When I think of Italy, I think of the rolling green hills of Tuscany where my family once lived; of vibrant locals, distinctive gelaterias, and of an irrepressible sense of tranquillity. The Italy I imagine is a far cry from the Italy of present.
The COVID-19 pandemic has augmented pre-existent economic and ideological fissures in Italy, both domestically and in its relations with other member states of the eurozone. The pandemic comes just a decade after the eurocrisis, the impact of which is still being felt by several European economies. However, the current crisis differs from the previous one in numerous fundamental ways. It constitutes a symmetric shock to member states of the eurozone, and it is not the result of policy or governmental failure. Crucially, this crisis also has a distinctly humanitarian element, rather than being solely fiscal. Yet while the initial threat posed by COVID-19 may have been symmetric, the pre-crisis financial burden already felt by some member states has led to an asymmetric fallout, with southern countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece being most severely affected. Real GDP forecasts issued by the European Commission on the 6th May estimate a 7.7% shrinkage in the euro area as a whole; Greece, Italy and Spain are predicted the highest fallout, with an estimated reduction of 9.7%, 9.5% and 9.4% respectively, according to the Spring 2020 European Commission economic forecast.
With southern member states topping statistics for economic shrinkage, it is clear the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gulf between northern and southern countries, exacerbating tensions within the bloc which have boiled over in the recent ‘coronabonds’ controversy. At the heart of this debate lay rhetorical distinctions between ‘mutualised’ debts, on the one hand, and ‘joint’ or ‘several’ debts on the other. Coronabonds, if approved, would allow for the combining of securities and collective guaranteeing of debt across the eurozone, as requested by the leaders of nine member states in a letter to the European Council on the 26th March. Yet fears that this may lead to a situation in which certain member states with smaller economies may be held responsible for the debts of all others – or even one in which all eurozone debts become permanently mutually held – have fuelled intense opposition to the request, spearheaded by Germany and the Netherlands. Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, reportedly suggested that Brussels should investigate why some countries were unable to combat the economic downturn ensuing from the virus, refusing to support coronabonds on the grounds that they undermined ‘incentives for sensible policy’.
While there are some reasonable fiscal concerns arising from coronabonds, there is no denying the fact that the response of Germany and the Netherlands constitutes a breach of the ideological principle of solidarity underpinning the European Union. The justificatory ethos propagated by this opposition is not dissimilar to ‘every man [or member state] for himself’. Such a rejection has, understandably, led to feelings of betrayal within the hardest-hit member states and their supporters, which in turn could encourage a rise in Euroscepticism. Mark Dowding, chief investment officer for BlueBay Asset Management, insightfully turns the mirror back to those countries rejecting this request in his assertion that Euroscepticism ‘eventually sees fears of a break-up getting priced in. As an investor, I think that dynamic is more important than the finer points of any eurozone deal.’ He thus highlights the economic as well as ideological argument for solidarity between member states, suggesting that fears of fragmentation could discourage future investment, affecting all members of the eurozone – not just those currently in need. Ultimately, a threat as ubiquitous as COVID-19 surely demands a response that is equally united.
Such a context informs the current economic and political climate in Italy. With a death toll of over 31,000 (the second highest in Europe after the UK, and third highest globally), Italy has been viewed as the epicentre of the crisis in mainland Europe. There are numerous factors underlying the intensity of this fallout. For one, Italy was already suffering from strained public finances and economic uncertainty before the pandemic, contributing to the spiralling fiscal repercussions of the virus the country now faces. After the outbreak, Italy notably suffered from an initial supply-side shock; combined with the economic consequences emanating from production shutdown and other containment policies, such repercussions mean Italy is now set to enter a deep recession. Another significant underlying factor is Italy’s population demographic: with a median age ranked fifth highest in the world, alongside one of the lowest birth rates, the burden on financing requirements such as care homes, focal points in this epidemic, is substantial. Yet such factors are long term and therefore, in a sense, unavoidable. By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been criticised for perceived shortcomings in his early lockdown strategies; such measures involved dividing the country into ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ zones, according to the perceived threat in various regions. Subsequent containment measures were thus determined with respect to these categories, with regions in the ‘red’ zone such as Lombardy and Veneto being placed on full-scale lockdown. Whilst these measures were in place from 8th March, Italy was not placed under national lockdown until the 22nd, leading some to criticise Conte’s policies as reactive rather than proactive, potentially facilitating the spread of the virus between regions.
Domestically, Italy has also been hit by one of the largest frontline healthcare crises in Europe – if not the world. In the early stages of the virus, Italy’s hospitals became overwhelmed by the exponential spread of cases and inadequate resources; this was particularly the case in Lombardy, which saw the highest concentration of virus cases in the country. In the days after Italy had been put on official lockdown over 2500 Italian healthcare workers tested positive for the virus contributing, in part, to its further spread. Italian filmmaker Olmo Parenti’s short documentary, entitled Coronavirus From One Meter Away, looks inside Milan’s Polyclinic, one of the key hospitals fighting the pandemic in Italy. Parenti used extreme close-ups to film many of the patients, stating that ‘I wanted to capture the painful reality of seeing this virus in action… When you’re three feet away from a patient, you see all the tiny things that speak so loudly about the pain and struggle they are going through’. His documentary gives an important and highly emotive insight into the individual realities of the virus, which are all too often subsumed by macrocosmic data analysing overarching death rates, and politico-economic trends. It is important to remember that, despite the significant fallout, this crisis remains humanitarian at its heart. Such a mindset, if applied, helps encourage empathetic responses to the crisis both domestically and trans-nationally.
