From Covid-Free to Covid Town: Sicilian Town Meets the Virus

People in Castelbuono, Sicily, keep physically distant from one another as they wait to enter stores in a central square in their town. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — It wasn’t long ago that Castelbuono was held up as a success story in keeping the novel coronavirus off its streets and as someone else’s messy and traumatic reality.

But in the space of three weeks, this mountain burg in northern Sicily, a charming former Medieval fiefdom with a rich cultural history, went from zero Covid-19 cases to more than 100.

That’s a lot for a community with about 9,000 residents. In epidemiological terms, Castelbuono is experiencing what is known as “community spread,” a state where the virus is quickly passing from one person to another and, if left unchecked, can lead to out-of-control transmission.

It’s a harsh dose of reality that populations around the world have had to swallow: The moment when the coronavirus is no longer an imaginary threat.

Castelbuono is in the midst of a wave of infections hitting southern Italy, one of Europe’s poorer regions where public health systems have been weakened by cuts in recent decades and where lockdowns are exasperating tough economic conditions. Sicily’s unemployment rate stands at about 40%.

In Naples, hospitals were so overwhelmed, patients were treated in parking lots and videos surfaced on social media showing at least two Covid-19 patients who’d died inside hospital bathrooms. 

The Campania region ran low on oxygen tanks and struggled with a shortage of medical staff. Similar problems have been reported in Sicily, which is pleading with Cuba to send medical teams. Cuba has dispatched its health workers around the world during the pandemic, earning the communist island nation praise.

A walk through Castelbuono finds a town in a state of anxiety where the residents, under orders to wear masks and keep distant from one another, can’t help but carry on their customary banter — though at a bit more of a distance. 

A medical worker conducts Covid-19 tests during a mass screening of schoolchildren and school staff on Nov. 14, 2020, in Castelbuono, Sicily. The mass screening was ordered after school staff began to get infected. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

Now, though, the conversations are tinged with recriminations and criticisms of the conduct of others for not wearing their masks properly or not at all, for spitting in the street, for holding parties away from prying eyes in the countryside, for not obeying the 10 p.m. curfew.

“You see 15-20 people sitting there on the benches in front of the cafe in the square, doing nothing,” one man complained, stopping to join a discussion outside a store. “The cafe owners need to tell them all to scatter. It’s not right! And the town police don’t do anything. Zero patrols!”

“My house has a balcony that overlooks the square,” he continued, bringing up another piece of evidence about how he sees his fellow citizens misbehaving and helping the virus spread.

“I watched a woman inspect every pepper, each one,” he said, referring to the piles of fruit and vegetable for sale outside a store on the square. “She picked up each pepper and no one said anything to her! I went down there myself and told them to stop her from touching all the vegetables!”

The store owner he was talking with nodded, his face shrouded in concern. He was in the mood to blame the mayor — as so many townsfolk are ready to do now. The mayor, a center-left politician called Mario Cicero, is coming under a lot of fire for not alerting Castelbuono quickly enough about the discovery of the first infections and for not doing more to enforce a curfew and other restrictions. 

Many people are blaming the arrival of the virus on the casual behavior of young people.

“He’s being light-handed,” the store owner said. “He doesn’t want to create any enemies.”

A woman in a mask reads death notices on a signboard in a central square in Castelbuono, Sicily. At least one death in Castelbuono has been caused by the virus. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

Making matters worse for the mayor, his administration was marketing the town as a safe place to visit because it was “Covid free” and declaring itself a success story. Castelbuono largely depends on tourists and its economy has suffered since the pandemic started.

In a Nov. 5 piece by the Giornale di Sicilia, a major Palermo-based newspaper, Cicero talked about how Castelbuono regularly disinfected its streets, barred traveling vendors and made waiters, cooks and store owners undergo monthly tests.

“We have been able to contain the spread of the virus,” the mayor told the newspaper, speaking from behind a visor.

Ironically, that same day the town was falling into a state of alarm after word surfaced that a school janitor had turned up positive with the virus, prompting an immediate shutdown of schools.

More school personnel were tested and more positive cases turned up. By Nov. 14, the town set up a mass screening for students and their families and school staff. About two dozen more infections were detected after about 500 people were tested.

The infections kept mounting and arrived at 106 earlier this week, with one death of an elderly person linked to the virus. Suddenly, Castelbuono was making headlines as a hotspot in Sicily.

The rash of infections has left residents stunned and the mayor open to brutal criticism.

“We’ve gone from being Covid-free to being Covid-fried,” said Vincenzo Allegra, a veterinarian and the leader of a rival political group in town, as he stood outside a cafe in the town’s main square.

With sarcasm, he added: “They thought the Madonna of St. Anne was protecting Castelbuono and that she’d keep the virus from ever entering.” St. Anne is Castelbuono’s patron saint.

