As an Italian national who lives outside of Italy, I am like an eagle in an aerie, able to watch what is happening throughout my homeland. And let me admit, right off the bat, that I am biased in favor of my beloved Southern Italy.
I’m not the first to notice that one effect of the current pandemic is how it is shining a light on divisions within the country. In the 19th Century in the northern part of Italy, a notion was born that southerners were less intelligent and more lazy than their northern counterparts. Over time, that sort of talk receded, not because the belief in northern superiority disappeared but because saying it became gauche.
I have always been annoyed that the South gets no credit for providing the bulk of Italy’s produce or for serving as a magnet for vacationing northerners who flock to our many stunning beaches. There is also a treasure trove of ancient Roman and Greek archaeological wonders in the South, which attracts millions of tourists each year.
I’ve always said, too, that instead of complaining about the South’s rugged terrain, arid summers, and lack of industry and infrastructure, the government and wealthy northerners could have invested more in the South and thus created jobs and a chance for prosperity for the southerners.
When the pandemic struck Italy, it first got a toehold in the North. The number of cases and deaths shocked us Italians. Meanwhile, in the South, regional leaders saw the writing on the wall and quickly implemented measures to prevent the rapid spread of the virus. Businesses closed and largely remain shut. Masks are required, beaches and parks are closed. Anyone found walking around for leisure faces a hefty fine.
These measures have been working; the number of cases of infection and deaths in the South are still low. Ironically, the landscape features of the South that the North has always berated are helping southerners in the fight against the virus.
Even as businesses reopen in the North, leaders of the southern regions have threatened – and, at least in one case, implemented – border closures to prevent northerners from carrying the virus with them down there.
How the North howls at the nerve of the South to stand up for itself! In a televised interview, one northern pundit actually called southern Italians intellectually inferior. As if to catch southerners in a lie, TV stations have sent reporters to the South to find crowds milling around, a fruitless effort. One frustrated reporter sent to the streets of Naples complained that no one had even come out of curiosity to gawk at her and her crew.
Now I’m seeing some of this north/south divide seeping through the words of politicians in the U.S. When an old southern Republican senator suggested that it would be better for some states to go bankrupt rather than receive federal aid, several northern governors were quick to respond. They pointed out that their states send much more tax revenue to the federal coffers than do southern states but that those southern states receive much more federal aid – the implication being that northern states are supporting poorly funded and poorly run southern states. (In Italy, we’ve heard this refrain for almost two centuries.)
Recently I heard a podcast about the “Hotel Corona” in Jerusalem, which was a quarantine center for Arabs and Jews infected with SARS-CoV-2. I was shocked to learn that, even in Palestine, there is north/south resentment.
So, even in places where there is an obvious, common, overall objective, people continue to cling to their imagined differences instead of rallying around their very real similarities.
If I thought anyone would listen to me from my perch, I would ask people to consider what is the point of this ongoing north/south divide. All it seems to do is to prop up self-interested politicians who want to hold on to their power and privileges.