Pandemic Borders

The Italian Chinatown that can teach us about resilience

The city of Prato shows how community resilience can counter both the spread of the virus and the spread of racism and xenophobia.

Caterina Francesca Guidi
1 June 2020
Photo courtesy of Valeria Randellini
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This brief contribution is dedicated to the memory of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang

In mid-February, when the supposed first coronavirus patient was registered in Lombardy, Prato had already been the subject of public debate in national and international media. The rapid spread of the virus led to a national lockdown on 12 March, while the situation has been dramatically worsening with over 225,000 people testing positive and more than 31,000 deceased.

In the Italian city of Prato 22% of the population are foreigners, with 59% of them Chinese. Adding to this the irregular migrants, Prato has the highest proportion of migrants in Italy and one of the biggest Chinese communities in Europe. Since the last administrative elections of 2019, Prato has also two counsellors of Chinese origin in its city council. Prato is an emblematic case given its strong links with China and has the potential of highlighting how community resilience can counter both the spread of the virus and the spread of racism and xenophobia.

Undoubtedly, the situation has presented two distinct phases with regards to the behaviour towards Chinese communities in Italy. From the beginning of the year until mid-February, the growing number of coronavirus infections in Wuhan started to be monitored on a daily basis by the media, while the international community was still thinking that this was only a Chinese issue. When three cases of COVID-19 coming from China were discovered at the end of January, the Italian decision of stopping international flights with China was judged exaggerated by segments of the population and some in the Italian government. The concern for potential damage to the economic relations between the two countries was more worrying than the implications on national public health.

Since then, due to the fearful situation and confused messages coming from official bodies, Italian newspapers have reported daily episodes of racism against Chinese people bullied or discriminated against by Italians. Chinese tourists were insulted on the street, demands for restrictions on Chinese children in schools were made, prejudice about Chinese personal hygiene were expressed by politicians, and an undeclared boycott of Chinese shops all across Italy was at work. In response, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, visited a school in Rome with a prominent foreign presence, especially Chinese students, to show friendship towards co-citizens. “#Iamnotavirus” “#viralagainstthevirus” were some of the most popular hashtags under which free hugs and solidarity campaigns towards Chinese communities in Italy were launched.

Solidarity and civic responsibility

Despite the fact that the majority of Prato’s Chinese residents come from Wenzhou, one thousand miles away from the epicentre in Wuhan, the city’s Chinese community put itself in a voluntary self-quarantine since mid-January, with a strong sense of discipline. One month before anyone else, Prato’s Chinatown looked isolated with empty streets, desolate squares, and people wearing protective gear against an unknown enemy. People monitored each other through online chats, explicitly dedicated to tracking COVID-19 symptoms among those coming back from China after the New Year celebrations.

On the first weekend of February, the ritual celebrations of the Chinese New Year’s Eve were cancelled by Prato’s Buddhist Temple, Pu Hua Si, and Sino-Italian Associations, to demonstrate solidarity with China’s struggle against COVID-19. The week after, a local radio station, ControRadio, organized a live transmission by the Buddhist Temple, called “Prato contro la paura” (Prato against Fear). I participated in the event in solidarity.

It has been estimated that around 100,000 masks have been sent from Prato to China, but also 30,000 more have been brought personally by representativse of Prato’s Buddhist Temple to the most hit zones in Lombardy.

Since the beginning of the Italian lockdown, doctors and medical equipment from China, the EU, and elsewhere, arrived to help the Italian health workers. A delegation of doctors from Fujian visited Prato’s hospital. Prato’s Chinese citizens started to donate masks and gloves to their neighbours and to people across Italy. Across the city, posters appeared to remind that “A virus has neither nationality nor colour”.

Numerous newspapers are depicting Prato, one of the Tuscan provinces less hit by the pandemic, as a model of intercultural dialogue and public health prevention. At the time of writing there were no cases of Chinese affected by COVID-19 registered in Prato’s hospital.

This is not to create further myths about the Chinese community but to show that the preventive measures and a constant dialogue between the community and local administration, at any level – Region, Municipality, districts, schools, etc. - have been working. The decision by a majority of Prato’s Chinese firms of not re-opening in mid-April due to the instability of the pandemic is also meaningful. What it tells us is that in times of high uncertainty, the examples coming from countries of origin seem to count more than those from countries of residence.

Italian citizens seem to have changed their xenophobic attitudes towards Chinese co-citizens, recognising the importance of their behaviour during the pandemic, as much as Chinese citizens seem to devote more attention to health than to the economic aspect of the crisis. Moreover, the solidarity demonstrated at the individual level has another dimension as well as part of China’s international diplomatic efforts to overcome the stigma of being the world’s infector. Prato seems to be the practical example that shows how old narratives – such as “racism vs solidarity” or “nationals vs foreigners” – can be surpassed.

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