The death of a store clerk in Italy highlights a new front line in the battle against Covid-19


An empty restaurant in Milan on Thursday, March 19, 2020An empty restaurant in Milan on Thursday, March 19, 2020 An empty restaurant in Milan on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)

By Emma Bubola

As the fatalities have piled up, with a daily accounting of the dead serving as a grim scorecard on whether Italy is gaining ground in its war with the coronavirus, there have been milestones.

One came early, when it became clear that the virus was killing off a generation of older people. Another came with the death of the first medical worker, a reminder that the same people fighting the crisis were becoming victims.

But this week, the death of Mariagrazia Casanova in the city of Brescia, in Italy’s hard-hit north, was a new and frightening measure of the coronavirus’s deepening penetration into Italian society.

Casanova, 49, was a supermarket clerk.

The coronavirus has ground much of life in Italy and elsewhere to a halt as governments lock down societies to stop the contagion’s spread. But there are some parts of life that must go on, and the virus has imbued otherwise ordinary tasks, like grocery shopping, with extraordinary risk.

It has also turned the people who fill often overlooked, low-paid jobs into unlikely heroes in the battle with the virus, through no choice of their own, but rather because of the world’s suddenly topsy-turvy circumstances and the nature of their work, which requires constant contact with people from all walks of life.

Casanova’s death raised awareness of how essential those unsung jobs are and called attention to the exceptional dangers that grocery clerks, delivery people, fishmongers, bakers and butchers, among others, must now take to continue to provide not just for themselves and their families but also for their neighbours.

Most immediately, it sent a ripple of fear through the store where she worked and, then, as the news spread, through groceries, mailrooms and other worksites that provide door-to-door services.

“I am scared I am going to die,” said Denni Asolini, the store’s union representative, who was Casanova’s colleague for 25 years. “It happened to Mariagrazia, but it could have been any of us.”

“We provide an essential good,” he said. “So the good comes first and we are left behind.”

A homeless person takes shelter under the train tracks in the area of Porto Fluviale in Rome, on March 15, 2020.A homeless person takes shelter under the train tracks in the area of Porto Fluviale in Rome, on March 15, 2020. A homeless person takes shelter under the train tracks in the area of Porto Fluviale in Rome, on March 15, 2020. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

Italy has closed its schools, its restaurants and many of its factories to stop what has become the world’s most deadly coronavirus outbreak. As health care workers fight in the trenches against the virus, supermarket lines have become another front line.

“I think in particular before everything to doctors, nurses, but I also think of the police, the army, the men and women of the civil protection, supermarket clerks,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Saturday night as he introduced still more restrictive measures to contain infections across the country.

About 12 miles south of Brescia — which had more than 6,000 reported cases as of Tuesday — Debora Bravo, a cashier at a supermarket in Leno, said that “stress and fear” accompanied her to work every day.

Last week she worked at the register as customers touched the products without wearing gloves. Many stood in checkout lines without wearing masks or keeping a safe distance apart.

On Saturday night, she got the news that one of her colleagues was hospitalised in an intensive care unit with coronavirus. “We are the only ones to be so exposed, together with doctors and nurses” she said. “But we are not being protected.”

On March 1, a government decree allowed supermarkets to stay open provided that customers were allowed in small numbers. A subsequent agreement between unions and the state required companies to provide hand sanitizer and masks to employees.

But union officials said that only a minority of the supermarkets, mostly the big chains, were complying. In Lombardy, at the centre of the epidemic, only 40 per cent of supermarkets have put in place controls on entrances and provided masks to employees, Valter Chiocci, a union representative in Brescia estimated.

On Saturday, the region of Lombardy recommended that supermarkets take customers’ temperature at the entrance. But with a lack of equipment and around 30 per cent of the staff on sick leave and quarantine, union officials said such precautions were unrealistic.

A supermarket in Milan on Monday, March 23, 2020. A sign in the shop asks customers to stay out of certain areas. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)

Casanova had told her colleagues early last week that she had a sore throat and trouble breathing. Four days later, she was dead. Doctors wrote that she had had a heart attack, and “suspected coronavirus” infection, her husband said, but they did not test her, as she died before they could perform a swab test.

“All these women are heroes,” Gianluigi Ricca, her husband, said of Casanova’s colleagues. “They are overexposed — they run the risk every day.”

After receiving the news Friday morning, the supermarket said that it would close as soon as it checked out the last customers in the store.

Cristina Bonsignori, another cashier at the Brescia supermarket, sat at her register wearing a homemade cotton mask, feeling “between disbelief and fear.” When a man with groceries approached, she asked him to respect the 1-meter social distance rule. Instead he lashed out, telling her he would teach her how to do her job.

Earlier in the month, Elio Maffioli, a postal carrier in Bergamo — where about 6,700 people were infected with coronavirus as of Tuesday — said that the night he learned his longtime colleague and friend had died of the virus, he didn’t sleep.

“I’m not only scared to catch it — I am also scared of passing it on,” he said.

In addition to supermarkets, post offices have become places that people wanting a break from being penned up in their homes have visited, some more often than necessary.

As a result, a local postal workers union representative said, post offices have become crowded, increasing the risk for workers. Four mail carriers have died of the coronavirus in Italy in the last two weeks, two of them in Bergamo.

“We have to go out when all the guidelines say to stay home,” said Maffioli, 36. “But until the government decides otherwise, we can’t fail our job.”

One supermarket aired a commercial to encourage people to go shopping despite the coronavirus. In the advertisement, a shop assistant says that shelves are constantly restocked and that the stores are sanitized. A customer says she does her part by shopping alone and keeping a safe distance. “We are the same as always,” the voice-over says.

On Saturday night at a Verona supermarket, Sabrina Danieli, a shop assistant, took a picture of the shelves customers had emptied after the region said that supermarkets would close Sunday.

“Did you hear about that cashier who died in Brescia?” she asked a colleague, referring to Casanova, a mother of one.

“She was only 49,” her colleague, wearing a plexiglass shelter around her head, answered. “I heard she had four kids.”

Danieli, 49, said that she had not seen her elderly parents in weeks for fear of infecting them. “I can’t tell how much this costs us,” she said.

Last week, Asolini, the union representative and colleague of Casanova, had helped put up above the fish counter a rainbow drawing colored by the children of a colleague, with the words “Everything is going to be all right.”

The father of the children had since gotten sick, too.

“We’ll have to take it down,” he said of the drawing.

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