The crisis that opened the door to coronavirus in Italy

Mary Rizzo

San Benedetto del Tronto (Italy), 1 April 2020

There have been many theories about why Coronavirus has struck Italy so violently. At first, it was approached as if it were a logistics problem to resolve, and the solution to it would be to trace and track down “Patient Zero” and quarantine travellers from Wuhan within the Spallanzani Infectious Diseases Hospital of Rome. It was simply understood that it could be contained with precisely these careful measures, because there was an awareness that it involved direct contact with regions in China affected by the virus. It was considered as likely, at least by the financial and political sectors of the country, that cases would be concentrated here, given the extensive business and economic ties of Italy with China that led to intense international travel between the two countries. However, almost a year to the date of Prime Minister Conte signing on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Infrastructure project, in Italy poetically called “Silk Road”, the number of deaths from Covid-19 surpassed the 10,000 mark in Italy, and the primitive containment effort of those early days is nothing more than a blip on the radar of our Coronavirus crisis. It was believed by the Italian government that the economic agreement so dear to the heart of China, to expand its already saturated trade with Italy beyond imagination, with the injection of cash and investments, would be the remedy to lift Italy out of its recession. It’s stated aim was to provide some oxygen to the faltering and struggling Italian economy, but what hadn’t been taken into account was that this oxygen might be drawn, literally, from the lungs of Italian citizens.

The Italian economy, based on some unique sectors such as cultural and naturalistic tourism, agri-food and high quality manufacturing, as well as a circuit of micro-businesses and a widespread submerged economy, for quite a while has resembled a haemorrhage whose blood flow is relentless, as more and more entrepreneurs find themselves forced out of business or forced to lay off their employees, and skilled workers enter into the underground and consequently, untaxed economy or they emigrate. Arable terrains are abandoned as Italian grain prices plummet against the Canadian and Ukrainian competition, even becoming the primary suppliers of our renowned pasta companies. The small factories that produce high fashion and top line ready-to-wear or quality furnishings and building materials such as marble and ceramics are with growing frequency keeping the design offices in Italy, but outsourcing labour due to the incredibly high costs that no government seems to be able to relieve. The outsourcing is primarily to Turkey and Poland for cars, China for clothing, shoes and sheet metal.

It is true that “Made in Italy” is a concept that carries with it a bit of a deception. With every passing year, the focus has been in promoting under the banner of Made in Italy primarily the idea of the Italian lifestyle and Italian taste, concepts such as design and the style that are considered by the world as uniquely Italian. The focus is moving away from the actual production stages happening in Italy with increasingly less Italian-produced materials and workmanship. China had the appetite and the market and the workers and the industrial philosophy to produce our products, products that demand a high price tag, leading to many of our companies transferring their factories to China in order to maintain profits, as well as Chinese investors taking command of uniquely Italian companies and institutions. Even the quintessence of Italian national spirit, Serie A football, has a Chinese stamp on it, particularly in the region so hard hit by Coronavirus. The two major teams of Milan have recently or still have Chinese ownership.

There came to be a growing realisation, with the unfolding of the scientific information about this virus, that contagion would not necessarily involve direct contact with the original Wuhan hotspot, but was bound to happen with more frequency where Italian and Chinese business relations were a consolidated fact. After this information of the virus that originated in Wuhan spreading beyond China was made public, the Italians reacted in two dramatically different ways, but ways that are very much within the cultural and social psyche and very much from “the gut”, and it took only seconds for the deeply conflictual political parties to draw their lots with one or the other of these sides as they encouraged a specific public conduct, not from a scientific point of view, but from the polarised gut whose main concern is the vox populi that can ensure that these parties either remain in power or obtain power if they are in the opposition.

