La Zona Rossa Diaries: Black, American and quarantined in Italy

I am writing from La Zona Rossa, “the red zone,” in Florence, Italy. 

As of Monday evening, all of Italy is quarantined for the next 30 days, or more. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte announced the nationwide measures in a press conference. 

Throughout Italy, a ban is in place for all public gatherings and travel. All sporting events have been cancelled. Added, schools, as well as universities, are temporarily shuttered. Included in closures are cinemas, theaters and museums, and any venue attracting crowds. These measures are attempts to stop the rising infection and mortality rate of the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus that is said to originate in Wuhan, China. As numbers decline in East Asia, the illness overruns the financially vulnerable, southern European country kissing the Mediterranean.

Right now, approximately 9,200 people have been diagnosed as infected in Italy. Of these, 463, died since February 25. Most of those deceased are elderly people who were frail with other chronic health issues.

“This coronavirus is like a bad flu,” insisted a Florentine who originally comes from a town nearby the original regions quarantined in Northern Italy. Whether it is or not, the daily spike in deaths shows that Italy is either overwhelmed, or underprepared, or both.

| Watch: La Zona Rossa Diaries: Day 1 of Quarantine |

. . .

Until infection rates of COVOID-19 dramatically decrease, all travel and public gatherings are banned. So here I am, writing to you about what it’s like to live in a state-sanctioned Martial law.

I lived through the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest where all civil servants abandoned the inner city at the height of fires and a broken, destroyed city gutted by rioters. Though I was 16-years-old, I experienced what it was like to walk through streets with tanks manned by soldiers armed with high powered rifles, and ordered to shoot at the first sign of perceived danger. 

To many, this reality is a myth, until you see a man perched on the roof of their business with an AK-47. Speed up almost three decades later, upon hearing of the quarantine, “I’m ready,” so I thought, as I counted my stash of water, rice and beans. This might last for a while.

In having some prior knowledge of an unwanted lock down, I’ve been keeping up with the news. Every few days, I chime my parents to let them know about the latest developments. Still, I am numb hours after the announcement. As I put my personal protocol in place, I feel like I’m in a character in a dystopian movie who is awkwardly adjusting to the rapid changes in my movements.

. . .

Leading up to this moment, Florence’s flow was more like the small city-big town that it is. On rainy days, a few brave residents wade through wet streets. But, when the sun is out, Florentines bathe in Tuscany rays by sitting on the steps of 600-year-old buildings while sharing conversation and sometimes food and wine. This past Sunday was just like I described: an idyllic day by the Arno River.

When family and friends messaged me in concern, I took their worries lightly. “Those are just those 11 towns have been cordoned off in the northern part of the country,” I assured them. I’m quiet now. Not because of the infection, but how fast life changes without your control.

Full transparency, the news is not a surprise or a shock. My jarring occurred two Tuesdays ago in the early morning. I’d just retired to bed. Somewhere between a snore and REM sleep, my phoned chirped loudly, “bing.” I received a notification that I got an email. Usually, I turn my phone off, but before I went to sleep, I decided to keep it on this time. No reason. Or, so I thought.

When I read the email, I was told that the campus I teach at, NYU Florence, would close until the end of March. Huhn? NYU administration wanted to get ahead of the rising concerns with the rapidly growing numbers of the COVID-19.

Instead of flying back to the US, I decided to stay. Since, there have been many changes at work. Last week, NYU invited all students studying abroad the option to leave. I knew it might be just a matter of time before the pandemic hit me in real time.

Since then, the pedestrian landscape of the city has changed dramatically. While those out are content with the smaller crowds, there are rows of restaurants emptied of patrons. Much of the service industry is on the brink of collapse. In Florence, with a population of 383,000, the provincial town welcomes 16 million visitors annually.

A local restaurant owner serving a modest crowd said the past two weeks have been “very bad.” Florence is a ghost town in comparison to the daily foot traffic of thousands of tourists who traipse through the city’s narrow passageways leading to historical sites and churches. It is as if the city belongs to the locals again. While those out enjoyed the fairly easy crowds to navigate, there is an increasing unease on what will happen.

We shall see.

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