Reportage. One hundred Romans showed up at the gates of their former neighborhood health facility and reopened gates that had been closed for nearly a decade. Their goal: to demand the restoration of a piece of public health taken away by the health funding cuts.

Residents occupy a shuttered Roman clinic for World Health Day

The Roman district of Rebibbia has decided to celebrate World Health Day in its own way. It did so by occupying Villa Tiburtina, a public health center in the eastern part of Rome closed by the Region since 2012, and which no one wants to put back into operation, despite the health emergency and the much-touted revival of local healthcare.

So, on Wednesday morning, around 100 locals from the neighborhood showed up in front of the gates of the facility, still in excellent condition, and reopened gates that had been closed for nearly a decade. Their goal: to demand once more the restoration of a piece of public health taken away by the health funding cuts.

The story of the Villa Tiburtina center shows all the distortions with which the Italian public health care has been burdened in its fated encounter with the pandemic. Until 2012, it was a specialist outpatient clinic. It was managed by the Sapienza University through the Umberto I polyclinic, following a donation from the noblewoman Eleonora Lorillard Spencer Cenci, who had requested its destination to be for the treatment of pulmonary diseases. Several primary care services of the local district healthcare unit (ASL) were also located here. It was a nerve center, in one of the largest health districts in Europe, ASL Roma 2, with over one million patients.

The closure of the center, under the banner of “rationalization,” has certainly done nothing to help the healthcare needs of the neighborhood. Around here, for less major medical problems, it has become normal to go directly to pharmacies, which have become private mini-clinics. For more serious matters, you have to go to the glittering and expensive “Gemelli Medical Point” in San Basilio, a very modern private clinic opened by the largest hospital in Rome, the one that John Paul II nicknamed “Vatican III” for its excellent relations with the Curia.

According to a law that proceeds with almost mathematical certainty, every hole in the public health system becomes a business opportunity for the private one. Seen from this point of view, the Lazio region looks a lot like the infamous Lombardy, with religious orders and their branches instead of entrepreneurs.

And similar to the many places in Italy where disputes have arisen similar to that over Villa Tiburtina: in Rome, they are also asking for the reopening of the Forlanini hospital; in Turin, they’re demanding that the Maria Adelaide hospital be reopened. The Vittorio Cosentino in Cariati (CS) has also been occupied with the same purpose.

In the times of Covid, it has become impossible to persuade the inhabitants of Rebibbia that it is possible to do without a facility that was created to treat lung diseases. Thus, between one wave and the other, the neighborhood association Riapriamo Villa Tiburtina (“Reopen Villa Tiburtina”) was born. “Its closure doesn’t even save money,” explains Barbara Lepri, an activist from the association. “Even while closed, the facility costs €60,000 a year just to guard and maintain it.” The expenses are borne by the Eleonora Lorillard Spencer Cenci Foundation, whose task is to ensure that the university and the Lazio region respect the facility’s intended destination.

“However, the foundation has no more funds,” Lepri explains, “and if an offer came, it could sell.” According to some, the offer is already there: there is talk about a private center for dialysis, yet another basic service neglected by public healthcare that is tempting for private business.

Instead of this scenario, the association has developed an organizational plan for the services to be returned to the neighborhood, together with the Coordinamento regionale sanità (“Regional Health Coordination”) and the Mammut committee: Villa Tiburtina could host a center to analyze swabs, a consultation center for citizens and specialized clinics for the public.

“We have collected over 3,000 signatures,” Lepri explains. “The Region, the University and the Foundation have shown willingness, but only in words: negotiations for the reopening never began, and so we decided that we could reopen Villa Tiburtina ourselves.”

Because, as the figure of the mammoth drawn by the artist Zerocalcare on the walls of the Rebibbia subway station says, “Here we lack everything, and we need nothing.”

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