LA SUPREMA, a cruise ship built in 2003 for $120 million, can carry nearly three thousand passengers plus a thousand cars. Almost seven hundred feet long, the ship has 567 cabins, three restaurants, six bars, a dozen or so shops, a casino, a movie theatre, a nightclub and a chapel. Its eight storeys are connected by motion-sensor-activated escalators and glass-encased elevators, so that vacationers can avoid overexerting themselves on stairs after a few plates at the buffets. Cruise ships tend to be designed to make passengers feel as though they are 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 autumn, I spent time on La Suprema, but not on a cruise. The lavish vessel, along with eight others, had been chartered by the Italian government and staffed by the Italian Red Cross to quarantine migrants rescued at sea, in order 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 €1 million each—where thousands of migrants, mostly from Africa and West Asia, 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, 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.