Italy has been under the grip of the coronavirus crisis for nearly two months, and it is becoming clear that the poor and vulnerable South of the country is now suffering not just from the health ramifications of the virus, but also the economic emergency that is brewing.
Presenter Emily Maitlis recently introduced BBC Newsnight by criticising the language surrounding the novel coronavirus. In a statement that subsequently spread across social media, Maitlis said, “The disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone – rich or poor – suffers the same.” The situation in Italy’s South is now proving that everyone is not impacted equally by the virus.
While thankfully there are far fewer cases of COVID-19 reported in the South than the North of the Italy, those who do contract the virus in the South do not receive the same level of medical care as in the affluent North of the country. Hospitals in the South lack medical equipment, doctors, and even stable building structures.
Perhaps more worrying, however, is that in the South the coronavirus emergency is manifesting itself as a social and economic issue as much as a health crisis. With only essential businesses allowed to remain open, the sudden loss of income is already having a serious impact.
From Sicily’s capital, Palermo, come reports of looting in supermarkets and customers leaving stores without paying. According to Italian paper La Repubblica, a group of residents in Palermo ran out of a supermarket while shouting, “We have no money to pay, we have to eat.”
The Mafia are now exploiting the crisis and looking to expand their control in the South by distributing free food to those families struggling to pay for it. Their aid is coming earlier that that promised by the state, raising concerns that local support for the Mafia may begin to rise.
COVID-19 lockdown measures mean residents of Italy must only leave their homes for situations of necessity, another aspect of the crisis which impacts the poor more than the wealthy. Southerners in Italy typically live in smaller, poorer quality housing than in the prosperous North, and several generations of families live together meaning a greater risk for the elderly.
The coronavirus emergency has also meant many activities have moved online, in particular teaching. Online learning requires students to have access to the internet and an electronic device, but a survey from ISTAT found that in 2018-19, a third of Italian families didn’t own a PC or tablet, a figure which rises to 41% in the South of Italy.
Italy has been the “guinea pig,” as ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi described, for a democratic, European country’s handling of COVID-19. Around two weeks ahead of most other western countries in the coronavirus timeline, Italy has been providing a glimpse of the future challenges other nations might face.
Now, as Italy reaches its sixth week of lockdown, its health emergency is morphing into an economic and social one. Italy is once again providing a sombre example to the world of its future, this time of how the disease will impact the economy and the lives of the poorest citizens.