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How the ocean proved to an Italian pianist that the world is ...


How the ocean proved to an Italian pianist that the world is unfair

The story of the writer and his musician friend’s experiences on cruise ships that housed migrants during the pandemic

Ian Urbina

La Suprema. a cruise ship built in 2003 for $120m, can carry nearly 3,000 passengers and 1,000 cars. Almost 220 metres long, the ship has 567 cabins, three restaurants, six bars, a dozen or so shops, a casino, movie theatre, nightclub and chapel. Its eight storeys are connected by motion sensor-activated escalators and glass-encased lifts so that holidaymakers can avoid over-exerting themselves on stairs after a few plates at the buffets. Cruise ships tend to be designed to make passengers feel as though they’re not at sea, but rather in a five-star Las Vegas hotel. Everything is shiny, sprawling and inward-facing. On La Suprema, many of the ceilings are panelled with mirrors to give a sense of greater spaciousness. But natural light is scant; what little sunlight can be found squeezes in through tiny portholes. The narrow hallways, marble lobbies and chandeliered dining rooms hum with fluorescent light. Thick carpeting muffles the low growl of the engine and the tireless smacking of the waves on the hull. 

Last year, I spent time on La Suprema, but not on a cruise. The lavish vessel, with eight others, had been chartered by the Italian government and staffed by the country’s Red Cross to quarantine migrants rescued at sea to keep them from bringing Covid-19 ashore. The ships had become giant floating holding pens, reportedly maintained at a monthly cost of more than €1m (about R17m) each, where thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, were being held. I wanted to see the conditions on the quarantine ships for myself, but the Italian government had forbidden any journalists from boarding. So I applied to the Red Cross to work as a volunteer and, on a balmy, cloudless day in November, I boarded the ship.

On any given day last autumn and winter in Europe, several hundred migrants and a few dozen Red Cross staff were on board La Suprema. The passengers were confined to designated floors and areas, which were cordoned off with barriers of clear-plastic sheets that had been taped across doorways, to lessen the potential flow of Covid-contaminated air. The ship was kept impeccably clean and Red Cross workers aggressively enforced mask-wearing indoors...

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