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Italy Struggles With The Impact Of The Coronavirus Outbreak

NOEL KING, HOST:

Italy is dealing with a sudden COVID-19 outbreak. Seven people have died, and there are 230 cases at this point. It could mean trouble for Italy's economy, but it already means that Italians are feeling isolated from the rest of the world. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is there.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Two virus clusters are in the north, Italy's financial and industrial heartland. Eleven towns in the Lombardy and Veneto regions are under quarantine, sealed off by police checkpoints. In Milan, a city of three million, schools, movie theaters, museums, cafes and bars are closed for a week. Usually one of Europe's most vibrant cities with an intense nightlife, Milan is surreal, empty and silent. On Monday, the Milan stock market plunged, and businesses started to hurt. In Rome, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte acknowledged the impact could be very strong.

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PRIME MINISTER GIUSEPPE CONTE: (Through interpreter) We are not yet in a position to forecast what will happen, but we are ready to cope with this economic emergency and do everything possible to lessen its negative impact.

POGGIOLI: Today, Conte will meet governors of the affected regions in an effort to stem growing panic. Already, Matteo Salvini, leader of the opposition, hard-right League Party, accused Conte of not defending Italy and Italians, claiming African migrants are bringing the virus into the country. Conte reacted with contempt.

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CONTE: (Through interpreter) The opposition leader has the obligation to refrain from voicing stupidities and must stop exploiting an issue of national concern.

POGGIOLI: Some Italians travelling abroad are being singled out. A bus from Milan was barricaded by police in the French city of Lyon for health checks. And an Alitalia plane that landed in Mauritius was sent back. Several countries - including Israel, Ireland and Greece - advise their citizens not to visit Italy. While some Italians call the quarantines draconian, Doctor Roberto Burioni, a virologist, says isolation is the only way to stop contagion.

ROBERTO BURIONI: (Through interpreter) In about 10 days, we will hopefully see the efficacy of the sacrifices our citizens are now making in those isolated towns.

POGGIOLI: Reporters can't get into the lockdown area, but residents are communicating with the outside through social media.

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ROBERTO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: In this Facebook video, Roberto and his wife, Alice, describe their daily lives. "We're in the center of the red zone," says Roberto. "We don't go where there are crowds, we keep to ourselves," adds Alice, "we're on a kind of forced vacation." Some posts sound like a contemporary spin on "The Decameron," Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century tale of a group of young men and women who, sheltering from the plague, tell each other stories of love, sex and jokes, like this young unidentified man.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "I just want to tell you, coronavirus, be careful, sweetheart, because we're going to beat you to a pulp."

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Ciao, everyone. See you after quarantine."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "RETURN TO BLACKNESS (FOR GB)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.