The Political Fallout from Italy’s Coronavirus Crisis
by Rosa Gilbert
The coronavirus outbreak in Italy has ruthlessly exposed the country’s economic, regional, demographic and political fault-lines. As the government prepares to relax the national lockdown, Rosa Gilbert writes that these factors combined with the left’s weakness is providing fertile ground for an ascendant right.
Next Monday, after eight weeks of national lockdown, the restrictions on movement and commercial activity will be partially lifted, ushering in ‘Phase Two’ of Italy’s coronavirus emergency. Whilst the country has been the subject of huge international attention since overtaking China’s infection and mortality rate, the pandemic has opened up significant domestic divisions that perhaps have gone unnoticed by a foreign news press fixated by viral videos of amateur musicians and the outward projection of unity under the motto andrá tutto bene (“it’ll all be fine”).
From Phase One to Phase Two
From Monday, all manufacturing and construction sites will re-open, as well as non-public facing commerce. Shops will open on 18 May, with very stringent conditions on the cleanliness needed for shops selling items handled by the public, as well as open-air sports. Whilst freedom of movement will be relaxed from Monday, hopes that the ‘self-declaration’ forms providing a reason for being outside of the house would no longer have to be carried seem to have been dashed. Facemasks will be mandatory in all closed spaces, though in some regions (like Tuscany) the local government has already introduced mandatory mask-wearing in all public places. Crucially, exercise over longer distances is now allowed as well as family visits. From 1 June bars, hairdressers and restaurants will start re-opening, most of which are small businesses or sole traders struggling to stay afloat and with low capacity for delivery at home.
Italy’s recent history of natural disasters including the devastating earthquakes at Aquila and Amatrice and the mismanagement of their aftermath exposed the failings of the political class on a local level, who soon deserted the victims and survivors when media attention was turned elsewhere. These events have perhaps acted as a prelude to the current crisis, exposing Italy’s vast social inequalities and the political reluctance to provide a panacea, but has also laid bare the disparities between regional power and health provision, the north-south divide, political division along changing fault lines, and the continued anger over generational inequality reaching new heights.
Regional disparity in health and wealth
As in other parts of the world, coronavirus has hit Italy worse in its more populous and industrious areas. The provinces with the highest contagion rates – Milan, Brescia, Turin, Bergamo and Cremona – are clusters of business and industry. As satellites of Milan, Brescia and Bergamo are important centres of the logistics sector not just for Italy but for all of Europe. Lombardy, the region which contributes around 22% of Italy’s GDP, has suffered half of all Italy’s mortalities.
Health provision in Italy has been devolved to regional governments over decades but accelerated in recent years, creating huge disparities in provision and diverging private sector involvement from region to region, whilst resources have been depleted by mismanagement, underfunding and increasing privatisation. Since 1981 acute care hospital beds per 100,000 have been diminished by two thirds. Whilst Lombardy’s public health provision is one of the best in Europe, and certainly one of the best in Italy, its handling of the crisis compared to neighbouring regions like Veneto has been heavily criticised. Governed almost without pause by the right, and since 2013 by the League, Lombardy’s healthcare reforms have put undue strain on hospitals by weakening community health provision which critics have claimed led to too many early Covid-19 cases being missed. Lombardy has also been an exemplar for private involvement in public health provision, with lower performance standards required for the private sector. Affected parts of Veneto were also locked down early with widespread community testing introduced, whilst Lombardy’s governor failed to order a lockdown for cities like Bergamo until the entire region itself was put in lockdown on 8 March – for which he now blames the national government. But even the League’s Mayor of Alzano in the Bergamo province has admitted that they were pressured into avoiding quarantine by the business federation, Confindustria.
The concentration of cases in Lombardy has been worsened by the light-touch lockdown for many workers in the region. Although the gradual re-opening next week is significant for consumers and public-facing companies, as trade union federation CGIL have pointed out, millions of workers have already returned to work thanks to the lobbying of Confindustria. It is estimated that 300,000 of these workers are in the province of Bergamo, one of the worst-hit provinces in the whole of Italy. On 22 March, the Italian government announced it was closing all non-essential workplaces in an apparent tightening of the restrictions. But in reality, it brought in a mechanism to allow workplaces to derogate from the lockdown by applying for approval as essential businesses – 125,833 applications were made, 2500 in Bergamo which were all approved.
