Deserted: Duomo Square, central Milan

Nationalism and COVID-19

Despite the rapid spread of coronavirus, notes Toby Abse, the response of the Italian government compares favourably to Boris Johnson’s.

Italy has been singled out as the alleged epicentre of coronavirus in Europe. In fact, as I will explain, the infection arrived in the Lodigiano area from Munich, not directly from China. Earlier cases involving Chinese tourists were satisfactorily dealt with in Rome’s Spallanzani hospital and did not have any link to the subsequent epidemic, which started spreading from northern Italy. However, on March 8 Italy overtook South Korea and Iran to become the country with the second highest number of reported cases.

As the death rate also rose (of the 463 who had died by March 9, 97 had succumbed on that day), the decision was made to place the entire country under lockdown. A number of countries are refusing entry to anybody arriving from Italy, whilst rather more have banned anybody coming from the worst affected areas of the country.

Whilst I would not for a moment seek to deny that COVID-19 has become a very serious problem in the country, especially in the northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, I would argue that there is a gap between the negative foreign perceptions of the Italian case and the reality. Those who now paint Italy as the leper of Europe may well find themselves in the same situation within a fortnight.

Regular readers of the Weekly Worker will know that I am no fan of Italian premier Giuseppe Conte and his shaky four-party coalition government. But in this instance there does seem to be a degree of demonisation of Italy taking place both within the European Union and the UK. Indeed I would contrast the Italian government’s robust response with the ostrich-like antics of other premiers and presidents, more concerned with maintaining the favour of business interests (or in the case of Boris Johnson, scoring points against the EU) than protecting their citizens’ welfare.

Italy has actually been more honest and transparent about the problem than many of its European counterparts, let alone the Iranian regime. One of the main reasons that there have been more reported cases in Italy than elsewhere in Europe is that the Italian authorities have been more willing to carry out systematic testing of all known contacts of those obviously infected with the disease, instead of confining themselves to testing only those patients displaying very severe and obvious symptoms. Although it is the case that the disease arrived in Italy some weeks before anybody spotted it - with many early sufferers who ended up in hospital, even in intensive care wards, being regarded as cases of standard seasonal flu - the same point could be made in relation to other countries, not least in the Wuhan area.

Contrary to what was initially assumed, the disease (or, to be more precise, those cases that gave rise to the pandemic) did not come to Italy directly from China. Given the degree of commerce between the two countries, it was a rational enough assumption that it might have entered the country in that way and early attempts by medical experts to trace the contacts of the first recognisable COVID-19 patients pursued this hypothesis.

Needless to say, the far-right Lega party was all too eager to stir up hostility towards the large Chinese community in the textile town of Prato and elsewhere and there have been some instances of physical attacks. The Lega president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, publicly claimed that the Chinese “eat live mice” and did not wash enough. Predictably, party leader Matteo Salvini’s initial response to the arrival of COVID-19 was a demand to close the borders - which seemed singularly pointless, as the disease was already inside the country. The so-called centre-right as a whole was demanding stricter controls on immigration, despite there being no real evidence that the countries from which the refugees and migrants were coming (eg, Nigeria, Eritrea and Senegal) have any significant number of cases.

It is no accident that COVID-19 was first spotted in the region of Lombardy - in other words, in a prosperous northern region, which is heavily involved in international trade. The virus seems to have arrived in the region from Germany - the outbreak in Munich also seems to have been the source of the virus’s spread to Scotland, Finland, Mexico and Brazil. Whilst in this epoch of neoliberal globalisation such pan-national epidemics are inevitable and no country’s nationals should be scapegoated as ‘super-spreaders’, it is rather significant that this German-centred chain of events has had little or no attention from the international media.

To cite a more recent example, The Guardian’s front-page headline on March 9 - “Italy in chaos, as thousands race to escape quarantine” - was unduly sensationalist. In Italy, the phenomenon referred to was a movement of some northerners to the south, triggered by the willingness of the online version of Corriere Della Sera to publish an irresponsible leak of the expected quarantine decree. The leak came from the Lega-run Lombard regional government, and not central government sources, and was quite possibly a deliberate attempt by Salvini and his cronies to undermine the Conte government. This reduced the effectiveness of the regionalised quarantine decree and led to the subsequent nationwide lock-down announced on March 9.

Giuseppe Conte, who has headed one government in which his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) was allied with the Lega (May 2018-August 2019), and then another (from September 2019) in which his principal ally is the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), certainly cannot be regarded as a man of consistent political principles. However, his handling of the present crisis has demonstrated a degree of seriousness totally absent from the conduct of our own part-time prime minister, Boris Johnson, who on March 7 felt the best response to COVID-19 was to attend the England-Wales rugby match.

In Conte’s televised address to the nation on March 4, he showed a grasp of detail and an empathetic engagement with the problems faced by his citizens that is in stark contrast with the incoherent stream of consciousness and pathetic jokes that illustrated the bottomless contempt for the masses of our entitled Etonian buffoon.

Business as usual

Conte’s initial extension on March 7 of numerous restrictions from the original ‘Red Zone’ with its 50,000 inhabitants to the whole region of Lombardy and 14 other provinces (about a quarter of Italy’s entire population) showed he was a man who was willing to take precautions that he sincerely believes will protect the citizenry, regardless of the desire of Confindustria (the Italian equivalent of the CBI) and other business lobby groups to get back to business as usual.