A bread store in Castelbuono, Sicily, displays signs in its window depicting the various sanitary measures clients need to follow to enter. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

He criticized the mayor’s “Covid-free” marketing campaign as downplaying the threat from the virus and helping foster lax attitudes. He said the mayor made the situation worse by not providing enough data on who is infected and how severe the infections are.

He surmised the number of people infected is far higher than the official numbers because so many cases are asymptomatic. 

“This is the most worrying element,” he said.

These days, it seems that everyone knows someone who’s been infected or who’s in quarantine, adding new strange layers to the life of a close-knit mountain town.

On the main street, a 61-year-old man stood on his balcony, taking in some fresh air on a bright November morning. He’d tested positive. He said he most likely picked up the virus from a priest he helps during church masses.

Pietro, a resident of Castelbuono, Sicily, who is in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19, stands on his balcony and speaks with a man passing by on the main street below. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

“Thanks to God I feel well,” he said, giving only his first name, Pietro. “I only felt a bit of nausea; food wasn’t very appealing. But no fever.”

He said it was lonely and boring in quarantine. A sister was bringing him food and he spent his time watching television and waiting for the moment to be able to walk the streets again.

As he stood on the balcony, every few moments someone passed along the street who knew him and called up to him. Some knew he was in quarantine, others didn’t.

“Pietro! How are you?” one man asked.

“I’m in quarantine,” Pietro replied.

“Really! How do you feel? Do you have a fever?”

“No, I feel fine.”

Shortly afterward, another man came along with a cloth medical mask awkwardly displayed on his face that left his nostrils exposed. They spoke jovially and then Pietro kindly scolded him: “Come on, put your mask up!”

The threat of the virus is causing fear and by evening the streets are empty. Children are indoors, told not to go outside. All the schools are closed and classes are now online.

“It would be better not to go out at all,” a retired forest firefighter said as he stood outside a cafe on a side street. People now must drink or eat whatever they order at cafes on the street. “But I can’t stay home. I have to go out.”

He sighed. “The town is a mess. We have to be careful,” he said. “I’m of a certain age now. I’ve decided to take the flu vaccine for the first time this year. When there is a vaccine for Covid, I’m going to take it, even if I have to pay for it.”

The bartender stood at the door too, his mask lowered below his chin. Just then, a police car passed by and the bartender quickly covered his face with his mask.

“You can’t take risks,” he said and lowered the mask below his chin once the police were out of sight. In public, everyone is supposed to wear a mask or face a fine.

The bartender’s removal of his mask with the passing of the police highlights another tension found in Castelbuono and around the world: Doubts about just how bad Covid-19 really is.

Cars line up for a mass screening on Nov. 14, 2020, in Castelbuono, Sicily, at the beginning of the town’s outbreak. The mass screening was ordered after school staff began to get infected. This month, Castelbuono went from being a town touted as a success story in containing the novel coronavirus to a Covid-19 hotspot. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

In the main square, as Allegra, the veterinarian and politician, spoke out against the mayor’s handling of the health crisis, he got into a conversation with a man called Gioacchino who was passing by. As it turned out, Gioacchino said two relatives had tested positive.

They began a lively back-and-forth about the virus.

Allegra pointed out that the vast majority of those infected showed few or no signs of sickness, prompting Gioacchino to raise his eyebrows and question whether the veterinarian was among those denying the seriousness of the pandemic.

“I am not a denier, absolutely not,” Allegra said. “But it’s important to distinguish between real facts from banal facts.”

“I can tell you Covid exists,” Gioacchino said. “You must adapt yourself to the restrictions. Now, if this government opens up the borders for Christmas, if everything is reopened, everyone’s sacrifices to be so careful will go to pieces. We’ll be ruined again.”

Down the main street, a two-man patrol of carabinieri, Italy’s military police, came into sight. They entered and exited businesses, ensuring the pandemic rules were being followed.

The conversation continued.

“At this point, the virus is everywhere: on surfaces, on door handles,” Gioacchino said, making sweeping gestures.

Vincenzo nodded. “Look, there are three of us here,” he said, referring to the Courthouse News reporter too. “Probably one of us, maybe all of us, have had Covid.”

Just then, a woman passing by was brought into the debate. She was a head nurse at a hospital about 40 miles from Castelbuono.

In a bizarre twist, she started to loudly deny the seriousness of the virus, saying doctors were being paid to classify deaths as being caused by the virus and claiming the majority of Covid-19 tests were giving false positives.

“It’s all manipulated, the doctors are bought off,” she said. “All the research has been manipulated, the statistics have been manipulated.”

Allegra and Gioacchino had already heard her spiels before.

The carabinieri passed by. 

“Good day,” everyone said.

The church bells rang as the lunch hour approached and the small gathering split up, each carrying away their own version of the pandemic.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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