On the outskirts of Zorlesco, a small town in Italy’s north, Luigi Malabarba is living on the frontline of the coronavirus outbreak – literally.
Police cars swooped in on Monday and a handful of officers wearing facemasks and plastic gloves jumped out and set up a roadblock right outside his home. On one side of the cordon is the so-called red zone, a cluster of 10 villages supposedly quarantined from the rest of the country. On the other side, there is unrestricted freedom and some sense of normalcy in the midst of a highly abnormal situation in a sleepy slice of regional Italy.
Malabarba is grateful for the effort to contain the worst outbreak of coronavirus outside Asia, even though it forced the local hospital to cancel his surgery, scheduled for Tuesday. His biggest question at this point is whether he’s even in the quarantine zone or not.
“Living here on the frontier, I don’t know if I’m meat or fish, if I’m healthy or sick,” he laughed.
Billed as a tough but necessary measure to halt the spread of the virus, Italy threw up dozens of roadblocks in the wealthy Lombardy region on Monday after the number of confirmed cases exploded over the weekend. People weren’t allowed to leave and anyone who wanted to go in needed to prepare to spend at least two weeks inside. The quarantine of 50,000 people made global news and the Italian government used it to reassure nervous European leaders that the problem was under control.
But the man-made dam wall designed to hold back the virus from spilling over into Europe is seriously leaking.
When cars approached the checkpoint on Tuesday, many drivers were waved in or out. Some – but not all – flashed various paperwork. One woman refused entry became enraged and an animated argument began that ended with her threatening to “wring the necks” of police officers. At one point, a teenager on a bicycle appeared in the distance, made his way up Zorlesco’s main street and pedalled straight through the cordon unchallenged. Another man in a red tracksuit walked up the sealed-off street and after a brief but forceful discussion with police was allowed to leave. Most weren’t wearing face masks.
“People aren’t that worried,” Malabarba said. “They are not wearing masks here.”