South Africans living in Italy urge locals to take Covid-19 restrictions seriously

By Karen Singh and AP Time of article published Mar 23, 2020

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Durban - South Africans living in Italy, now the new epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, have warned South Africans to take the global pandemic seriously and adhere to government regulations.

By Sunday, Italy announced its biggest day-to-day increase of infections, which rose to 53000 people, with nearly 800 new deaths. As bodies pile up in Italian hospitals, morgues and churches, and as medical workers plead for more help, there is no sign yet that Italy is taming the arc of its contagion. Italy now has 4825 deaths, more than all of China, where the virus first emerged late last year.

China has recorded 3261 deaths, with only eight new deaths and 116 new cases confirmed by the World Health Organisation on Saturday.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte announced that he was tightening the country’s lockdown and shutting down all production facilities, except those providing essential goods and services. While he cautioned citizens to be calm and patient, insisting there “is no alternative”, scientists elsewhere released graphics - showing that avoiding even one infection means that scores more are avoided down the line.

Cape Town law student, Cat Walker, who is studying in Italy, said South Africans needed to be aware of how fast the virus spreads.

“It took less than a week for Italy’s cases to multiply by 10 from around the same number that South Africa has now. Also, just because the official number is 240 (on Saturday) in South Africa, it may not be an accurate representation in reality,” said Walker.

She said while it was impossible for everyone to get tested, it was necessary for everyone to keep in mind that they could be a carrier, whether they had symptoms or not. She advised South Africans to work from home, if possible, and self isolate.

“I advise South Africans, especially the young and the old, to please stay at home, for the sake of your nation,” she said.

Walker, who is furthering her studies in Italy, said she understood how irritating and upsetting the cancellation of classes, weddings and travel plans had been.

“But as the number of infections and deaths kept increasing in Italy, it suddenly became very clear that none of those other things are more important than protecting human life,” said Walker.

She said, in light of the pandemic, she had expected to receive communication from the South African government, as other foreign students had from their governments.

“But I didn’t receive anything,” she said.

Della Winterton, who is originally from Durban and teaches in Porto Sant’Elpidio, in the Marche province of Italy, said they had been in quarantine for three weeks and not one person had recovered from the virus in her province.

She said there had been four deaths in her town and five in one day at a nearby hospital.

“I have had moments where I’ve broken down and cried, and I’m really worried about the people,” she said.

The teacher said not only was she concerned about people in Italy, but South Africa as well.

“I know that there are informal settlements with no running water, and I’m really worried about what is going to happen there. There’s no way you can get it under control, living under those circumstances. It will spread like wildfire in that enviroment,” she said.

Winterton appealed to South Africans to stay indoors as much as possible, wash hands properly, keep the advised distance from people and not entertain visitors.

She said, in Italy, only one person was allowed to leave the home and only to buy groceries, get medication or see to medical emergencies.

“Someone had to drive 50km for an emergency and he was stopped 15 times by the police, to make sure he was out of the house for correct reasons,” she said.

Winterton believes the situation is getting more serious, as they have been advised to shop for a 10-day period rather than twice a week.

She said Porto Sant’Elpidio, which has a population of about 20000 people, had become a ghost town and that one in five GPs has tested positive.

“There’s a huge shortage of doctors at the moment. We have had doctors come in from China and Cuba to help. Doctors are overworked, getting sick and dying too,” she said.

Callistus Khathali, a priest at the Roman Catholic Church, formerly from Durban but now living in the Vatican, said the uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown had led to fear and panic. Khathali said Italians were only allowed to go outside - within a square kilometre radius of their residential area.

He said anything further required a downloadable government self-declaration, signed by a witness.

“I have not been out of our property since the announcement of the total shutdown earlier this week. I hear that the army and the police are out on the streets enforcing this. Shops are closed, except pharmacies,” he said. “I do not feel and see the actual virus, and the effects thereof. It’s all about the safety measures of trying not to get it, and not to spread it if we already have it,” he said.

Sally Spencer, who is from Gauteng and is now living in Cortanze Asti, east of Turin, said the virus had spread so quickly because people did not listen.

“When they realised that it was serious, there was total panic and people moved to the south where there were few people infected and things became worse,” she said.

Spencer said the dead were being transported in trucks to be cremated and she was grateful that she did not personally know anyone who had succumbed to the virus. 

Durban chef, Sherwyn Weaich, is currently in London visiting family. Weaich was due to return to SA weeks ago but due to the travel ban, has had to re-schedule his flight for next month. Weaich said London is under lockdown.

"No one is allowed out of their homes. There are cops on the streets so we are not allowed to leave. They are closing down London from Monday," he said. 

The Mercury

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