Crema, in northern Italy, is a picture-perfect scene of idyllic life – cafes along cobblestoned roads, mountain views, grand buildings rich in Italian heritage, where the young and old can be found eating ice-cream on the steps of noble cathedrals

But now it resembles a ghost town.

Italy has become the hardest-hit country for the deadly coronavirus outside China, and the country has recorded 827 deaths as of Thursday. This has seen the country go into lockdown, with mass school closures, a closure of large events and even sports like the famous Serie A soccer league.

South Africans living in Italy have described an environment of fear and deserted streets. But shops are sometimes crowded with people scurrying for supplies, unsure of when stock will be replenished.

70-year-old Louisa Rossi who moved from South Africa to Crema in 1968 is a picture of cool and calm amid the hysteria.

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“I’ve got plenty to do here. At the moment, I’m pruning my fruit trees, I’ve got a big garden. We’ve got beautiful weather at the moment… I’ve got things that keep me busy,” she told News24.

“I’m not worried at all, I’m doing what the rules say – wash your hands, don’t put your hand by the mouth. What is important is that we must drink liquids often and not cold, iced liquids … stay away from people at a certain distances, no handshaking, no kissing.

‘No use panicking’

“I’m not worried at all. I took it (the lockdown) for what it is, and hopefully we’ll get over it. There’s no use panicking, it’s not going to get you nowhere.”

At first, Rossi said, the lockdown was not too severe and only implemented in some areas of Italy, but once the Italian government realised its success, when patients started to heal, and decided to expand it.

“Over here in Crema we hear ambulance sirens all the time. We’ve got people dying and they get collected and brought to the cemetery and buried because there is no church service because the church is closed.”

Rossi said schoolchildren have been at home for three weeks, being taught online. There have been no sporting activities either.

“It’s a critical situation. What I see is people around me because I live in the countryside, I see people walking, they stay a distance that is secure but here, we are out in the open.”

‘There is nobody around’

She said the normally busy piazza, where the local church is, is deserted these days.

Cas le Hane, 57, owns a smallholding in the region of Puglia. White sands, crystal beaches and old coastal Italian buildings make the area a popular holiday destination.

He grew up on the Cape Flats in the 1960s and moved to Italy from Cape Town seven years ago.

Since the lockdown he now fears his business of letting out part of his smallholding will be impacted.

“We are expecting cancellations… I think people who have booked out our place this year are waiting to see whether there is going to be positive developments.

“I think should there be positive developments, then Italy will swing from being the most infected European country to probably being one of the safest,” he said.

Despite this, Le Hane believes the government has made the right decision.

“They are taking the spread of the virus very seriously and, personally, I think that is the right way to go.”

When he tried to buy some supplies in preparation for the lockdown, Le Hane said he saw a crowd of people outside the grocery store.

No quintessential Italian kisses

People were longer giving each other the quintessential Italian kiss on the cheeks, instead they fist bumped or used their elbows, Le Hane said.

He added: “People drive with loud hailers here and encouraged or instructed people to remain indoors, particularly after dark and after people have done their daily moving about.

“People are dying. It would be a bit daft to say that you are not worried. I think the general perception is that some people are over-reacting, but I’d rather have an environment like this than one where people are advocating that this is a storm in [a] teacup – it’s not,” he said.