Alarmed by news from Wuhan, many in the Tuscan city of Prato took precautions early.
With the largest concentration of Chinese residents in Europe, the medieval city of Prato, near Florence, was predicted by many at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic to be the most likely place where the coronavirus would first strike.
But far from facilitating the epidemic, the city’s Chinese community has been credited with helping to protect Prato from the outbreak, through early adoption of strict isolation measures.
Prato, where about 10 percent of residents are of Chinese origin, has seen just 479 cases of the coronavirus — fewer than any other province in the Tuscany region. Not a single member of the Chinese community there has tested positive for the virus, according to officials.
In late January, weeks before Italy registered its first coronavirus case, many Prato Chinese went into self-isolation, closed businesses and kept children at home. Social pressure from the community ensured a scrupulous adherence to the rules and a fastidious attention to hygiene.
“People were really conscientious,” said Xu Qiulin, a long-term resident and head of the city’s Chinese Friendship cultural association. “Everyone tried to stay home as much as possible.”
The self-discipline exhibited by Prato’s Chinese residents even helped alert native Italian residents to the danger, officials say, giving the city a head start when it came to fighting the virus and defusing some of the ethnic tensions.
“The Chinese community set a good example, creating a virtuous circle,” said Matteo Biffoni, Prato’s mayor. “The seriousness of the virus was understood in Prato, perhaps before anywhere else in Italy, and thanks to their example, we all got into line.”
At a time when the virus was mostly believed to be afflicting Asia, Prato — nicknamed Italy’s “Little China” — seemed like an obvious Achilles’ heel, especially with an estimated 2,000 people due to return home from holidays in China after the Chinese New Year on February 12.
A textiles hub since medieval times, the city began to attract workers from Wenzhou, a port city in eastern China, in the 1990s. While there are about 30,000 official Chinese residents in the province, some estimate illegal immigrants make the real total as high as 50,000. One in 6 children in Prato is of Chinese origin.
Chinese immigrants initially worked for Italian companies specializing in high-quality fabric. But as globalization drove down prices, wiping out jobs, Chinese entrepreneurs set up their own fast-fashion workshops, trading on the Made in Italy label.
The community has been accused of showing no interest in integration and of avoiding taxes, opening and closing garment workshops under new names to avoid checks. A fire in 2013 that killed seven Chinese workers highlighted the often-inhumane working conditions that can exist in Prato’s factories.
The viral outbreak initially threatened to inflame community relations, providing fuel for anti-migrant discourse by Italian far-right groups. Across Italy, Chinese nationals were being targeted for abuse. Amnesty International in February condemned a “shameful wave” of xenophobia directed at the country’s Chinese community.
“The idea of being in a city of so many Chinese with strong links to the home country made some people fearful,” said Lorenzo Rocchi, a local politician in the leftist Democratic Party. “That turned out to be completely wrong — in the end the virus arrived here from Lombardy.”
Most Prato Chinese still trace their origins to Wenzhou, 1,000 miles from the Wuhan outbreak. Like many other Chinese cities, Wenzhou went into lockdown before New Year, meaning most visitors who had traveled from Prato spent the festive period in quarantine. When they got back to Italy, another two weeks of quarantine awaited them, under the watchful eye of community leaders.
Discipline was enforced using methods imported from China. The community groups used the Chinese messaging app WeChat to circulate lists of names, addresses, phone numbers and date of return, explained Marco Wong, Prato’s first Chinese city councillor. A neighbor would do their grocery shopping, and someone would telephone to check on them and ask their temperature. “It was a low-tech, homemade version of the strict lockdown in China,” he said.
As residents of Prato received a drip feed of bad news from family in China, they became alarmed at the lack of preparation in Italy. They tried to warn the authorities to act sooner, said Wong. “They asked me to persuade the city council, make everyone wear masks.”
The other Prato inhabitants did not fail to notice that the Chinese were taking the epidemic seriously, said Biffoni, the mayor. “They said to themselves, if Chinese, who normally work all hours of the day, are not working, it must be serious.” The result was that Prato had the advantage of being better organized and reacting faster when the virus arrived, he said.
Since the virus outbreak, some Chinese factories have converted to making protective equipment for front-line workers. One of the largest is supplying masks to the region of Tuscany. Chinese entrepreneurs have also facilitated delivery of humanitarian aid from China including ventilators, surgical gowns and masks.
These goodwill gestures, alongside the exemplary behavior of the community, despite suffering economically as a result of their extra-long lockdown, have helped inspire a new Italian appreciation for the Prato Chinese.
“At least something good has come out of this ugly situation,” said Wong. “The crisis has helped us grow into one community.”
Naturally some tensions remain. “We are a multiethnic community. We’ve had our difficulties. They are not all resolved,” said the mayor. “But the contribution [of the Chinese community] has helped us take a few steps forward for sure.”