Tensions rise at virus hot spot apartments in southern Italy

By TRISHA THOMAS and FRANCES D’EMILIO for the Associated Press

MONDRAGONE, Italy (AP) — The governor of a southern Italian region insisted on Friday that residents of an apartment complex quarantine inside for 15 days, not even venturing out to buy food, after dozens of COVID-19 cases among Bulgarian seasonal farm workers and Italians who live there were confirmed.

Residents stand on a balcony of an apartment complex where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been registered among a community of Bulgarian farm workers, in Mondragone, in the southern Italian region of Campania, Friday, June 26, 2020. The governor of the region is insisting that the farm workers should stay inside for 15 days, not even emerging for food, and that the national civil protection agency should deliver them groceries. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Wearing a mask to discourage virus spread, Campania Gov. Vincenzo De Luca told reporters that the national civil protection agency should deliver groceries to the estimated 700 occupants of the apartments in Mondragone, a seaside town about 50 kilometers (32 miles) northwest of Naples.

The complex must be kept in “rigorous isolation,” De Luca said. That means that for 15 days, “nobody leaves and nobody enters” the apartments.

Later on Friday, the governor said that of 743 swab tests performed on residents who live in the complex’ five buildings, 43 COVID-19 cases were detected, including those of nine homeless Italians who have been sheltering in one of the buildings.

Fueling some of the anger in the town had been word that some of the Bulgarians had fled from the complex, in defiance of the mandatory quarantine order. But De Luca said that all 19 who had run away had been tracked down and tested for the coronavirus, and “thank God, all tested negative.”

The entire town of 30,000 has been urged to be tested, and many people lined up Friday to have swab tests.

“Since this morning, when we started, we have done over 250 swabs. They have understood here the importance of being careful about this virus,” said a Red Cross volunteer, Massimo D’Alessio.

The south has been spared the high numbers of coronavirus cases that have ravaged northern Italy.

Known for his particularly hard line on anti-contagion measures throughout the nationwide coronavirus outbreak this year, De Luca has vowed to lock down all of Mondragone if the number of cases at the hot spot reaches 100.

“Have I been clear? I’m used to speaking clearly,″ De Luca told RAI state TV.

The apartment complex was put under lockdown earlier in the week, and all who live there were ordered to be tested for the virus, after a handful of cases initially surfaced.

The Campania region has requested police reinforcements to impose the quarantine on the complex. De Luca said the Interior Ministry had authorized an army contingent.

The apartment residents have balked at staying indoors in these hot, steamy summer days. Tensions flared on Thursday, with Italians in the streets jeering at the Bulgarians who live in the complex, although Friday, tensions appeared mainly limited to name-calling.ADVERTISEMENT

“It is like a war between the two communities,” said Giuseppe Capotosto, a Civil Protection volunteer, referring to the Italians and the Bulgarians who live in the complex. “Basically there is no integration, we just would like to integrate these people, help them, but they have no intention to integrate in the community.”

The Bulgarians are currently harvesting string beans and other vegetables at farms near Mondragone.

Italians, migrants from Africa and Asia, as well as seasonal workers from Europe, including Ukrainians, Romanians and Bulgarians are involved in picking fruit and vegetables at orchards and farms throughout Italy.

Igor Prata, an official from the CGIL labor confederation told Sky TG24 in Mondragone that Bulgarians are among exploited farm workers.

“Let’s not forget they work (seasonally) for years, subject to exploitation,″ Plata said. They labor from nine to 11 hours daily in the fields, with men earning at most 40 euros ($45) per a day’s work, and women earning about 5 euros less, he said. Each laborer gives some 5 euros of daily wages to gang bosses who help them find work or transport them to fields.

Gov. De Luca said the first COVID-19 case among the Bulgarians was that of a woman who gave birth in a local hospital, with the newborn testing negative.

Tracing down the woman’s contacts eventually led to the discovery of the other cases at the complex, De Luca said.

During the pandemic, Campania has registered some 4,660 COVID-19 cases and 431 deaths, a small fraction of the nationwide cases and deaths.

In Italy’s north, in the area of Bologna, another outbreak triggered concern by health authorities. Italian news reports said 64 workers at courier services, most of them with one company, have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. So far, 370 people, including the delivery workers and their families, have been tested. Nearly all of the positive cases are without symptoms and only two have been hospitalized, Corriere della Sera daily reported.


Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.