The Urban Disease Revealed in Italy

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just about the spread of a virus. It is a social phenomenon that reveals a deeper and more silent disease that affects our metropoles. In his seminal work, The City in History, Lewis Mumford discussed the historical trajectory of Rome, from the vital cosmopolitan center to its late decline, from “megalopolis” to “necropolis.” The discussion focused on the sociocultural relationship among its citizens and the development of a dysfunctional and oppressive political structure. Therefore, according to Mumford, the heart of the city is its political life and its lethal disease is the crisis of democracy. COVID-19 suggests a different disease for our contemporary cities, revealed by their inhabitants’ panic at the news of lockdown measures in the past few months. To diagnose this, the causes of the frightened exodus that occurred during the nights of March 7 and March 10, need to be examined.

The lockdown condemned them to live in a place in which they never intended to live.

According to Reuters, COVID-19 was first confirmed in Italy on January 31. However, its outbreak dates a few weeks later when a cluster of 16 cases was detected in Northern Italy. Mobility restrictions were implemented by the Italian government from the beginning of January. At first, the government aimed at reducing contact with China. After the first Italian hotbed was detected, it placed under quarantine the 11 municipalities identified as the centers of the Italian cluster. Despite their implementation, these measures did not stop the contagion, and by the beginning of March the virus had spread throughout the entire country. Facing this situation, CNN reported a draft of a new governmental decree that would have put under quarantine all of Lombardy and the other 14 provinces of the North. When the government confirmed its intention, thousands of people in Milan fled to the train stations or jumped in their cars heading away to their native regions. Many were students or young workers. The images of that night, broadcast by television stations and social media, triggered an indignant reaction from the public and a severe political debate that led to exceptional containment measures for incoming travellers. 

Despite the fierce public contempt shown for the restrictions on the internet, travellers were not given parole and there were few attempts made to understand the causes of such a reaction. Why should thousands of young people move away from the richest city in the country, maybe risking their jobs and careers? Was it just fear and ignorance, or did it have to do with cultural background? While the event revamped rhetoric embedded in a history of geographical stereotyping and denigration, I managed to collect testimonies of those who left Milan that night in an attempt to better understand the ordinary affects that made them flee.

What my informants feared was not the virus; it was their houses in the city. They dreaded being confined there for days and weeks. I can’t live days and days in a 4×3-meter room, in a shared apartment with a bunch of strangers,” was one student’s emblematic reaction. Like her, many others described the panic they felt facing the possibility of remaining isolated at home. This was also voiced by professionals.“I work in an office in town. I am happy for my job, but 1,500 euros is what I get in a month, enough for living and having a nice room in a nice flat shared with other three people. That afternoon [on March 7] I decided to leave Milan and rush back home. We don’t have a big house here, but if I have to be locked down in a flat, at least here I have my family around and not a bunch of nice strangers.”

In a country where the cities are the main destinations of internal mobility, students and workers who move there are attracted by better services and a more dynamic labor market. Their housing choice is thrifty, opting for cramped rooms and studios. It is not ideal, but they are comforted by the fact these are only temporary accommodations for a few months or a year, and to be used just at night, while the rest of the day is spent outside, both for work and leisure. For these people, “home” in the metropolis is a functional place; it is a place without a past and a future. In this context, the lockdown condemned them to live in a place in which they never intended to live. People tried to escape from this future, and the price of the escape was dire.

Similar exoduses occurred in other countries in the following days. These episodes offer a strong lesson for urban anthropology. COVID-19 brought to the fore the pathology of our metropoles. It is a pathology rooted in their economic structure, which draws from precariousness. For students and junior workers, the metropolis embodies a dream of success that often offers just meager wages and precarious positions. A decent accommodation, a place to call home is too often precluded; instead accommodations turn into functional spaces in which to live but not to stay or dwell. The lesson is here, in this contemporary picture of urban unsustainability that makes people flee and allows viruses to spread.

Michele F. Fontefrancesco is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

Cite as: Fontefrancesco, Michele F. 2020. “The Urban Disease Revealed In Italy.” Anthropology News website, June 3, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1412

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