Local Opinion: Vital lessons from Italy’s battle with COVID-19
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Local Opinion: Vital lessons from Italy’s battle with COVID-19

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer. 

As Arizona faces mounting pressure to adopt more aggressive measures against the spread of COVID-19, we should be looking to how others have fared elsewhere. The case of Italy for instance, a place where I have been conducting research for nearly two decades, provides three very tangible lessons about what we can do to curb the COVID-19 catastrophe.

First, it is never too early to act. Friends and colleagues of mine in Italy who have been confined indoors for weeks have invariably conveyed a mix of immense regret — knowing that they did not act soon enough — and horror. As they watch news coverage of the U.S., they are in disbelief that our leaders continue to downplay the pandemic.

And they are right. In Arizona, we still lack a robust public-health agenda for preventing and slowing the spread of this virus. Epidemiologists have been very clear about the costs of our inaction and the gains, should we act swiftly. Our elected officials should make every effort to “flatten the curve” now.

Second, combating the virus requires sacrifice — by everyone. For a people who often pride themselves on finding loopholes in the law, Italians have been overwhelmingly compliant with their government’s draconian measures. As one friend recently texted me on Facebook Messenger, “There is no sacrifice we wouldn’t make to escape this nightmare. We will do whatever is necessary.”

Any government order to shelter in place, limit the size of gatherings, quarantine, and so on, will prove entirely ineffective if only some, but not all, are complying. As Italian officials remind their citizens every evening when recounting the number of new cases, deaths, and recovered — a practice that should be standardized in our state so that no Arizonan is left in the dark — we are all “at war with this virus.”

Finally: Slogans help. We need material and discursive expressions of solidarity, especially at a time of physical distancing and the despair that comes with mass unemployment, disruptions to routines, widespread illness and a devastated economy. For weeks, Italians have been circulating the motivational phrases “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be all right) and “ce la faremo” (we will do it).

We could use a slogan, one that transcends state, city and regional boundaries. More than being told to “stay at home,” and that “we are in this together,” we need to gather around a collective vision for the future. And more than a slogan, we need concrete action and commitment of resources — above all, by our national and state governments — to restore faith in this collective vision.

We are fortunate to be observing the trajectories of COVID-19 in places that were the first to be on the global front lines like China, Italy, as well as within the U.S. such as Washington, New York and California. Let us not waste this opportunity to learn from those before us and redirect our trajectory. As more than one of my Italian friends have recently warned me, “Don’t end up like us.” By some measures we already have. But we can still save thousands, potentially millions of lives.

Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Her second book, “Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean,” based on several years of fieldwork in Sicily, is forthcoming with University of California Press.

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