'As if we were the disease': coronavirus brings prejudice for Italy's Chinese workers

Luca Muzi
Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

At the beginning of February, Ilaria Santi, a councillor in the Italian city of Prato, in Tuscany, visited the canteen of an elementary school. A Chinese girl asked her: “Aren’t you afraid of eating next to me?”

“I replied: ‘Why should I be afraid?’ and she said: ‘Afraid that I infect you with the coronavirus.’” I replied that the virus was unfortunately in the minds of too many people,” said Santi.

“Another Chinese boy asked: ‘So can I sit here too?’ and I said: ‘Yes’.”

It was a revealing conversation in this region with a large Chinese population, in a country in lockdown over coronavirus.

“In the past few weeks, we have seen Chinese children at school [being] called ‘Cinavirus’, [as well as] verbal confrontations between classmates and physical attacks [on pupils],” said Davide Finizio, secretary of the buddhist Pu Hua Si temple, a hub for the Chinese community in Prato.

Finizio is monitoring cases of discrimination, and is attempting to counter prejudice by encouraging Chinese people to donate face masks and sanitiser to Italian hospitals.

“I know of people who have decided to go back to China, where they feel safer,” he said.

Some have already left, others have bought plane tickets home.

The past few weeks have brought numerous reports of xenophobia in northern Italy, which is home to more than 50% of Italy’s Chinese population. Last month Qian Zhang, 26, who owns a bar with his wife near Bassano del Grappa, told Il Giornale di Vicenza that he was attacked with a bottle and told he was not allowed to enter a petrol station because: “You’re Chinese, you have coronavirus.”

La Stampa reported that a couple in Turin, Chen and Ye, were assaulted with bottles by two Italian teenagers. They refused to go to hospital for fear of further discrimination. “They told us: ‘You are not human, you are the virus.’ As if we were a disease, just because we were born in China,” Chen told the paper.

A 29-year-old Chinese man was attacked in Milan by an assailant who shouted: “You have coronavirus.”

But there is another reason the Chinese community is considering leaving the country. Prato is a focal point for the national textile industry. Many of the factories, owned by Chinese entrepreneurs, produce clothes for the Italian fashion industry. The spread of coronavirus in China and Italy has had severe repercussions for the industry locally, and workers have been laid off.

“There has been a heavy decrease in work. Many factories have decided to close, because it is not sustainable,” said Marco Wong, a Prato councillor.

An estimated 310,000 Chinese people live in Italy, accounting for 8.3% of the country’s non-EU citizens, the third largest community of foreign nationals residing in the country. More than half live in the north, with 16% residing in the provinces of Prato and Florence. Most work in the textile industry.

About 30,000 Chinese people work in the Prato textile district; many don’t have contracts, or work part-time, leaving them with limited or no access to social support from the government in the event they are laid off.

Flavio Hu, from the Chinese Young Entrepreneurs Association, fears the lockdown, which now covers the whole country, could mean the end of the region’s textile industry. “We are processing orders received before the crisis, but the buyers are not coming to place new ones. Moreover, fashion wholesale centres in Milan and Padova are now closed,” he said.

“It is not possible to have precise data, but the estimate is that losses for Chinese entrepreneurs in the area of Prato are around €10m (£9m) per month.”

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A report from the International Monetary Fund predicted Italy’s GDP will fall 0.6% in 2020 while the public debt will rise to 137% of GDP. Meanwhile, the Italian Chamber of Fashion recently stated that “we must regard the fashion industry as one of the most affected by the diffusion of the virus Covid-19, alongside tourism and transportation”.

“The next weeks are crucial for the economy,” said Matteo Caroli, an economist from Luiss University and expert in international business management.

“We are facing a big challenge: contain the virus and protect the economy. If the epidemic stops between April and May, it will be possible to contain the losses, otherwise we will face devastating scenarios with job losses and layoffs for many workers.”