Coronavirus: The Italian Experience

Italy infected

Covid-19 is a new virus and is threatening to swamp regional health facilities.

There has been much confusion about whether or not to ‘lock down’ society or let the virus take its course. If the virus is allowed to spread uncontrolled, intensive care units will be overwhelmed, even if it is only the elderly and people with underlying health problems rather than the large majority of the younger population who require treatment. The trouble with total lockdown, however, is that the problem will present itself again once lockdown restrictions are relaxed.

Countries like China, South Korea, Italy and Spain went into total lockdown because their national governments saw no other alternative. The virus in Italy had already been present since January, probably even earlier. Once the Italian National Institute of Healthstarted to register the first cases back in mid-February, it was probably too late to do anything else, because the number of cases of unknown origin was too large already. If the number of cases of known origin is low, so-called social distancing or self-isolation or quarantine can be the sensible thing to do – always providing it is clear to people what these things constitute and what their purpose is (i.e. to slow the spread of the disease so that healthcare systems can try to cope with the peak of critical cases).

In Italy, lockdown was applied almost from the start but only to small villages in northern Italy where it was believed that the spread had started. This seemed to work in these villages, but the spread was not in fact limited to those locations. Soon the big cities of Lodi, Bergamo, Brescia, and even Milan, became heavily affected causing lockdown to be extended to the whole Lombardy region and after a week or so to the whole country.

As we go to press (late March) the peak of new cases seems to be being reached and there is hope that the virus will not affect central and southern Italy as it has the north. Aggravating factors in the north have been that many people continued their lives more or less as usual even after the restrictions came into force (even going skiing or to seaside resorts) and, especially, that many small and medium-size businesses did not close down. This meant that many workers felt forced to go to work in ‘non-vital’ sectors and with very few safety measures in place. On 12 March the metalworking unions (FIM, FIOM and UILM) threatened strike action if workplaces were not made safer and some took strike action. The government encouragement of ‘forced’ holidays did not appeal to many workers who were effectively being asked to choose either to remain in lockdown at home and risk not being paid or to go to work in a potentially unsafe place. Not all categories of workers are effectively unionised in Italy and for the large majority of small and medium-size enterprises it was business as usual.

This can be seen as a greater risk factor than individuals going out for a walk or a run or walking their dog while keeping a distance from others. Yet subsequently these activities too have been virtually forbidden. Even the measures announced on 17 March, but which will only become law in May, do not convincingly help those workers either. According to the so-called ‘Healing Italy’ decree, vouchers of up to €600 will be paid by the State for babysitters. But this involves finding a trusted person who, regardless of the lockdown, can come to babysit your children. In addition a 15-day parental leave allowance has been granted at 50 percent of full salary for the period 5 March to 3 April. And then schools remain closed, if the situation does not worsen, until 2 May. The parental leave allowance means that workers have to decide whether to take forced unpaid holidays, or getting parental leave and losing 50 percent of their salaries (which are known to be among the lowest in Europe), or going to work and leaving their children with a babysitter (if available) or grandparents (if any). The latter has tended to be the option of choice, exposing as it does elderly people to increased danger of contracting the virus.

Italian politicians and mainstream media are talking about health coming first, but that is easy rhetoric. What this may be however is a chance for people collectively to learn to be socially united and responsible. Once again tragic events will be used to try to convince people that class differences are now irrelevant, that ‘we are all in it together’. But the truth is exactly the opposite: only socialism, a society in which we truly will be ‘all in it together’, can properly put human health first – before profits, before the need to limit healthcare facilities, before stinting on the resources needed to fight emergencies, such as covid-19, that may arise. And only a socially conscious world majority can bring about and speed up the process of ending capitalism and bringing about socialism.

The Italian comrades

From an article in Socialist Standard April 2020