One view encouraged avoiding Chinese businesses. While part of this call to action could be quite logically seen as a health recommendation, it rang out as a discriminatory and xenophobic approach, given that those promoting it are parties that have incitement of xenophobia as their driving factors in the electorate. However, there was some justification of this approach also within the Chinese community itself. Every spokesperson of the Chinese communities in Milan and Prato had been claiming that they had already been self-isolating for at least a month before the first case in Italy had been announced, as well as encouraging their co-nationals in China to put off trips to Italy until after the emergency, offering this as the explanation for having no cases of contagion in their expatriate community, and deeming themselves as not being carriers of the virus, but rather, unfairly affected by a wave of discriminatory populist politics. Apparently, the leaders of the Chinese community and representatives of it in the Chamber of Commerce were aware of the severity of the situation before Italians were, and took the necessary precautions, or it is likely that some things have not yet come to light, since the Chinese community in Italy, which has a crucial part of its economy in the “underground”, with sweatshops violating every health and safety code being located in every manufacturing region, has been suspiciously absent from any health effects of this virus, which has instead stormed through the general population with alarming speed and severity.

The other view, to counter the restrictive approach, likewise with an appeal to the gut and sensitivities of the Italians, went overboard the other way. It was not only encouraged to frequent, in particular, Chinese business establishments and support their economy, but it was communicated by the more progressive wings as possibly being racist to distance oneself from Chinese people, and the typically Italian physicality of embracing and touching was encouraged toward this community that for the most part considers itself and is considered as outsiders and separate. The concept of “Milano da bere”, the socialising of the aperitif, the adoption of the Movida a few months before its natural lifecycle in the spring, was encouraged also by these political parties and progressive movements. The leader of the Partito Democratico, in late February, posed in photos engaging in these very social activities, only to announce in early March that he tested positive to the virus and was putting himself in self-quarantine.

In a matter of days, the situation of contagion skyrocketed in the productive regions of the north. Efforts to lock down these towns in “red zones” were rapid, and united the two vastly different political sides in their recognition of the need to isolate and quarantine for the common good. However, in spite of efforts that currently look mild, but at the time were quite radical, day after day, it became clear that the virus was spreading rapidly beyond the red zones, so efforts were stepped up to lock down the north in order to slow down the growth of the contagion, and particularly, to prevent it from spreading to the south, where it would create an unprecedented crisis within the crisis, since it does not have the health structures to handle the demand for intensive care that this virus, in many cases, requires.

There have been some good analyses that take into consideration the reasons for the particular virulence of the virus in Italy, many of them based on cultural factors such as human vicinity and the very reduced physical distance Italians use in their daily lives. Others cite geographical factors such as population density. There are logical assumptions about the quantity and frequency of social contact as well. There is much commuting in daily life in Italy, with most children using public transportation to get to school in lieu of the school buses so common in other countries. Most schools do not provide extra-curricular activities, so many children also attend oratories for after-school activities if their parents work, or frequent sport structures. But, most of the smaller children spend a great deal of time with their grandparents, who take care of them in their own homes or in the homes of their own children. The amount of time that different generations spend together, relatively high in comparison to most other countries, is determined not only by a sense of family and affection, but also out of economic requirements when parents have no other alternative. Children are “notoriously” very effective carriers of viruses and the elderly are “notoriously” very susceptible to complications from a virus turning into something extremely severe and also fatal.

Another cultural factor is that Italians have a habit of going out each day for the required ingredients for their meals. You don’t need to have a Spritz in Milan to be in the firing line for the virus, it’s enough to get your bread, milk and meat fresh daily together with hundreds of others in your neighbourhood. You might grasp their arm, give them a kiss, take hold of their hand as you do it. Italians, for the most part, live in small flats within densely populated cities and towns, and the public space is used not only as a social space, but also as an extension of the living space. It has been a hard blow to lose all of it, suddenly and completely, but given the particular configuration of this country, it was inevitable to require national lockdown as soon as possible and for it to be as thorough as possible.

All of these factors cited above, and many more, contributed to such a virus spreading and searing its way through Italy in the first months of 2020. Italians are aware that their own social, economic and cultural situation can be considered as related to the cause, and, with incredible sense of responsibility, they have been sacrificing so much of their affections, freedoms, spaces and habits.