Urban heterogeneity of Covid-19 in Rome: is it really a ‘great equalizer’ between core and periphery?

Truth is, no one could have ever imagined living in such an unamenable historical moment. And yet, in this unprecedented historical moment, our crusade for normalcy must be akin to something outstanding.
As the global pervasiveness of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage economies across the world, one popular perception that has sustained is that the virus doesn’t discriminate. As rich and poor are equally vulnerable to this contagion, within urban landscapes core and periphery stand the equation as well. Hence, an egalitarian perspective would most probably denote it as a double-edged sword as well as a mixed blessing. In like manner, I admit having particularly noticed this oddness in my own city landscape, Rome.

A swift gaze at the current state of affairs helped me to formulate this research’s heuristics: we will try to infer whether there is a presumed homogeneity in destinies or otherwise a broadening gap between rich core neighborhoods and poorer and less-equipped peripheries in the city of Rome; data retrieval will be almost entirely satisfied by the national statistics released on a daily basis.

Source: The Economist

The idea of city space has become a quite redundant one throughout historical narratives. We are used to considering cities as ageless and primordial entities, antecedent to human beings. This statement is, obviously enough, false. “Before the city, there was a land” (Cronon,1991).
Cities are not structures, cities are people, or better, they are the people who live them. This is why their destinies are so dissimilar one from the other. And yet, the current health crisis has radically altered the picture without discrimination.  Normally chaotic and busy, with its roads characterized by the screeching rumble of cars, buses, or motorcycles, in the latest Spring also the city of Rome appeared suspended in a limbo between the Dark Ages and a sci-fi future. A disheartening scenario that is most likely repeating itself. Nonetheless, when we talk about destinies, the partitioning of goods and bads is ofttimes neither equal nor fair. The temporary curtailment of liberty and the impact of generalized lockdowns surely varies significantly across sectors, skills, and economic strata in an unequal world.
Evidently, statistics do not constitute an index for human suffering, but still, they can give us instruments to enrich and refine our inferences.
During last Spring, a densely populated city as Rome seemed surprisingly blessed from the massive and brutal spread of the virus; markedly, a more fortuitous destiny than the one reserved for cities of Northern Italy. However, such a narrative reflects how things can change quite rapidly too.

According to data updated to the 21st October, at the summit of the top five of the districts at risk of contagion within the Great Ring Road is Primavalle. Here, the number of positives reaches 253. They follow in order: Centocelle (249), Trieste (226), Torpignattara (220), Val Melaina (219). For Primavalle a significant increase with 62 cases more than last week. The increase in the other four zones, at the top of the negative classification of the virus spread, is definitely more contained: in Centocelle +38 positive cases; in Trieste +43; in Torpignattara +30; in Val Melaina +40. But it is just outside the Gra that there is a greater incidence with Torre Angela at the top of the ranking and conquers the black jersey at a galloping pace of 320 total cases, and an increase, compared to last week, of 54 positive cases. Hence, if we frequently tend to describe a quite heterogeneous and scattered trend among outlying areas and city center/rich areas, these cold figures seem to describe a virus running in the periphery and slowing down more in the center.

A glimpse of daily contagions by districts (table listed by neighborhoods, total inhabitants, total contagions, and contagion trends)
source: La Repubblica

The virus has been de facto a great equalizer in its incipient semester and still is in terms of absolute risks of local community spread. Ergo, we need to question what is changing the ongoing trend.

A major factor of incidence is represented by the plight of public transports in Rome. Even in an ex-ante Covid-19 scenario, Rome’s public transportation system has always been deemed to be poorly organized and overtly under-equipped to sustain the phrenic rhythm of the city and its inhabitants. The scarcity of buses and personnel has unceasingly led to ramshackle overcrowding of passengers which obviously nullifies personal space and mutual distance. To couple with the aforesaid quandary, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Italian Government set a general rule for establishing a maximum accepted capacity of buses (80% of its full capacity, ndr), a rule which has nonetheless been almost entirely ignored.

Evident congestion in public transports in Rome, August 2020
source: Il Messaggero

The idea then is that peripheries are not only poorly connected but also its residents may find no other valuable alternatives to reach their workplaces. Hence, forced travel on public transport, the harshness of living and working conditions, the complexity of social relations, and the radical changes in lifestyles, all contribute to tip the balance in this regard.
Even so, somehow, the virus increases inequalities. A fact that also springs to mind when looking at the incidence of contagion compared to the resident population. And with a trend that, broadly speaking, maintains the gap.