A Tale Of Two Cities And One Virus: Milan Stricken, Rome Spared

Milan and Rome are often pitted against each other as peers in the Italian panorama. Yet in the wake of the novel coronavirus, Rome experienced less than 3.8% of Milan’s devastating death toll.

Milan stricken by the virus
Milan – Coronavirus outbreak 011” by Alberto Trentanni is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Milan and Rome are often pitted against each other as peers in the Italian panorama. Yet in the wake of the novel coronavirus, Rome experienced less than 3.8% of Milan’s devastating death toll

The foremost metropolitan centers of Italy are as different from one another as they are both distinctly Italian. One is renowned for high fashion, finance, and innovation; the other maintains a posture of political, religious, and cultural authority.

Milan has led technological innovation in the industrialized north, and Rome’s centuries-long reputation as the nexus of governance and cultural-historical value emanates from the physical and symbolic center of the country. 

While two front-running cities couldn’t be more polarized in the profile they cut and the culture they espouse, their respective experiences of COVID-19 are still astoundingly divergent: 14,500 COVID-19-related deaths in Lombardy and less than 550 deaths in Lazio

Culturally different, demographically similar

And so the Italian tale of two cities ensues.

Demographically, Milan and Rome are not that different. Looking at factors of gender and age, married and cohabitating, the population distribution is a mirror. The bulge lies between 45-54 years old, and the more vulnerable demographic aged 65+ hovers around 5% of the population for both cities, this percentage decreasing with age.

These two cities are also similarly well-connected, having boasted multiple, daily nonstop routes to the US (before March 2020). Three international airports serving Milan, two serving Rome. Both Milan and Rome are home to sizable international communities, ranging between 7-9% of their population

So we dig deeper: one question often too-eagerly asked is the particular profile of foreign presence. Milan does have much stronger business and educational ties to China, whereas the majority of Rome’s foreign population is of Romanian descent.

Yet aside from the two infected Chinese tourists treated at a hospital in Rome, Chinese communities throughout Italy have a negligible infection rate. We move away from potentially xenophobic waters.

And the word is ‘density’

Our mind’s eye, when considering Rome, conjures up images of narrow streets, teeming buses, mountains of tourists. Density. Yet its metropolitan population of 4.3 million spread over 1,285 square kilometers results in only 2,232 people per square km.

Milan’s population density is 7,551 residents per square kilometera density 3.5 times greater than that of Rome. 

Rome’s population density peaks in the historical districts and other areas mostly within the municipal boundaries.

Milan, on the other hand, extends its urban continuum beyond municipal lines and even provincial bounds into neighboring Monza and Brianza. To serve the commuting population, Milan’s extensive public transportation system has consistently been expanding to meet the demand. Rome’s has been shrinking.

In 2018, Rome saw 320 million passengers on the metro, and Milan saw 365 million. Behind this 45 million passenger gap is an important trend of public transportation usage that reveals social attitudes and habits.

In Milan, the 2018 numbers for the metro alone represented a growth of 5.7% in riders from the previous year. From 2009 to 2019, Rome, however, has steadily been losing passengers, reporting a decline of 18% in passengers over the past decade.

A rhetorical trap

However difficult it is to reflect upon a crisis while yet in the middle of it, we try to connect the dots, trace contacts, and can’t help but wonder why them and not us, why you but not me.

In The Covid-19 Riddle,” the New York Times articulates these rhetorical questions, lays out the evidence for them, and then exposes our hubris in thinking that solutions could be simple.

What has turned Iran into the coronavirus epicenter of the Middle East, while neighboring Iraq counts less than 100 deaths? Why have there been almost 7,000 deaths in a region of Ecuador where only 11% of residents are over 60?

In the lengthy unfolding of our lived experience of such a riddle, the NYT systematically convinces and just as quickly disabuses us of each tempting theory: climate and temperature, median age of a population, cultural habits of touch, geographic isolation of a nation, extent of national lockdowns.

In similar rhetorical fashion, why was Milan stricken and Rome spared?

It can certainly be the unlucky perfect storm of factors, set off by questionable administrative decisions like not closing the area of Bergamo and the management of the retirement homes, or a “random” event such as one infected spectator at a massive sporting event in Milan, or one infected worshipper at a megachurch gathering in Daegu, South Korea.

While our lives can be rife with rhetorical elements, they are only as random as we observe them to be.

As our newfound Phase II freedom seduces our thoughts over to a more optimistic future, we might reimagine how widely-used public transportation systems can serve urban density safely and continuously in a world where we live with contagion.

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