Italy’s Phase Two

Rather than the usual appeal to the responsibility of citizens, phase two had to present itself as the chance for a new post-Covid-19 Italy.

Rather than the usual appeal to the responsibility of citizens, phase two had to present itself as the chance for a new post-Covid-19 Italy.

By Ettore Ianì, sociologist, professor at La Sapienza University, and president of Lega Pesca

On the evening of March 9, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced to the country that the situation was going bad fast. There was no time left: the sick and dead were already too many and, more importantly, risked to increase exponentially. For this reason, the government explained that it was necessary to issue an unprecedented decree declaring the total lockdown — the first of a long series in the western world.

The English word ‘lockdown’ had for Italians the same sinister sound that recalled global emergencies like the 9/11 terrorist attack to the Twin Towers in New York, with the consequent three-day blockade of civil airspace which we all followed on TV like a movie.

Now, also Italy had to follow the way of a forced quarantine until April 3, which was then extended to April 13. In this first phase, despite its errors and contradictions, the government was faced with an exceptional occurence, and took a firm and decisive stand which was heavily criticized in the rest of Europe (and especially in France and the United Kingdom — only to be later forced to review their judgment, so much so that international media started to talk about an ‘Italian model’).

Indeed, it was not so obvious that Italians would have accepted this appeal to the responsibility, since the price of the sacrifice imposed was particularly high. However, fear facilitated obedience to peremptory choices, with very few exceptions. In fact, most people understood with some minor exceptions, and decided to behave properly — certainly not because of the repressive measures themselves. The ‘Stay at home’ mantra, a rhetoric combination of obedience, protection and freedom, finally worked not only because we were all scared, but above all thanks to the transversal message involving everyone among all social classes.

The best defense against the virus was entrusted to the social conscience, to the awareness of a collective threat, to being united and marching in the same direction. We all had the same schedules, the same constraints, the same expectations, the same tricolor flags, the same desire to continue living, always being careful to minimize the risk. An indiscriminate lockdown with the purpose of not exposing people to contagion, a constraint imposed by the sudden emergency, brought to a suspension of rights to protect everyone’s safety. We can now look at it as an exceptional but transitory situation, an obligatory but experimental choice. In this phase of coexistence with the virus, a society regulated as never before left little room for the criticism of the so-called ‘ political caste’, which often identifies the state as an enemy to blame. Somehow, in the misfortune of a collective imprisonment, the illusion that we were all the same and on the same boat, prevailed.

Actually, the structural social cleavages were not leveled, and the mood of the country changed radically with the third step of the quarantine, namely that of May 4 — the day of recovery. Every Italian circled this date as the beginning of a new life — if not a rebirth — with increasingly loose limits and constraints. The long wait was not only marked by the nostalgia of kissing and hugging, but everyone sincerely hoped to enter a new phase of greater confidence. We could now get back to being who we were: chefs, scavengers, burglars, professors, workers, actors — or all of these at the same time.

Behind almost two months of lockdown, there is tiredness, and sometimes even a sense of rebellion towards a suffocating climate of control which, to be honest, has not always been implemented correctly. People, categories of workers, the elderly, all expected something better: disappointed families, employees, businesses and women, once again were excluded from what was the most important decision-making process in recent years. Left out from the plethora of committees paving the way for the fight against coronavirus, people were absent from the highest levels of bureaucracy and public policy. With the third step, the country’s structural weaknesses exploded, as well as the unbridgeable divergences between the central state, the regions, and the pachydermic, slow, ineffective public administration.

Conte, under the supervision of the Scientific and Technical Committee, presented an action plan for the second phase, aiming at the arduous task of revitalizing economically and socially a wounded country. Having loosened the restrictions in stages only for part of the production and industrial activities in order not to frustrate the sacrifices to which all Italians underwent, the government couldn’t opt for a total opening, simply because we are not yet at the end of the epidemic, but this stired up a hornet’s nest.

