Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

The reopened city

Lessons from Italy that Rhode Island can learn from as it seeks to reopen from the pandemic shutdown

Image from YouTube trailer from "Open City"

In a pivotal scene from "Open City," the character Anna attempts to prevent the arrest of a partisan, only to be shot and killed by German troops.

By Mary Ann Sorrentino
Posted 5/11/20
A reflection on how Italy has begun to reopen its country in the continuing aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and how its inhabitants are responding, offering a vantage point for Rhode Island residents as the difficult process of reopening begins.
Who is responsible for making decisions where rapid testing machines are being deployed in Rhode Island – the Governor, the R.I. Department of Health, or CommerceRI? Now that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the persistent darkness of social, health and economic disparities in Rhode Island, will the R.I. General Assembly consider making a $1 million investment in Health Equity Zones in local communities? Will the White House take heed to wear masks and practice social distancing after a number of Trump’s White House team have tested positive for the coronavirus?
Now that the Governor is moving back to live, in-person news briefings, five days a week, to be held beginning on Monday, May 11, at the Veterans Auditorium, it remains to be seen whether the playing field will once again be tilted in favor of the traditional news media, who tend to hog the microphone and promote their own work, with a sense of entitlement and arrogance.
The virtual online format, created to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, allowed different media outlets to ask questions, regardless of affiliation and pedigree, demonstrating that it was not just reporters from WPRI, WJAR, or The Providence Journal who could ask insightful questions.
Good questions asked by UpriseRI, RINewsToday, Motif Magazine, Bill Bartholomew, ConvergenceRI and others showed what news equity can achieve, even if those used to exerting the privilege of “country club” media membership chafed at having to share the stage.

PROVIDENCE – Roberto Rossellini, Italy’s late and iconic neorealist filmmaker, directed “Open City,” set in 1944, to highlight the raw suffering and courage of the Italian Resistance under fascist rule and German troop occupation, when Rome, as now, was an city open to potential chaos, danger, and death.

The movie offers a metaphor for what countries around the world and states across the U.S. are now confronting in the dangers of reopening too soon.

As of Friday, May 8, the total number of deaths in Italy had reached 30,201, the second highest number in Europe.

Rome is now “open” again, as of May 5, 2020, this time as part of Phase 2 of Italy’s coronavirus challenge. The Lombardy region had been quarantined since February and the entire country followed in closure the first week of March 2020.

Phase 1 had slowly unlocked Italy’s front doors, bringing Italians who had been quarantined for two to three months, depending on their region, back into their streets and parks, while adding a few small and safe vendors, such as bookstores and stationary boutiques, to join the pharmacies and supermarkets that had been allowed to serve my fellow citizens in Italy.

I am fortunate to have dual Italy/U.S. citizenship, with family still living in the North and South of my father’s homeland. I am an alumna of the University of Florence. So I follow news from Italy with heartfelt interest.

North vs. South
Bergamo, northeast of Milan, one of the hardest-hit cities, endured a long, deadly siege. In the South, the numbers of cases/deaths were not as high.

The island where my family is from – Ischia, off the coast of Naples – has claimed only 23 cases of the virus, while Block Island, off Rhode Island’s coast, has claimed none to date. So far, Italy’s South generally has been spared, with a milder coronavirus epidemic than areas north of Rome. [Conversely, the bulk of Italy’s highly regarded hospital facilities are also in Rome and northward.]

But Italians are handling re-opening with a verve that is uniquely theirs. Milan’s most serious global newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, gave a nod to Milan’s high-fashion roots by announcing that this week’s edition of Io Donna [a woman’s magazine produced by Corriere] would include a free surgical mask inside each edition.

Not to be outdone, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared that all masks must be sold for a maximum price of .54 cents [in U.S. dollars] and no government taxes are to be added.

Will the virus hit the rails?
South of Milan, Lombardy’s capital, Rome’s newspaper of record, Il Messaggero, highlighted warnings that the reopening of any quarantined city can bring a second wave.

Still, southern Italians forced to find work in Rome and farther north, invaded the main Termini railroad station last Tuesday, filling trains that would take them home for long-overdue reunions with loved ones. Government employed railroad workers tried to check travelers’ temperatures in what was probably a valiant but questionably thorough attempt to screen for a virus about to hit the rails.

Upward trends
Just days after Italy’s Phase 2 re-openings, numbers of COVID-19 cases and victims are moving ominously upward. It makes one wonder how Americans will fare – especially in states where citizens with guns have already openly and dangerously challenged the wisdom of quarantines, masks, gloves, and limited pedestrian traffic, in states where COVID-19 numbers are still climbing.

Tuscans in general, known for a sense of superiority dating back to days of Florentine power, might say, imperially and indifferently, “Speriamo bene.” [We hope for the best.]

A reality-based Southern Italian, practical by necessity, passionate in her dialectical warning, and full of the crafty wisdom for which her people are known, might simply warn, “Uochie ‘a canella.” [Keep your eye on the candle.]

Taking care not to destroy America’s hard-gained control in this viral war, my money – as well as my eye – would be on the candle.

Mary Ann Sorrentino is a columnist who writes from Rhode Island and Florida, and, in summers, from Italy.

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