The clear correlation between areas particularly affected by the Covid-19 outbreak and Italy’s industrial, logistics and manufacturing hubs, with Turin and Milan still now struggling to get numbers down, created a major opportunity for the trade unions to foment opposition to the government’s deference to Confindustria’s demands. Despite a recent left turn in the leadership of the main union confederation CGIL, the response was disappointing. Apart from a threatened general strike and a 24-hour walkout by the confederation’s most militant element, the metalworkers’ union FIOM, there has been a startling lack of opposition to the continuation and re-opening of workplaces in the most at-risk provinces. Wildcat strikes have seen more success in closing car factories and winning safer working conditions. The day after the announcement of closure of non-essential workplaces, the Italian armaments manufacturer Leonardo boasted of that 70% of its workforce had turned up to its sites despite localised strikes in the Turin aerospace industry.
The Regions against Rome
The significant regional divergence in the pandemic’s impact within Italy, correlating with industry and capital intensity, has brought to the fore regional inequality in healthcare outcomes and tensions between regional and central government. Had a national lockdown happened later, or domestic travel not been severely restricted, the already stretched health services in poorer regions like Campania and Calabria in the south would have coped significantly worse than Lombardy. This regionalism within healthcare and political governance has also resulted in political jockeying between regional and central governments over lockdown restrictions and re-openings. Videos of Italian mayors and regional governors attacking their citizens for not obeying them fully were viewed with humour across Europe but less so in Italy, demonstrating the thrill of authoritarianism that many local politicians, suddenly imbued with inordinate power, are enjoying.
Some regions have now decided to pre-emptively lighten certain restrictions in opposition to central government, such as Liguria permitting horse-riding and fishing. Others, such as Vincenzo De Luca, the long-time governor of Campania, at first created further restrictions banning people from even limited outdoor exercise, and now continually threatens to extend the lockdown as a conspicuous display of his own political authority. The Mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, tours the city with police searching for people disobeying rules even in the most inconsequential ways to recount later on his social media accounts.
Political divisions and far-right manipulation
The case of Lombardy again brought to the fore this conflict between the regions and Rome, with League governor Attilio Fontana accusing central government of interfering when it commissioned investigations into alleged malpractice in Lombardy hospitals, and negligence in failing to quarantine parts of Lombardy. In part because of its leading role in Lombardy’s government, the League has struggled to produce a convincing and consistent position on the pandemic. Matteo Salvini has tried to blame it on migrants, called for closures, then re-openings, all-the-while losing political ground to the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy. Salvini’s personal ratings are down, whilst Prime Minister Conte’s have been going up, and government approval ratings also buoyant.
Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, unblemished by any association with malpractice in Lombardy unlike Salvini, has attracted attention by promoting anti-Chinese conspiracy theories including a video purporting to show the laboratory creation of Coronavirus, and attacking Chinese aid and medical convoys. Whilst Salvini has also weaponised anti-Chinese talking points, his involvement as Deputy Prime Minister in the first Conte government which approved a ‘New Silk Road’ trade agreement with China, despite the League having reservations, has allowed Meloni’s more vicious anti-Chinese rhetoric to gain traction. Italy’s trade relations with China, based primarily on high fashion manufacturing with growing demand in Chinese shops since the ending of its lockdown, has put pressure on Italian high fashion brands to re-open manufacturing. These relations have been manipulated into conspiracy theories promoted outside of Italy too by David Vance. Meloni’s ire has also been aimed at Five Star Movement Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio for being a ‘Sinophile’, claiming he paid double the price for Chinese facemasks.
