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Postcard From Italy's Coronavirus Lockdown: 'Feels Like Another World'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The entire country of Italy, with its 60 million people, is on lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, life turned upside down virtually overnight.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Piazza Trilussa is usually full of people 24/7. Now all you hear are birds. To enforce social distancing, the government has shut down all restaurants, cafes and pizzerias. The sound of a large fountain dominates the square.

There's some human movement in the grocery store, along with pharmacies, the only commercial activity allowed. Federico Seracchiani is bagging artichokes for a customer.

FEDERICO SERACCHIANI: (Through interpreter) This neighborhood was always packed with young people - now, nobody. It's totally surreal. It feels like another world.

POGGIOLI: Seracchiani approves the lockdown. He says it's the only thing that will work.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

POGGIOLI: Along with birds, it seems the only ones out on the street are cats and ghosts. Walking on these centuries-old cobblestones, you realize they've seen this before. It was here, along the Tiber River, that a plague broke out in 1656 that claimed more than 14,000 lives. Life in the red zone is like being suspended in limbo between the Dark Ages and a sci-fi future.

In normal times, visitors to Rome are struck by the near absence of police and abundance of priests. Suddenly, the priests are gone, and cops are everywhere, roaming streets, making random checks that people have a form stating why they're out - for food shopping, an emergency or work.

I'm out to report, and the only other person I run into is another journalist, Marina Garbesi. What's scary about the virus, she says, is the enemy is invisible.

MARINA GARBESI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "It's like a shark swimming very far below the surface - very dangerous." She adds, "We should keep this metaphor in mind."

So how are Italians handling the quarantine?

GARBESI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Garbesi says, "Italians don't respect rules. That's not a stereotype; it's the truth. But," she adds, "they know how to handle situations of great danger because they have a sense of community, and people help each other out."

But those in need of spiritual help are out of luck. Masses are suspended, as are weddings and funerals. But lo, this is the era of the blessed cellphone. Some priests are celebrating Mass on WhatsApp. Some Roman churches are sending out messages the old way.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CLANGING)

POGGIOLI: At 8 p.m., the bells of all the churches in this neighborhood, Trastevere, ring for 10 minutes as a sign of solidarity and prayer for all those suffering from the consequences of the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CLANGING)

POGGIOLI: More secular Italians have found a different way to exorcise the corona demon. Many display banners with the words, everything will be OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: And there's an eruption of musical flash mobs. From windows and balconies, neighbors join in song - the national anthem, pop, folk, opera or tarantellas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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