The business-as-usual approach has intermittently been pursued by the Lega - I stress intermittently, because Salvini is torn between his habitual default position of stirring up fear and insecurity and his more recent desire to pose as the fearless champion of northern business interests against the interfering, bureaucratic state, with its mollycoddling of the unproductive elderly and infirm.

There was a certain irony in the way in which Attilio Fontana, the Lega president of Lombardy, shortly after dismissing COVID-19 as more or less the same as normal flu, ended up going into self-isolation after a key member of his staff tested positive. More recently, one of the policemen in Salvini’s group of bodyguards has been found to have the virus. Salvini himself was refusing to take a test. Doubtless, even if he were forced into self-isolation, he would continue to rant on Facebook and Twitter.

It should go without saying that Roberto Speranza, the health minister, who represents the social democratic Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) in the cabinet, is also approaching the crisis with a degree of concern and commitment lacking in Johnson’s obedient lackey, John Hancock - Speranza had pushed for an increase in health spending in the run-up to the December 2019 budget. Conte has now publicly acknowledged that a decade of cuts has weakened the Italian health service and is trying his best to improve provision - although recruiting an extra 5,000 hospital doctors, as announced on March 6, is far easier said than done.

The Italian health service has been run down due to the neoliberal austerity measures of the last two decades -especially since the world economic crisis in 2008, and the euro zone crisis of 2011. Whilst the moral responsibility of prime minister Mario Monti and his cabinet of technocrats and of the PD - which first colluded with Monti’s cuts and then implemented further cuts of its own in 2013-18 - cannot be ignored or minimised, the driver behind all this was the EU’s ghastly fiscal compact, and its incorporation into the Italian constitution during the euro zone crisis.

Between 2010 and 2017 the number of doctors in Italy fell by 5.4 % and the total number of people employed by the health service fell by 5.8%. The number of hospital beds fell from 350,000 in 1997 to 250,000 in 2017, with 70,000 of these losses occurring over the last decade. Between 2012 and 2017, 769 hospital wards were closed. The number of beds available in 2017 was 3.2 per thousand inhabitants in Italy, compared with six in France and eight in Germany. The 2010 starting point had been four per thousand, so this is a fairly drastic reduction - even if it is not as great as the decline in the UK over the same period: from 3.5 to 2.5 per thousand under Cameron and May.

President Sergio Mattarella gave his general backing to Conte - with a few rather minor coded criticisms about the timing of announcements - and urged cooperation between central and regional governments. In the Italian context this is not as much of a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ cliché as it might appear to a UK audience. It needs to be pointed out that the devolution of powers to regional governments in relation to health has not been a good idea and that any further “differentiated autonomy” of the kind currently being demanded by northern regional governments (particularly the Lega-led regions of Lombardy and Veneto) will make matters worse.

The centre-left has not been blameless here any more than it was in relation to cuts at the national level. The devolution of these powers was a short-sighted piece of opportunism by the PD’s immediate predecessors, who vainly sought to placate the Lega or at least the Lega’s electorate. The devolved powers have given further scope for privatisation and outsourcing in both Lombardy and Veneto - an appalling model that the Lega is seeking to introduce into Umbria, which it took over after the October 2019 regional election. In any event an efficient national health service needs to be truly national, not an incoherent conglomeration of regional services.

Although the measures being taken by the government have been quite drastic, there is some hope that this approach will prevent the epidemic from getting worse, in view of the recent slowdown in China in the wake of a broadly similar approach. Conversely, it is obvious that the more laissez-faire approach favoured by many business interests would put more lives at risk.

Given that Italy had negative growth in October-December 2019, it is extremely likely that the COVID-19 crisis will push it into a full-blown recession - particularly if industrial production slumps and tourism continues to decline. There had already been a serious stock market slump in the February-March period - on March 9 the index plunged by 11.17% (€51 billion) in a single day. On March 10 the fall continued (-3.28% ie, 13.6 billion Euros). Moody’s forecast is that Italy’s gross national product will decline by 0.5% in 2020. Therefore - perhaps because Conte knows that, despite his high popular approval ratings, he is not regarded as completely reliable by big capital, because he is at least nominally linked to M5S - it looks as if he is taking a gamble on putting people before profit.

That he may in part be motivated by understandable personal hostility to both Matteo Salvini (who brought down his first government) and more recently Matteo Renzi (who has sought to undermine the M5S-PD coalition he advocated back in 2019) is irrelevant. It is equally fortuitous that PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, who started to feel ill on the night of March 6-7, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is pushing the PD members of the cabinet to back Conte to the hilt, despite the initial hesitation of the PD economics minister, Roberto Gualtieri (who seemed more inclined to listen to business lobbyists and more wary of clashing with the EU Commission over the urgent need to increase Italy’s budget deficit).

The role of the president in this crisis should not be ignored - Matarella, who has the personal integrity that most of his predecessors lacked, clearly finds Salvini’s racism and xenophobia abhorrent and is prepared to back Conte’s gamble in what he perceives to be the national interest.