Coronavirus

We Spoke to an Indian Who Got Trapped in the Coronavirus Lockdown in Italy

“It felt like we were trapped in a terrible Hollywood apocalyptic movie.”
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
JP
photos by Janice Pariat
March 14, 2020, 6:45am
Indian stuck in Italy in the middle of coronavirus lockdown
Janice Pariat (left), and the empty St Peter's Square in Rome. 

A country in a lockdown situation can conjure up dystopian images—of deserted streets, lifeless public spaces, shut-down stores and, sometimes, deathly silence. But what happens when you’re a foreigner stuck in such a situation, with a passport that means nothing in airports that have suspended flights to your home country? Indian novelist Janice Pariat found herself in a similar ordeal this week when she was trying to come back home from her writing trip to Rome, the capital of Italy. As the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented severely in Italy, Pariat found herself “trapped” when the country—the second worst-hit from the novel coronavirus, after China, with 1,266 dead at the time of writing this—shut down possibly everything, including airports that cancelled flights, to cut all forms of foreign travel links.

Yesterday, Pariat finally was able to fly from Rome to Berlin, after which she hopped on one of the few flights back to New Delhi, but not before posting SOS messages on her social media about being stranded since March 11, especially with no help from the Indian Embassy (which, she says, has suspended its functions and emergency hotlines due to coronavirus). As she waited at the boarding gate, VICE caught up with her just before her flight back home. Here’s her ordeal.

VICE: Could you tell us what took you to Rome?
JANICE PARIAT: Research for my next novel. I needed access to some museums and reading rooms. I’m a writer. I went there the end of February.

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How did you see the coronavirus emergency and lockdown hit Italy?
It grew gradually—the tightening of rules, the restrictions of freedom. So it was hard to tell how things would go—whether it would get better and the world would move on, or worse. Which sadly, it did. I was trying to finish all the research I was meant to be doing there—research trips take time to plan, and I didn’t really have much manoeuvre space given visa restrictions, funding, etc.

coronavirus italy india

Empty terminals at the international airport in Rome.

coronavirus italy india

What was the difference between how it was when you got there, and when you left?
There were fewer tourists than usual when we got there but things still felt pretty much normal down in Rome. By the end of the two weeks though, all bars and restaurants were closed, people were asked to stay at home, rules were imposed that restricted more than one person entering a chemist or small supermarket. By the end, it felt like we were trapped in a terrible Hollywood apocalyptic movie.

How did you come to know about the situation and lockdown? How did you react? How did the people around you react?
I came to know through social media, friends in Rome, and friends at home. We weren’t too alarmed at first—it was nice to have the city to ourselves. I didn’t think it would lead to an almost complete clampdown of an entire country. Right now, I’m surrounded by people—students, young kids with no money, etc—with only a few flights leaving home, who are not being able to endlessly wait around. They’re tired, and generally, the situation in Italy is that everyone is mistrustful of the kind of information they’ve been receiving. The Romans were cheerful through it all. In this trying time, they want to see the best in things. But that’s hard to do all the time, and worry did set in, about jobs, money and life returning to normalcy.

rome italy lockdown coronavirus

Pariat (left) with other Indians stuck in Rome, before she decided to catch a flight home from Berlin.

How did your friends and family react?
They were all terribly worried, especially because I was travelling on my own. The support from family has been resilient and consistent, of course, but the support I’ve received online from people writing in from everywhere, across borders, gives me faith in the goodness of others. Nations will let you down. Place your faith in people.

Tell us about the ordeal while you were leaving.
I was informed at the Alitalia check-in counter that I couldn’t board my flight without a certificate that no one knew where to get. Turns out, it’s impossible to get a health certificate because, in most places in Europe (not just Italy), only people with symptoms are being tested. It felt precarious for all of us there but for a while, we placed our faith in the embassy, thinking that they would help us. But we couldn’t even get through to their emergency hotline.

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So the embassy didn’t help?
They didn’t, really. We were told [by the Indian Embassy] at some point that pressure was being applied on the health ministry in India to relax this certificate rule for Indians stuck in Italy. That’s it. No gesture of support or reassurance. The emergency hotline doesn’t work, and the Indian ambassador has given no reassurance. We were told that a medical team is going to Italy for tests, but we’re not sure when that would happen. Which is why I took the decision to try and leave Italy. It felt like I had to fend for myself. No one had my back.

As you sit at the boarding gate, how do you feel? Is there still fear and uncertainty?
I’m too exhausted to feel much at the moment. But there’s a quiet dawning of realisation that nations mean very little. It’s people across borders who will offer help, who will respond, who count. I’ve always conceived of the nation as something so terribly abstract and fabricated—this has never felt more true.

NOTE: Pariat reached New Delhi this morning and has been screened, health-checked and tested at the airport. She is now under self-quarantine at her home for two weeks.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.