The far-right have also tried to instrumentalise the crisis in order to attack one of the Italian left’s most significant hegemonic cultural successes, the national Liberation Day celebration on 25th April, marking the antifascist victory. Neo-fascist party Forza Nuova called on people to take to the streets as disobedience against the lockdown and against the annual celebration of the heroism of the antifascist partisans, bringing together anti-vax conspiracists, neo-fascists, Trump supporters and other assorted alt-rightists for a “black 25th April”. In the end there was little take up and those that participated ended up facing fines for breaking the lockdown regulations.
Conte’s trouble with Europe
Whilst Meloni and Salvini have been challenged from the left (Governor of Tuscany Enrico Rossi called them ‘League-Fascists’), the social democratic-populist government led by Conte (consisting of the Democratic Party (PD) and Five Star Movement) is at risk to the right, with the League still ahead in the polls despite experiencing a downward trend. This has been worsened by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) negotiations and fruitless attempt to mutualise Eurozone debt through so-called Coronabonds to stop Italy’s perpetual cycle of indebtedness.
Conte as a non-party political figure has appeared more defiant than other more careerist and compliant politicians, but Meloni made political capital from Conte’s climbdown by defying parliamentary orders to limit number of parliamentarians inside the chamber in order to pass an amendment to reject the ESM bailout. Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister and now leader of Italia Viva – a liberal, pro-European offshoot from the governing PD – has defended the European Union’s actions whilst taking the seemingly ubiquitous Blairite position of calling for an end to the lockdown for the sake of the economy. Though there is much to criticise about Conte’s reluctance to face down Confindustria, it seems fairly certain that the ‘two Mattei’, Renzi and Salvini, would both have eased the lockdown prematurely.
As with the far-right’s displacement of blame for coronavirus deaths away from domestic business interests towards China, the lack of left opposition to the EU’s treatment of Italy once again provides fertile ground for the right, despite the League’s opposition to the Coronabonds initiative. Some of the biggest challenges in this regard have been pointed out by the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), which is part of the GUE/NGL. While proposing a Green New Deal and windfall multinational corporation tax, the PRC argued that problem is not just the position taken by northern European countries in opposition to the economic needs of the south but also the neoliberalism of the centre-left and right across Europe. ‘The problem is one of political positioning,’ wrote Maurizio Acerbo, the party’s leader. ‘They want to keep our societies prisoners of public debt.’
Beyond the regional and party-political divides, the coronavirus crisis has heightened a latent but worsening problem facing Italian society, that of demographics. Since the global financial crisis, Italy has haemorrhaged its working-age population to emigration which, combined with a vast drop in the birth rate – linked also to growing financial insecurity and job precarity – has left it with an ageing population on a par with Japan. Whilst outsiders pointed – optimistically, but incorrectly – to Italy’s ageing population as the reason for it being so badly hit by Coronavirus, pressures on young families have worsened a demographic divide already accentuated by the disparity of living standards between pensioners and the working-age population.
This disparity has been worsened by the lockdown because of the economy’s over-reliance on tourism, hospitality and precarious short-term jobs. Further restrictions of the lockdown at the end of March, closing all parks and heavily limiting the movement of individuals in close proximity to their homes, disproportionately impacted young families and those with disabled dependents. Parents taking their children outside were fined for violating the law. After great clamour and complaints from parents, the rules were relaxed to allow one parent to take one child or disabled dependent out at a time. But the continued total closure of schools until September has upset many parents now expected to return to work whilst undertaking childcare.
As Italy emerges from lockdown, there is a great risk that these divides will be also instrumentalised by the right, still in ascendance despite Salvini’s drop in popularity and higher trust in Conte. The inadequacy of the Stability Mechanism could well drive people further into the arms of the right if the left cannot provide opposition to further indebtedness and austerity. The accruing pressure on working-age families both economically and socially could prove disastrous for the government when no longer in emergency mode. And the blame for Coronavirus may well be dumped on China by the ascendant far-right if the left fails to expose the negligence of the business lobby and place vested interests such as Confindustria, not China, in the dock.
Rosa Gilbert is an academic, writer and activist living in Florence, Italy. She has published widely in left-wing outlets such as the Morning Star, Jacobin and the New Socialist.