ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s southern regions warned hundreds of thousands of its people who emigrated to work in the north of the country not to return home, amid fears they will flee a massive no-go zone set up to contain an outbreak of coronavirus.
The unprecedented lockdown was announced by the government overnight and will affect some 16 million inhabitants in the wealthy region of Lombardy, centered on the financial capital Milan, and 14 provinces also in the north.
An estimated two million people have left the underdeveloped south in the past 15 years in search of work and hundreds of thousands of them have settled in the north. With a four-week shutdown looming, many of them are expected to try to return to their old family homes to sit out the contagion.
However, the governor of Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, made an impassioned plea on Facebook for them to remain in the north, the epicenter of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
“I speak to you as if you were my children, my brothers, my nephews and nieces: stop and go back,” said Michele Emiliano. “Get off at the first train station, do not catch planes … turn your cars around, get off your buses. Do not bring the Lombard, Veneto and Emilia epidemic to Puglia.”
To underscore his determination, he signed a decree saying anyone arriving from the vast northern red zone would have to put themselves in quarantine for two weeks.
The northern regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto represent 85% of all the 5,883 confirmed cases to date and 92% of the 233 recorded deaths. Puglia has had just 26 cases, while the arch of Italy’s boot, Basilicata, has had 3 cases and Calabria, the toe, four cases.
The government appears to be giving people a day before formally enacting the lockdown and television showed hundreds of travelers flowing into Milan’s central station overnight to catch trains out of the city.
The president of Calabria, Jole Santelli, joined Emiliano in urging people to steer clear, saying her region’s fragile health system, which is far less developed than in the north, could not withstand a major medical crisis.
“The government must block an exodus to Calabria, which risks triggering a disastrous bomb,” Santelli said. “Returning from the north in an uncontrolled manner endangers our land and our loved ones. Don’t do it. Stop.”
Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Potter