Men who were rescued off the Libyan coast in January, 2020 watch the city of Messina, Sicily from the deck of the Open Arms rescue vessel.  © AP Photo/Santi Palacios

The recent arrival by sea in Sicily and Calabria of a dozen migrants who tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 provoked several painful and unworthy reactions.

In Amantea, a town in Calabria, residents protested the arrival of 24 migrants, 13 of whom tested positive, saying their presence would increase the risk of a new outbreak of Covid-19 and damage tourism.

Instead of reassuring the public about safety measures and showing empathy to the migrants, the governor of Calabria, Jole Santelli, demanded “that those who bring Covid not set foot on Calabrian territory” and called for government intervention. Other elected officials, including parliamentarian Enza Bosso, Sicily governor Nello Musumeci, and the mayor of Brindisi, in Puglia, stoked, rather than calmed, fears.

The only positive voice amid this negative chorus was the Mayor of Roccella Jonica - a city in Calabria that welcomed 20 unaccompanied minors- who said it was possible to manage the situation in total safety. The central government in Rome moved Covid-19 patients from Amantea to a military hospital, but did not challenge the views of those who depicted people arriving by sea as spreaders of the disease.

As people in Italy largely resume their lives in the aftermath of the devastating pandemic, everyone is understandably concerned about new outbreaks. Associating migrants with contagion, is however erroneous and dangerous. When the problem becomes the people and not the virus, when one group is blamed for potential spread, it’s indicative of other problems - stigmatization and racism.

Italian leaders, at the highest level, should condemn stigmatization of migrants and remind everyone that anyone can fall ill with Covid-19, regardless of who they are. Discrimination has no role in the protection of public health; to protect ourselves we need unity, solidarity, and trust – which are crucial to promote adequate testing, tracing, and isolation of positive cases in order to stem the pandemic.