by Xinhua writers Bai Xu, Wang Junlu
BEIJING, March 22 (Xinhua) -- When Hu Yunjian decided to give out masks in the streets of Milan, Italy, amid the fast spread of COVID-19, he was worried that 5,000 masks would fall short of the need.
In reality, however, the 32-year-old Chinese Internet entrepreneur found his stall attracting less passers-by than a street performer.
Europe has been identified by the World Health Organization as the new "epicenter" of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic last week, where Italy is the hardest-hit country.
According to the local authorities, as of Friday, Italy has reported 47,021 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 4,032 deaths, overtaking the total number of deaths in China.
"Many of the cases are from Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital," said Hu.
He had 5,000 protective masks, which were supposed to be sent back to his home country, when China was locked in a battle against the novel coronavirus.
Shipment was delayed, however, while China's situation kept improving. At the same time, Italy saw an increasing number of cases.
"So we set up a stall near Duomo di Milano at the town center and offered the masks to people in a bid to raise their awareness of self-protection," Hu said. They also designed posters to attract passers-by.
But few people bothered to stop at the stall. In contrast, a street performer singing next to them drew quite a few viewers.
"We decided to approach the locals ourselves," Hu said. Much to his disappointment, when he handed a mask to an Italian, the man smiled and said, "I am fine; I don't need it."
Others even saw them as fraudsters.
However, not everyone was so sceptical.
"A young man in his 20s stopped for more than half an hour at our stall, taking photos and videos, which he said he would share on social media."
The young man also thanked them. "He said he would let his friends know about the importance of wearing masks, as well as the kindness of Chinese people in Italy," Hu recalled, adding that the young man said, "We will get over it together."
Police officers patrolling the square also accepted the gift and expressed their gratitude, and local reporters interviewed Hu and his friends.
"To be frank, we didn't expect to see the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy when we bought the masks, but now they could be of use here," he added.
Hu Yunjian has been living in Italy for more than two decades. In recent days, he saw measures taken in the country.
On March 10, Italy became the first country in Europe to impose a nationwide lockdown to curb spread of coronavirus. Restaurants and cafes were required to shorten thir operating hours, and people were advised to keep a safe distance of no less than one meter.
"But old habits die hard," Hu said. "I was told some restaurants were fined for breach of regulations, and I saw staff in a restaurant working without wearing masks. For some others, social distancing is non-existent, and they still greet one another with kisses."
Like tens of thousands of overseas Chinese, Hu said he had experienced two COVID-19 outbreaks. "One was in my home country and the other in the country where I live."
When China was struggling to contain the epidemic, the Italian-speaking Hu helped with the purchase of nearly two million face masks which, together with local Chinese communities, he sent back to China.
Now that Italy is engaged in the same hard-fought battle, he said it was the wish of overseas Chinese to see medical staff from their mother country come and help.
Their dream came true.
A chartered flight carrying 12 Chinese medical experts and over 17 tonnes of supplies arrived in Milan on Wednesday to aid the country's fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier this month, China has sent a team of nine experts to Rome.
On the trunks carrying supplies to Italy, there were words from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca: "We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden."
(Intern Lin Guangyao contributed to the story.)