Historians of the future may remember 2020 as a turning point in world history. Italians will likely view the coronavirus crisis as a turning point in the history of their own country. Given the weakness of the European Union, nation states on the continent are mostly having to fend for themselves. Stronger Northern states like Germany will probably manage to reduce the damages and survive. But weaker Southern states like Italy risk a collapse of their health systems and their economies.
Fortunately, most of the 60 million Italians have complied with restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many manifest their solidarity by opening windows and balconies, greeting and cheering their neighbors, waving the national flag, and singing folksongs and the national anthem.
But local, regional and national authorities disagree about how to handle the emergency. Some complain about the restrictions; others argue that the measures taken are not severe enough. Some want to test the population of large territories; others point to the lack of resources. Municipalities are critical of regional governments; both critique national decisions.
When the emergency ends, a new political season will begin. The current national government is a shaky coalition between the center-left Democratic Party, some small leftist parties, and the Five Star Movement, which is strongest in the South of the country. At the moment, polls show that the government has public support. But, in times of crisis, this can change quite rapidly.
A constitutional referendum has been postponed to the indefinite future. A round of local elections scheduled to take place this spring are likely to follow suit. When they do occur, the key issue will undoubtedly be who was responsible for so many people getting sick and thousands dying.
The most dramatic failure of the healthcare system took place in Lombardy, the nation’s richest region. It has been governed for the last twenty-five years by right-wing coalitions that dismantled public healthcare facilities in favor of private ones. First aid and intensive care not profitable enough for private clinics were left almost entirely in the hands of public institutions, which suffered serious budget cuts. The consequence was tragic: Lombardy has 17 percent of Italy’s population but, as of the end of March, three-fifths of those who have died from the coronavirus. To establish a clear relationship between privatization and the death toll would be unscientific; other intermediate links need to be explored. Politically, however, the message is unmistakable and will probably dominate the political debate both nationally and locally.
Governments have to be judged not just by what they did or failed to do in the past but on their strategies for the future. And Italians will probably endure a long and painful economic downturn. Many small businesses cannot endure a prolonged closure, and tourism will take many months, if not years, to recover. Millions of people will lose their jobs, and, since the crisis is global, the export sector will probably be unable to get production running again at the level it was before.
Meanwhile, the central government is struggling to give some immediate relief to non-salaried workers, in the form of €600 to those left with no other source of income. Many in this group were working at menial and precarious jobs, sometimes on the fringe of illegal activities. The largest share of the poor live in the big cities of the South. In Palermo, the capital of Sicily, organized groups, perhaps with Mafia support, have looted supermarkets for food.
How the crisis gets resolved will depend, to a large extent, on how the European Union manages it. It is badly split along two lines, one running north vs. south and the other east vs. west. The south-north divide is essentially a split between debtor and creditor countries. Italy is one of the debtors. Every European nation now has to spend a considerable amount of money to avoid the collapse of its economy. Since it is impossible, politically and economically, to raise taxes, the only way to secure the necessary sums is to take out loans that increase the already heavy burden of debt on Italy and its southern counterparts. Financial markets allow Germany and its partners (the Netherlands, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries) to borrow money at low interest rates, while Southern countries have to pay much more.
At the meeting of the European Council on March 25, Italy and other Southern nations proposed that the EU, through the European Central Bank or another institution, issue special bonds to finance the additional expenditures the crisis requires. Northern countries, led by Germany, predictably opposed the proposal. The Council decided to delay a decision for two weeks. The failure to reach a compromise could mean the beginning of the end of the EU.
If no compromise proves possible, the anti-European attitudes of a large share of the Italian public will undoubtedly be strengthened. Populist parties like the right-wing Lega and, perhaps, the Five Star Movement, with its more inchoate populist ideology, could sweep the next local and national elections. Whether the European Union survives the crisis depends largely on the capacity of the present political leadership of the leading member states to think about the medium and long-term interests of Europe as a whole. Europe will need the equivalent of a self-financed Marshall plan. The problem is not where to get the money, but where to find the political will to revive the economy of an entire continent.
Alessandro Cavalli is a sociologist at the University of Pavia. His most recent book, co-authored with Alberto Martinelli, is The European Society.