Update from Sicily: fear of coronavirus

While northern Italy has been fighting against the coronavirus in recent weeks, people in Sicily were worrying about experiencing conditions like those in the north. Many people in Catania are terrified, we learn from Elvira from the Centro Astalli, a daytime shelter facility for refugees, which we have been supporting for many years. She is afraid of a wave of infections like in the north, which the medical facilities in the south would be even less able to cope with. The consequences for refugees, who often have difficulties accessing the health care system, could be devastating.

Nationwide curfews have been in force in Italy since March 10. On 12 March, the Centro Astalli had to close, just like all other facilities of this kind. Since then, refugees have been cut off from showers, legal advice, medical care, access to a digital classroom with language courses, and donated clothing. In the days before March 12, when it became clear they would have to close, large numbers of people took the last chance to visit the Centro. Thousands of refugees all over Sicily are homeless or live in poverty in unofficial camps, run-down apartments or abandoned country houses.

Although there are no deportations at present and residence permits for those who have been living in Italy for a longer period of time do not expire because courts are not working. But now many of them have no possibility to earn money. Elvira reports that many either cannot get assignments or are simply no longer paid for the work they do.

Since the lockdown started, help is hard to come by. Many refugees are barely able to provide for themselves or get assistance from charitable institutions such as the Centro Astalli. Therefore the city has collected money for an emergency relief store. It is located in a district where many of the refugees live and offers at least a basic supply of food. Some showers have been made available through the Italian Red Cross, which also measures temperatures and distributes medicine. In addition, the Centro Astalli supports the Imam of Catania, who has also been helping refugees for a long time.

However, the longer the restrictions on public life drag on, the more precarious the situation becomes for those who fall through all social safety nets. If, as we fear, the coronavirus spreads among those, in places where standards of hygiene and adequate medical care cannot be maintained, the consequences are unpredictable. Every month more people are coming to Italy via the Mediterranean: 1340 in January, 1213 in February, 241 in March, 435 in April so far.

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