent among the Italian populace. The United Nations had earlier condemned the migrant policies of this small European country.

Italy was also one of the first countries to ban Chinese flights traveling to its state.

“The block on flights was not such a wise decision because at the end of the day the Italian authorities lost the ability to track the people coming back from China,” said Marco Wong, a local councilor in the Tuscan town of Prato.

Growing Sinophobia: From schools to restaurants

The people from China are being isolated and attacked everywhere.

The Chinese students of Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, one of the oldest music schools in the world, was instructed by their director Roberto Giuliani, not to come to class until after a doctor had visited their homes to ensure they have not contracted the virus.

Four governors of northern Italian regions called for children returning from trips to China not to attend school for 14 days.

The Duomo Square in Milan, after the Italian government, imposed a lockdown on much of the country’s north because of the coronavirus (Screen-grab, Copyrights: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

Human rights organization Amnesty International Italy said in a statement that “shameful wave of Sinophobia” caused by “fake news, irresponsible statements by political leaders, incomprehensible decisions by local governors and the obsessive focus of the media on coronavirus… this is a country ready to hate”.

“Scientifically incorrect information, irresponsible affirmations by politicians and incomprehensible local measures [taken against the virus’ spread] have led to a shameful wave of Sinophobia,” said Gianni Ruffin, director-general of Amnesty International Italy to Al Jazeera.

“Rumours have a slow death”

Media that should have acted on time to curb these sinophobic attitudes have been on the other hand exaggerating it.

TG24, a news channel that is operated by Sky Italy, reported without an iota of proof that the virus originated in a military lab in Wuhan. Though widely criticized, the channel and its director Paolo Liguori continued to stand by the report.

An old man wearing mask seen in Lombardy, Italy (Screengrab, Copyrights: RTE News)

The claim that Chinese military labs produced the virus is now a popular theory in Italy, all thanks to an audio message in Whatsapp propagated by a man who claims to be an Italian journalist working in Wuhan. Though later clarified that the person who sent the message, actually an Italian businessman in China had meant it as a joke. However, rumors have a slow death.

Giulia Calcaterra, who is a TV star in Italy with around 750,000 followers, also started a controversy with her Instagram post in which she blamed the eating habits of Chinese people as a cause for the epidemic.

Politicising the crisis

The pandemic is being politicized by far-right-wing leaders of the League party to spread their anti-immigrant agenda.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League, used the opportunity to attack his rivals and spread his anti-migrant message. “Every day dozens of flights arrive in Italy from China: we need checks, checks, and more checks,” he said.

He added that Italy ought to “make our borders armor-plated” in response to the coronavirus. Salvini’s political growth is deeply rooted in his anti-migrant agenda.

Matteo Salvini of the League speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Bibbiano, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. (Screen-grab, Copyrights: Stefano Cavicchi/ LaPresse)

The right-wing politicians are reducing the pandemic as an issue related to border control and migration.  The governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, vomited racism on Live TV and said, “we’ve all seen Chinese people eating live mice.”

“The infection is spreading. I want to know from the government who has come in and gone out. We have to seal our borders now,” Salvini gave a final warning to President Conte.

Salvini’s pressure on the government worked. It blocked its flights from China. This had been so far one of the biggest mistakes that Italy made, suggests experts. It was a mistake that made it impossible to track down the flow of people from the areas hit hardest by the epidemic while allowing thousands of passengers to reach Italy, unchecked, through connecting flights in other European airports and elsewhere.

It is time that the government of Italy reassures its citizen safety and take measures against growing unrest against the Chinese populace in the country. What we need now, more than ever, is constructive and cohesive actions.

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