Four weeks into a nationwide lockdown, very few Italians are still singing from their balconies or banging pots and pans in solidarity. Instead, flags were lowered to half-staff this week for the nearly 15,000 coronavirus victims including doctors, nurses and health care professionals who have perished since February 23.
The lockdown, which was originally scheduled to end Friday, April 3, has now been extended to beyond Easter, and Italians from north to south are nearing a breaking point just as the draconian measures have begun to show signs of stopping the spread of Covid-19.
Italy’s wealthy northern provinces have taken the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak with more than 75% of overall cases and deaths north of Tuscany, in the center of the country, per the Italian Civil Protection agency.
More than 10,000 health care workers in the northern provinces have been infected with the virus, according to the Italian Doctor’s Federation, as a lack of proper protective gear made contagion inside healthcare facilities a contributor to the rampant spread. Some of the best health structures in all of Europe are in northern Italy, but they were pushed to near collapse with the sheer number of Covid-19 patients in need of urgent care.
Had the initial infection cluster started in the poorer southern regions, which do not have the same strong infrastructure, no one disputes that the crisis would have been even worse.
But the southern regions are struggling, too. The so-called “mezzogiorno” is where organized crime syndicate hubs are based and where unemployment hovers around 20% for adults and up to 50% for those under 24 during the best of times, according to figures from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). Even with the outbreak in some southern communities affecting “only” a few thousand, the facilities are stretched and care for non-Covid patients has been severely compromised.
With a huge part of the southern population working in the so-called “black economy” off the books, a whole segment of people lost jobs for which they cannot legally claim unemployment benefits. Those who do have legitimate employment have been given a path to ask for the suspension of some bills, but black economy workers – of whom there are an estimated 3.7 million, according to ISTAT – have no such outlet for relief.
In addition to the undocumented workers, soup kitchen volunteers in Rome, Palermo, Naples and Bari tell CNN they are seeing petty criminals, from car thieves to cat burglars, joining sex workers queuing for food, unable to afford a daily meal. This segment of society, for which there is no public accounting, are the most desperate and the most likely to reach breaking point first.
Almost every grocery store in Italy now has a cart at the front where people who can still afford groceries are encouraged to donate items for those who cannot. In apartment blocks across the country, there are continuous reports of care packages deposited in front of the doors of people who have lost their jobs by neighbors and police officers.
One law enforcement official in Palermo donated his entire monthly salary, around $2,100, to buy groceries for everyone at a grocery store he was in last week, Palermo police confirmed to CNN.
But for all the kindhearted compassion this virus has inspired, there are at least as many troubling signs that as the pandemic subsides, the worst could be yet to come. Police in the southern province of Puglia say that a food delivery truck was hijacked on the main highway near the port town of Bari last week, Bari police confirmed to CNN.
The driver was unharmed, but when the truck was found, every single item was gone. Many grocery stores now have security guards out front when new merchandise is unloaded to stop people from running up to grab basic supplies like boxes of pasta and cans of tomatoes.
A few days after the Puglia hijacking, police were called after 20 people filled their carts at a Lidl supermarket in Palermo on the island of Sicily, and refused to pay. Col. Michele Monti responded to the call and told CNN that while he viewed it as an “isolated incident” the message was clear. “If this situation continues without the help of the government, we won’t be able to feed our children,” he said. “It was a message that they wanted to be understood.”
The incident ended peacefully. “It wasn’t violent, and the 20 people filled their carts said they didn’t want to pay so we intervened and they calmly left without the food,” Monti told CNN. “We here in Palermo also activated ourselves after this. We knew that many people, for their own dignity, wouldn’t have asked for help but would need it. We know that a lot of this need was being hidden, so it was our initiative to support everyone.” They have prepared care packages, left food at door steps and made sure high-risk people have medicine they need so they don’t have to leave their homes.
Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando told CNN that he has petitioned the government in Rome for a “survival income” to give to citizens left behind without the desperate help they need. The municipality now lists places where people who need basic supplies and food can go for help and several companies prepare care packages in lieu of giving cash handouts to ensure people are buying food.
Orlando is concerned that his city government will not have the means to compete with a far greater source of help for the needy. He and others warn that organized crime groups are waiting in the wings to exploit the situation by offering help in exchange for new recruits as foot soldiers when the crisis is over. He points a number of private Facebook groups including one called National Revolution, now calling for mass protests in the streets and sharing details about easy-to-break-into shops. “The mafia is fanning the flames and will soon ignite this fire,” he told CNN, after he wrote about his fears on his blog. “We need to quell it before it leads to violence.”
On a recent post by the National Revolution group, anonymous vigilantes call for everyone to gather in the streets of Palermo to protest that rents, mortgages and other utility bills have not been suspended for those who work in the black economy and who cannot prove they’ve lost their jobs.
Anti-mafia prosecutor Federico De Raho told CNN that social unease is the breeding ground for social unrest. “The Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta and Mafia are all there to offer services to those who are suffering, giving them what they need in order to demand to be paid back later with interest,” he said. “We have seen this in other emergency situations, these criminal groups are there to exploit the situation. This will be no different.”
De Raho also says these groups are promoting violence against authorities and encouraging disgruntled and vulnerable people, especially petty criminals, to organize themselves to stage break-ins and wreak other havoc. He says that when the country eventually comes out of the lockdown, the criminal groups will be there to loan money and fill the vacuum left by the over-extended state. “If the state does not intervene with the right economic support at the right time, the businesses will have no option but take help where they can get it. The mafias are there ready to invest their money.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has promised around $440 million in food vouchers to those in need, and a further $4.5 billion in aid to regional mayors to help vulnerable people in their communities. But the consortium of Italian mayors has complained that the $4.5 billion had already been earmarked to be delivered in May before the pandemic swept Italy, and that it cannot now be retargeted as part of the crisis support.
As the pressure from the pandemic calms in the north, there are still concerns that it could explode in the south if disgruntled people start defying the lockdown in greater numbers, which would add even more misery to an already miserable situation for everyone.