‘We’re not told how many are infected': What it’s like to run a town under coronavirus lockdown

A police officer talks to a young man at a road block in Casalpusterlengo. (Getty Images)

Interview by Claudio Semenza

Casalpusterlengo is a town of around 15,000 inhabitants located about 50km from Milan - and it’s one of the 11 Italian municipalities included in the so-called “Red Zone” of the coronavirus emergency.

In recent days, Italy has been placed at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe as fears intensify over its spread across the continent.

Authorities in Italy have said the number of people infected in the country stands at more than 400, up around 50% in the past 24 hours. Twelve people have died. 

It’s in Casalpusterlengo where a 38-year-old man from Codogno - who is thought to have been the first person in Italy to have contracted the virus and from whom many of the region’s infections originated - worked.

Italian state police check cars and passengers moving in and out of the city as restrictive measures are taken to contain the outbreak of Coronavirus COVID-19. (AP)

On February 22, another woman considered to be the second Italian who died from the COVID-19 virus was also identified in the town, which is located in the north of the country.

Since then, no one has entered or exited Casalpusterlengo. All access routes are manned by law enforcement personnel. The inhabitants are in quarantine.

Elia Delmiglio, aged just 25, has been the mayor of the town since May 2019, and is now in the front line of the emergency. 

In an interview with Yahoo, he told us about the town’s experience with isolation so far.

Mayor, how are you doing?

“Fine, aside from the fact that I sleep three hours a night, at most. Since the emergency has been declared, I’ve been staying at the City Hall, glued to the phone, trying to answer all the citizens’ requests.”

The mayor of Casalpusterlengo, Elia Delmiglio.

What is the most common question they have?

“‘Mayor, when will it end?’ But that’s also the most difficult question. Right now, people are talking about 15 days of quarantine. But the correct answer is that it will last until further instructions.”

How are your fellow citizens doing?

“I’m talking from the point of view of community management. I’d rather not say anything regarding the medical-scientific situation, everyone must do their own job.

“I can say that everyone is facing this emergency with a great amount of responsibility. It is an unexpected situation, but the population is getting used to this unreal situation, to living within the Red Zone with everything shut down. People are going out, taking walks around town, but all the bars, all the offices, all the schools, all the companies engaged in economic production are closed.”

The sign on the window reads 'Face masks are over'. (Getty Images)

No one goes out and no one comes in – is that right?

“Right, except for a few special cases that the Prefecture is analysing on a case-by-case basis.”

Have you been out of the area?

“No, I’ve been taking part in meetings remotely, via audio/video link. As I said, people’s lives are focused on the essentials: they are mainly going out to do their shopping or to the pharmacy.”

“We have seen that in some cities, Milan included, there have been cases of full-on assaults in the supermarkets to buy food. Is that happening where you are, in the Red Zone?

“I’d say no. In the first few days, there was a frenzy in the supermarket, which was misguided, in my opinion. Then, people realised that the supermarkets are not closing and that supplies are coming in regularly, and the situation stabilised. We have asked the citizens to shop responsibly.

“I repeat: we are not experiencing any food or medicine shortages at the moment. But we are also monitoring the situation.”

Police have let few people in or out of the town since February 23 (Getty Images)

What about medical checks among the population? Are you subjected to special treatment in the Red Zone?

“The swab to check for the infection is only performed if there are symptoms that the telephone-based medical triage identifies as possible symptoms of the Coronavirus. Those who know that they have been in contact with an infected person know the quarantine procedure they must follow very well, and are respecting it, but the swab is only performed if the symptoms occur.”

Did the fact that the second Italian victim of the Coronavirus was discovered in Casalpusterlengo make it more difficult to manage the emergency, from an emotional point of view?

“First of all, our fellow citizen who died was found to have been infected only after her death, and it’s not certain that the virus was the real cause. This woman, like all the other victims recorded in Italy, was already suffering from another illness. That said, this has been a great pain for our community, and our hearts go out to her bereaved family.”

Casalpusterlengo is one of the 11 small towns placed under lockdown. (Getty Images)

Do you know how many positive cases of infection there are in Casalpusterlengo?

“No, that’s not something we’re being told.”

Did they take a swab from you as well?

“No, fortunately I’m feeling fine at the moment.”

You are a very young mayor, at 25 years old. Do you feel confidence from the citizens around you?

“I’d have to say yes, even in ways I wasn’t expecting. I’m very excited about it, because I am receiving a lot of gratitude, thanks, encouragement. It’s exciting to receive such a response for a mayor in such a delicate situation, beyond all political divisions and political colours. It helps me a lot.

Even sleeping just three hours a night?

“That’s right – we never quit.”