With phase 2, manufacturing, construction and wholesale trade resumed the activity: 4.4 million workers are now back to work, in addition to those of the food industry who were already active during the lockdown. This precautionary choice that leaves other sectors out, sparked the discontent of those who expected a greater change, or who would have liked to receive more help under the most difficult circumstances. Among the many critical voices, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) thundered that “freedom of worship has been violated.”

Limiting travel, not reopening schools, canceling shows, opening only some services, imply not only that the epidemic has not ended, but also that both the intangible and material and economic emergencies will continue for some time. Net of the choral irony about the confusing terminology of ‘relatives’ and ‘stable affects’, which highlights the lack of a consistent juridical definition of relationships, according to the classic ‘devil’s dilemma’ there is only one possible solution: the wrong one. Therefore, we can definitely say that something went wrong in phase 2. No norm is universal and appreciated by all; however suitable, it cannot reach perfection, and there will always be someone who will remain unsatisfied. The question is ill-posed: when the disapproval is greater than consent, one should ask oneself what was wrong. The government culpably continued to think it could relaunch indefinitely the state of emergency, underestimating the fact that, by loosening the grip, the idea of a regulation that affected everyone was lost.

Those who remain out of phase 2 often feel betrayed and have now changed their perspective. After respecting the rules, they become disobedient, advancing their legitimate sectoral claims and coming into conflict with their stepfather state. Many analysts believe that there has been a classic communication problem of men alone in the lead. The most recurring criticism is the choice of language: too many royal we and too many anglicisms turned the several announcements into formulas revealing the need for postponement. This might be true, but in doing so we only treat the surface of the problem: the alchemy of rhetoric.

Perhaps, in phase two as defined by the last Prime Minister’s decree (Dpcm), there is no long-term political vision, or welding between the rulers and the governed. These latter complain that the commitments made haven’t been honored, while the government goes its own way and insists on making strong appeals. Apart from the striking delays in unlocking the layoffs, the 40 billion line of credit for companies, to which are added the actions to activate the moratoriums on mortgages and loans — and to place guarantees on liquidity — have become a mirage. The €600 bonus for the self-employed remained stuck in the short circuit of the Social Security servers. Banks do not comply with the operating instructions to use the €450 billion liquidity decree intended for access to credit with state guarantee and for the postponement of business obligations. In the face of these serious omissions, Prime Minister Conte inappropriately limits himself to asking for “an act of love.” The same situation can be seen with regard to the commitment of a bonus intended for seasonal tourism and beach resorts, sports collaborators, administrative and domestic workers, carers and parental leave. Even the five levers on which the health strategy for the reopening is based (apps, tampons, serological tests, local medical centers and Covid hospitals), are jammed in the depths of red tape.

While everything seems to stand still, immobile and petrified, the speculation on the prices of the face masks which we all must wear, spreads like a wildfire. The state-controlled prices remain a hope. While the country is on its knees and tries to restart, The National Institute of Statistics informs us that, in April 2020, the costs of foodstuffs rose by 2.8%. This is just the mirror of the massive and robust state interventions that did not take off — not for lack of will, but rather because of the disorganization of the huge state machinery.

If the government’s commitments were actually implemented, would the reaction be the same? Rather than the usual appeal to the responsibility of citizens, phase two had to present itself with the compliance with the political commitments and as the chance for a new post-Covid-19 Italy. A plan to accelerate the reopening, restoring both the rule of law and the full respect for the constitution, would have been the perfect answer to criticisms about the excessive use of the executive power, the expropriation of the role of Parliament, and the abdication of politics to science.

Continuing to cling to the empty appeals to individual responsibility even in phase 2, means offering the same solution and postponing normality. It also means giving citizens the role as responsible for possible failures, raising the spectre of going back to the first stage and leveling out responsibilities. For sure, even if among thousands of contradictions, Italians have demonstrated to be resilient, so most of them will always accept the rules of the game with composure, as a form of personal civil sacrifice. However, even the government must now enter phase 2 with head, hands, feet and heart, reducing the climate of exception, confusion, uncertainty and fear. To do so, we do not need special governments, but a more effective division of responsibility between roles and functions, in which everyone has freedom within the limits of the whole.

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