COVID-19. The Situation in Italy. Interview


How can we explain that Italy is one of the countries the most hit by the pandemic?

Marc Lazar: Understanding the reasons of this human tragedy (close to 16,000 deaths by today, 6 April) will need more time and research. Several hypotheses can be put forward for the time being, but they will need to be confirmed later on. There was probably an underestimation of the reality of the virus in the first place. Political authorities explained that it was a “Chinese disease” before they realised that it impacted Italy directly and that it was not just “imported”. Similarly, the health authorities probably underestimated the gravity and the aggressiveness of the virus. There were errors made in terms of public policies and there were also strong tensions and disagreements or dysfunction between the central power and the regions given that health issues are part of the regions’ prerogatives. Some said that the propagation of the virus had been encouraged in Italy because it is a country where several generations live together. But in the southern regions of the country, this hypothesis has not yet been confirmed despite the fact that this type of living is more prevalent than elsewhere in the country. Similarly, some have spoken of the urban density of Lombardy as a factor of widespread contamination. But again, for the moment, cities such as Rome and Naples are relatively weakly hit. It is, however, almost a given that the Italian demography explains a large part of the high death rate: Italy is a country with a large elderly population and the virus hits the elderly more strongly.

While Lombardy and Venetia—two regions governed by Lega Nord—are the most hit by COVID-19 and given that the pandemic is for some a proof of the harmful effects of open frontiers, what has been Matteo Salvini’s attitude during this crisis? How has the leader of Lega Nord decided to occupy the political arena during this particular time?

It is first of all important to separate what happens in these two regions and what Matteo Salvini does. These two regions are governed by members of the Lega Nord but they have not adopted the same strategy in the face of the epidemic. In Venetia, after having under-estimated the reality and spread of the disease, Luca Zaia quickly imposed quarantine and started screening the population. As a result, the epidemic has been rather well controlled. In Lombardy, Attilio Fontana hesitated: first he explained that it was a common influenza, then he criticised the government’s decisions because of how they would impact the economy of his region, and finally he requested even more severe measures of lockdown. As we know, Lombardy is paying a high price even though the responsibility is not only that of its president, far from it. Matteo Salvini is closer to Fontana than to Zaia, in particular given that Zaia does not follow exactly the same political line as the secretary of the party. The representative of the Liga Veneta, a movement very attached to its originality within the Lega Norde, Luca Zaia is attached to his region’s autonomy and does not adhere to the national and nationalist orientation of Salvini. Salvini in fact proved inconsistent in his decisions: on 22 February, he asked for the borders to be closed, suggesting that the virus arrived with migrants. Then, five days later, he declared that Italy’s situation was excellent and invited tourists to visit the peninsula. He opposed confinement measures and then requested they be more severe while asking, once again, for anticipated elections to be held. Salvini continuously attacks Giusseppe Conte’s government but, observing how popular it is, he also calls for national unity while applauding Viktor Obran’s obtaining full powers in Hungary. The fact is, he lost some of his popularity, even if his party is still first in polls and gathers more than 30% of vote intentions. That being said, Salvini criticises the European Union on a permanent basis.

What do Italians think of the position or reaction—or lack thereof—of the European Union?

The media, but also all political parties did not accept well the EU’s refusal to launch the European protection mechanism. They reacted badly to Christine Lagarde declaring on 12 March that the European Central Bank (ECB) was not there to deal with reducing the spread of the virus. Italians had the feeling they were once again left by themselves. The extent of their disappointment with Europe is commensurate with their historic investment in the European idea. This deep disillusionment comes on top of the previous ones: the introduction of the Euro that did not live up to the expectations of a majority of the Italian population; the financial and economic crisis of 2008, which had a strong impact on the country; and the migrant crisis, during which Italy felt alone and abandoned. The polls are impressive. Only 35% of those interviewed on 16 and 17 March by sociologist Ilvo Diamanti were in favour of the European Union. A few days earlier, in another survey, 88% of Italians felt that the European Union was not helping Italy in the face of the coronavirus. And for 67%, belonging to the EU was a disadvantage, 20 points more than in November 2018, when the previous survey was conducted. And to the question, “how do you evaluate cooperation between European countries” in the face of the epidemic, asked by the Kandar Institute in the G7 countries between 19 and 21 March, 67% of Italians believe it is quite bad and even very bad, the highest percentage of opinions in the G7 European countries (43% in France).

The emergency plan finally adopted by the ECB, the decisions of the European Commission agreeing to let the public debt and deficit go, the recent declarations of solidarity expressed by Paris and Berlin towards Rome, the interview given by President Macron to three major Italian newspapers on 27 March in which he showed immense empathy with Italy and expressed his agreement with the government in Rome vis-à-vis the European Union, marked a turning point. It remains to be seen whether this will make an impact on public opinion. However, the meeting of the Council of Heads of State and Government on 26 March did not result in joint decisions on how to provide lasting help to emerge from the economic crisis caused by the epidemic. During this meeting, Giuseppe Conte violently attacked some of Italy’s partners, in particular Germany and the Netherlands. The Council gave itself 15 days to try to draw up joint decisions. If it fails to do so, it will only strengthen the camp of Eurosceptics that the populists are working to enlarge every day. In a strong symbolic gesture, right-wing mayors are removing the European flag from their town halls. In fact, what the Italians are waiting for are masks, tests, doctors: in short, something concrete. However, the images of Chinese, Russian, and even Cuban aid, which are widely broadcast on television screens or on social networks, undoubtedly mark them more than the sums of money evoked by Europe, which remain quite abstract for the moment.

How do you envisage post-COVID-19 Italy? What country will come out of the crisis according to you?

Italy may come out of this weakened. First because of the human price the country is paying. Second, because the country’s economy is likely to suffer significant damage, although economists are divided on Italy’s capacity to bounce back and the consequences of the growing public debt and deficit. Unemployment could increase further, as could inequalities of all kinds. Politically, a great debate is beginning. On the one hand, some believe that the populists will be weakened because they have shown their incoherence, demagogy, and irresponsibility, including towards medicine and doctors. It should be noted that the 5-Star Movement, which is very hostile to vaccines, is hardly making itself heard at the moment. Additionally, Italy shows solidarity, fraternity, civic spirit, and national cohesion. This should therefore favour the responsible political forces, the Partito Democratico (PD) and Giuseppe Conte. Problem: the PD is not progressing in the polls and if Giuseppe Conte is strong at the moment, the Italians will not fail to hold him accountable after this crisis; moreover, he is isolated, has no parliamentarians, and no party. This gives a boost to those who think, as I do, that the populists, on the contrary, may well be the winner: they will make the current government pay the price of the crisis, explain that the borders must be closed in a lasting and systematic way, that the European Union is definitely useless, that national sovereignty must be asserted. These are all themes that permeate public opinion. Time will tell…

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI.

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