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Italian brewer in Lombardy: 'The main lie we have seen is that the virus can only be dangerous for the elderly'

A brewer in Codogno, Lombardy – ‘the Wuhan of Italy’ – has advice for Irish people on how to view the threat of the virus.

Image: Antonio Calanni

AN ITALIAN BREWER based in the centre of Lombardy, which was the first area in Italy to go into a ‘Red Zone’ lockdown, has advised Irish people that coronavirus isn’t just ‘the flu for the elderly’ – adding that people in their 40s are being hospitalised.

It comes as countries prepare for the influx of hospitalisations from the virus, which had been dismissed by some members of the public as ‘like the flu’ due to similar symptoms. Doctors are now comparing it to severe pneumonia. 

Pietro Di Pilato runs the Brewfist brewery and taproom, based in a small town in Lombardy called Codogno, where 15,000 people live.

On Friday 21 February, they got word that a man in the town had been infected by the virus, but they didn’t worry too much about it, as it was just one case.

This was the case of ‘patient one’, also known as Mattia – a 38-year-old Unilever worker who was recently released from the intensive care unit after contracting the virus.

This is considered the source of both the Codogno outbreak and another in the Veneto region – but ‘patient zero’, who passed it onto him, has yet to be found. Patient Zero was originally thought to be a man who had travelled back from China – but he tested negative for the virus.

Close contacts of the 38-year-old also contracted the virus, including his pregnant wife, a friend, regulars at a bar in Codogno, as well as doctors, nurses and other hospital patients. He was also a customer of the Brewfist taproom. 

‘Ambulances every 20 minutes’

By 2pm on that Friday of the confirmed case, the Brewfist taproom was closed, and by the end of the day all pub, bars, and restaurants were closed.

“We’ve been quarantined for a month now,” Di Pilato says. Police and the army came to close the roads, and authorisation and permission were needed to leave the area.

“Things got more and more serious – but to get to this point, I mean no no one was really, really expecting it. Things climbed within a few days – the nightmare with ambulances everywhere, people dying. So things changed really quickly.”

In the first two weeks it was really dramatic. I live in the very centre of the town and you could hear ambulances one every 20 minutes. 
Then, when we were close to the end of the second week, you could see that the things were improving because the sound of the ambulances were less and less frequent and the numbers were doing really well. 

He said that they’re now starting to close parks in Italy, as many activities are banned, but people are still gathering outdoors.

“The main problem with Italy is we’re not really good at following rules. Nowadays, you have to stay home, unless you have a very good reason or you have to go shopping for food.” 

“People have to understand it, they have to stay in. I know it’s hard – I’m looking outside of the brewery, it’s 20 degrees in Italy, it’s a beautiful sunny day. It’s hard. 

“But, if we want to go back to our life as soon as possible, this is the only way.”

When asked what advice he has for people, Di Pilato says:

“I would say, obviously, I have a lot of friends abroad, I have a lot of friends in the UK. The UK is a country that scares me because of the way the approach it, but now people are starting to realise that is not a joke virus. But I would say that the main lie that we have seen in newspapers all around the world, is that the virus can be dangerous only for the elderly, and that is not true.

There’s been a lot of people my age, I’m 40s, a lot of people my age hospitalised and under ventilation because they couldn’t breathe on their own. Obviously, if you are 80 years old, you’re probably more at risk, but if you are 40, you are not safe.

“So, you shouldn’t be underestimating it. And we all have to be very smart and take care of ourselves and try to avoid too much contact.”

Keeping the business afloat 

At the start, they weren’t allowed to make deliveries, so they just focused on paperwork. 

But by the time they entered their second week of quarantine, they had gained authorisation to leave and make deliveries. 

He said that at this point, it was just Lombardy in lockdown, so there was a lot of empathy for businesses in the region as the rest of the country was still running.

“So we got a lot of orders from customers,” he said.

Now, he could bring employees into work, but all Italian pubs, clubs and bars were closed. Orders from France and the UK never left the area because they were cancelled as the coronavirus situation escalated there, too. 

They’re carrying out some deliveries, but not to people’s homes.

“Most of the companies are working, so we have a lot of people inside. That’s not the ideal situation, but again, the feeling we have here that the main goal at the end is not to avoid everybody getting infected – it’s just to slow down the infection.”

DSCF4073 Pietro Di Pilato and Bob Coggins. Source: MAX FEDOROV

Bob Coggins, a friend of Di Pilato who runs craft brewery White Hag, has been working on growing the company’s international market, which involves a St Patrick’s Day tour across Europe.

They export a lot of beers to northern Italy, and ahead of St Patrick’s Day, they cancelled around 30% of their orders. This trend then followed in other countries. 

“It just so happens that nearly every place we sent beer has either shut down in advance of St Patrick’s Day, or they’re just struggling to remain open.”

As distributors for small to medium businesses are usually small businesses themselves, so the brewery won’t get paid until the beer is sold, which might not be for several months.

“We’re pretty concerned,” Coggins says. “We’re still trying to sell through the stuff we have at the moment. It really was like 10 days ago, over the weekend I realised what we were going to face into. 

At the moment, they’re focussing on home deliveries and online sales. 

“That’s been brilliant but it’s small, because if you think of the volume of beer we would sell – maybe 200 kegs a week around Ireland – we’re able to get a quarter of that sent out to people.

“It’s also a danger to the culture and vocation of brewing because we haven’t had a brewing culture here for 150 years in Ireland. The big breweries bought up snapped off consolidated and closed small breweries, so there’s a danger here that people will opt away from brewing and distilling because of kind of fall away in those businesses actually existing.”

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