The deadly outbreak of a new coronavirus in China has triggered a “hysterical” and “shameful wave of Sinophobia” in Italy, according to members of the Chinese Italian community and a rights group, with Italians and tourists of Chinese and Asian origin reporting acts of violence, discrimination and harassment.
The incidents include assaults, calls for sexual violence, insults and boycott of businesses.
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“What are you doing in Italy? Go away! You’re bringing us disease,” a 15-year-old Chinese Italian boy was told before he was punched and kicked in the face in the northern city of Bologna on February 2, the Bologna Today newspaper reported.
Days later, in the southern city of Cagliari, a hospitalised 31-year-old Filipino man told La Nuova Sardegna, a local newspaper, that he had been attacked by a group of young men who thought he was Chinese and accused him of “bringing the virus” to Italy.
In Milan, Hongqin Zhou, whose family migrated to Italy’s financial capital more than three decades ago, said a taxi driver refused to drive her, telling her he feared she may have the coronavirus.
“The virus has become a justification to express prejudice and hate. It wasn’t as bad during the SARS epidemic 17 years ago,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the 2002-2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, which also originated in China.
“Of course, you would get awkward looks, but nothing as hysterical as this time.”
The new coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, has killed more than 1,800 people and infected more than 70,000 globally. It has spread to more than two dozen countries – including Italy, which has three confirmed cases – but nearly 99 percent of the deaths and infections have been reported in mainland China.
Italy’s government reacted with alarm, suspending flights to China and declaring a six-month state of emergency to combat the virus. It is one of the two countries outside China to label the epidemic a local emergency. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, mainly because of fears the virus could spread to countries with weaker health systems.
‘Atmosphere of hate’
Chinese Italians and activists say misinformation perpetuated by politicians and false claims on mainstream and social media has resulted in an “atmosphere of hate”. A spokesman for the Italian interior ministry declined to comment.
In the central city of Florence, 22-year-old Monica Wang said she received a message on Instagram from an account she did not recognise wishing sexual violence upon Chinese people. “You Chinese are destroying the world, I hope your daughters are raped and raped again so you can learn to stay wherever you came from,” said the screenshot of the message Wang received on January 30.
Meanwhile, some public officials have asked students of Chinese and Asian origin to stay home
In one incident, the director of Conservatorio di musica Santa Cecilia, a famous music school in the Italian capital, Rome, said lessons for all “Oriental students” including those from China, Korea and Japan would be suspended because of the “Chinese epidemic”. They would only be allowed to return after a health check, he said.
The viral outbreak has also added fodder to a long-running anti-migrant campaign by Italian far-right groups.
Matteo Salvini, former deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right Lega Nord, called for the closure of all Italian borders on January 31, saying: “We need to stop all travel connections with China, it should have been done long ago.”
In the northern towns of Como, Brescia and Varese, posters proclaiming: “Coronavirus? Buy Italian. It’s a moral duty” were plastered to the storefronts of dozens of Chinese Italian owned businesses in late January. The posters carried the logo of the far-right Forza Nuova group.
Paolo, a 29-year-old member of a union representing the affected shop owners, told Al Jazeera fears over the virus has resulted in a sharp drop in trade.
“Business is considerably down,” said the young father, who preferred to give only one name out of fear of reprisals. “We are breathing an air of hostility at the moment. Of course, not everyone is prejudiced, but I’m very worried … about the business and my family. This is my home, I love this place. My entire livelihood is here.”
The police in the Lombardy region told Al Jazeera they were aware of the posters but declined to comment further.
Zejian Peng, who owns a stationery store in the southern town of Salerno, where he has lived for 29 years, said he avoided being seen in his shop because he does not want to lose clients.
“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,” he told Al Jazeera. “My wife, who is Italian, continues taking care of the shop. It’s frustrating, it makes me feel angry and helpless.”
For Peng, who has lived in Salerno since he was four years old, the source of the anti-Chinese sentiment is clear.
“All this extremism is happening because of what is being said and shared online,” he said. “People with no subject knowledge, but with thousands of followers on social media, say and claim facts without evidence in their posts which inevitably incite hate. Just look at what politicians say online.”
Amnesty International echoed that sentiment in a statement earlier this month.
“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.
On February 5, the Corriere Bergamo reported that Maurizio Esti, mayor of the northern town of Solto Collina, blamed the virus on what Chinese people eat. “These f****** Chinese, they eat everything. Bats, snakes, dogs and insects, they should be the only people to die in this epidemic,” she wrote on Facebook.
Some observers say news outlets are to blame too.
TG24, a news channel operated by Sky Italy, reported on January 25 that the coronavirus could have been leaked from a military lab in Wuhan. Despite the claim being widely debunked, TG24’s director Paolo Liguori continued to stand by the report.
“It has been eight days since I told you about the secret laboratory and we have not received evidence that proves it false,” he said on February 2, in a long monologue on the origins of the coronavirus.
That claim was first made popular in an audio message on WhatsApp, in which a man claiming to be an Italian journalist in Wuhan said the virus had been leaked by accident from a Wuhan lab. It later turned out the author of the message, an Italian businessman in China, had intended it as a joke for his close friends, according to Il Resto del Carlino newspaper.
Separately, influencers on social media have also spread false claims about the coronavirus, taking advantage of the panic to promote products.
Giulia Calcaterra, a television star who has 750,000 followers, posted an Instagram video on January 29, blaming Chinese eating habits for the alleged epidemic. She ended the video with a promo code for an online shop that sells fitness products. “Go check it out people, it’s important to stay healthy and fit,” she said.
The increase in anti-Chinese sentiment in Italy has prompted an intervention by Italian President Sergio Mattaralla.
On February 6, he paid a surprise visit to Scuola Daniele Manin, a school in Rome attended by many Italian Chinese and where 45 percent of students are not ethnically Italian.
“Schools are for everyone, we must all learn to be together,” he said.
But Emanuele Russo, president of Amnesty’s Italy chapter, said the Italian government needed to do a lot more.
“Our politicians openly use racist and hate rhetoric. Anti-racist speeches and initiatives by individual politicians are not sufficient to change the racism embedded in our public institutions. Fear of the virus’ spread has simply shed light on the Sinophobia that was already present. We need the government to take a formal anti-xenophobia stance and criminalise acts that violate human rights” he told Al Jazeera.