That being said, it should be recognised just how transformative the coronavirus has been across a multitude of domains, be they economic, political or cultural. For example, a significant by-product of the pandemic is a strenuous ideological questioning, as reflected in the increasing Euroscepticism arising from tensions in the eurozone. Such a trend represents a significant departure from the ideological principle of unity underpinning the eurozone, and constitutes a fundamental threat to an institution which has been in place for over twenty years.
In Italy, a Tecnè survey reported that the number of Italians agreeing that EU membership is a disadvantage rose from 47% in November 2018, to 67% in March 2020. While it cannot be stated that the current pandemic was the predominant cause of this, such dates certainly imply a high degree of correlation. Moreover, increasing governmental tensions arising from the virus are adding to an already strained political environment, reflected in conflicts between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement on the one hand, and the rising popularity of the anti-EU, right-wing party Matteo Salvini’s League on the other. Conte’s production of a unified response to the pandemic has therefore been complicated by the need to navigate this increasing Euroscepticism and mediate between the demands of different political parties. The government’s delayed announcement of a 55 billion-euro stimulus package, promising to boost business liquidity and aid vulnerable families, was finally broadcast by Conte on May 13th. It is thus apparent in Italy – as in many other countries – that COVID-19 poses a substantial threat to all spheres of daily activity, contributing to significant politico-economic and ideological scrutiny.
In the face of such a climate – in which the economic, political and humanitarian principles of Italy stand under threat – the cultural response which has emerged is rendered all the more incredible. Stories of individual and communal reactions to the pandemic stand out as beacons of hope in a predominantly dark tide of media coverage. ‘Andrà tutto bene’ (‘everything will be alright’) are the words painted on flags draped from citizens’ balconies, encapsulating the resilience of the Italian spirit. Everyday at 6pm, since the beginning of the official lockdown, inhabitants in Rome have opened their windows and sang together. This tradition is mirrored in various forms across the country. In Siena, at the heart of Tuscany, a recent viral video shows the townspeople singing a traditional folksong together in the dead of night; in Florence, Maurizio Marchini gave a powerful performance of Nessun Dorma from his balcony; in Turin, an opera singer and violinist played from the window in their block of flats. Across Italy, neighbourhoods are coming together from the confines of their households to play instruments, dance on their balconies, and remind each other that they are not alone, in spite of unprecedented social isolation.
Music is not the only outlet the people of Italy have turned to in solace. There are numerous stories of philanthropic ventures connecting different social groups across Italy. In Rome and Milan the app Next Door is being used to connect millennials with elderly generations, enabling the supply of food and medical deliveries to the vulnerable. In Geneva, the closure of Luzzati Garden led to its president Marco Montoli re-creating the cultural space online; the ensuing ‘Good Morning Geneva’ page has more than 20,000 followers, and provides yoga tutorials, debates, concerts and craft workshops amongst other content. ‘Good Morning Geneva’ has also functioned as a platform against domestic violence, with Manuela Caccioni (head of the Mascherona anti-violence centre) using the page to highlight the ways in which their work is continuing virtually, and encouraging victims to reach out to them.
Such enterprise is also unfolding on the frontline. Francesco Caputo, a psychotherapist with the refugee NGO Mediterranea, launched a hotline in late April to provide mental and emotional support to those impacted by the crisis. This venture recognises the very real psychological repercussions emanating from COVID-19, as manifested in medical reports of increased anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks amongst survivors and their peers. Rome’s Spallanzani infectious diseases institute is one of many hospitals in Italy offering therapy sessions for patients who are not in the intensive care unit, aiming to confront fears arising from the virus. Doctor Tommaso Speranza, a psychologist for the hospital, epitomises the communal response to the crisis in an interview with BBC News: ‘We try to transform [fear] into hope, telling them they’re not alone.’ Across Italy, from the claustrophobic confines of hospitals and houses, blooms creativity, enacted in artistic, technological and charitable projects.
Italy stands as an example of the irrepressible human spirit. Faced with an hitherto inconceivable crisis, with economic strain, political fracture and a very real physical threat, Italy – along with many other countries of the world – has responded with hope. While this virus pervades every corner of daily life right now, and has undoubtedly caused fractures at many levels of society, we should not overlook the overwhelming number of positive endeavours that have arisen in response. Such ventures project an optimistic image for a future in which society is a little more empathetic, creative and united.
When I next return to Italy, the rolling green hills of Tuscany will be the same; but the people that inhabit them will be irrevocably changed. COVID-19 is going to radically redefine what we conceptualise as normal, in economic, socio-political, and cultural terms. Yet, at its heart, Italy remains the same emblem of communal resilience.
Come what may, andrà tutto bene.