Sharjah-based Indian student Vishakha Hanj
Sharjah-based Indian student Vishakha Hanj Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: Sharjah-based Indian student Vishakha Hanj, who is pursuing a masters programme in Florence, central Italy, took the last flight from the coronavirus-lockdown country on March 13. Currently in self-quarantine, the 23-year-old recounts her experiences in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

A man wearing a protective mask passes by the Coliseum in Rome on March 7 Image Credit: AFP

When the novel coronavirus was something in distant Wuhan and nothing to be worried about

I went to Florence in January to pursue a masters programme in graphic designing from the Florence Institute of Design international (FIDI) when China reported the first known death from coronavirus. In subsequent days, news trickled in about more people being infected but we did not think much about these developments. For us, the outbreak in China was something in a distant country. It was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Oblivious to the lurking danger, I went sightseeing in Bologna and Milan with my friends. We even attended the Carnival of Venice before it was cancelled.

Pope Francis walks in a deserted Rome to pray at two shrines for the end of the coronavirus pandemic, in Rome
Pope Francis walks through the empty streets of Rome Image Credit: Reuters

Pandemic hits Italy but we remain skeptical

On January 30, the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Italy as two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive but most of us in college remained largely skeptical. The majority of us told ourselves: this isn’t so bad. We’re young, we’re healthy, we’ll be fine even if we catch it. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Who would have thought then that in the coming days the disease we dismissed as just another nasty flu would take such a devastating toll on human lives and that too in a matter of days. (With over 2,500 deaths and around 31,500 confirmed cases by Wednesday, Italy is the worst-affected country outside China where the pandemic began).

A man stands outside the San Siro in Milan following the cancellation of all matches in Italy's Serie A Image Credit: Reuters

Bravado turns to panic as death tolls mount

Things went downhill pretty quickly from February onwards. We started to freak out when the number of deaths started to surge in frighteningly grotesque proportions. There was panic and paranoia as the full import of the deadly disease dawned upon us. Everywhere I went people wore face masks and rubber gloves and spoke in hushed tones. Sanitisers and wipes became the order of the day while stores avoided hand contact and instead asked us to leave the cash on the desk. Fear hung in the air.

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The obituary pages of Italian newspapers are full of coronavirus victims Image Credit: Twitter

Bustling country turns into ghost town almost overnight

The last few days passed like an unrealistic blur. First the restaurants started closing, then cinemas, bars, salons, schools and colleges. My college was shutdown too.

On March 9, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered a nationwide lockdown after an alarming uptick in the number of fresh cases and deaths. As the measure of the red zones were extended to all of the national territory, a country that was teeming with tourists became a ghost town overnight. The once-packed streets were now empty. People found walking got fines. No one was allowed to leave the city where they resided without special permission. I watched in disbelief as the endire country come to a grinding halt before my eyes. It was surreal.

People sing 'Uno Canzone per l'Italia' (A Song for Italy) from their windows Image Credit: AFP

Time was running away. If I had to fly back I had to do it immediately

Many of my colleagues found themselves scrambling to leave the country after one of our friends contracted the virus. (He has recovered now). The window of time was fast closing. My parents were worried about me. If I had to fly back I had to do that immediately. So on March 13, I took a 4am train from Florence to Rome. It was among a handful of trains that were still operational. The scene at Rome Airport looked straight out of a futuristic horror movie what with panic-stricken passengers wearing face masks and full body suits. Many were crying inconsolably after learning that their flights had been cancelled or delayed indefinitely. I wanted to comfort them but couldn’t because of the fear of contracting the virus. LIke everybody else I also wore a face mask. In fact I wore it throughout the five-and and a half hour Emirates flight to Dubai. It was the last flight out of Rome and I am glad I managed to board it.

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A deserted Terminal 1 at Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome Image Credit: NYT

Relieved to be back in Dubai

I heaved a sigh of relief when we touched down at Dubai Airport. We landed a little before midnight but weren’t allowed to get off the plane until almost 1am.

At the airport we were screened for flu. A nurse took a swab from my nose and put the sample in a test tube which carried my name. The entire process took about two hours as there was a long queue of passengers from Italy, but I didn’t mind waiting. I was happy to see the precautionary measures that had been put in place by UAE for my well-being and those of others. Complacency kills and it did in Italy.

After the swab test, the nurse advised me to remain in self-quarantine for at least seven days. Currently I am staying home attending online classes and hoping that the worst is behind us.