Since the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic late last year in Wuhan, China, the global community has witnessed unprecedented policy responses to curtail, contain and control the disease.
The pandemic did not affect the population equally; it hit the poor, workers, the unemployed and migrants. Academics working on poverty and inequality examined the plight of people left vulnerable by the epidemic.
Neoliberal policies and solutions have not helped society, according to academics.
Prof. Dr. David Benassi interviewed by Uğur Şahin for BirGün
Prof. Dr. Benassi pointed out that migrants in the country were heavily affected by the pandemic: “as more crowded lives are led in smaller houses in poor suburban neighbourhoods, it looks like we will be recording more cases here.”
► First of all, I wonder what story of first “meeting” with the coronavirus is as a community. When did your country realize that this virus was “serious”?
As long as the epidemic was only a Chinese problem, Italians were looking at it as a matter of “exotic habits”: “we don’t eat bats or other strange animals, it is impossible that the virus will arrive here, with all our controls and hygiene standards”. When the first case was found at the end of January, a couple of Chinese tourist, we realized that Italy was at risk. Three weeks later, the 21 of February, the first local hotbed was found in a village close to Milan: at that point it became clear that the virus was spreading in Italy too, and a very rapid pace.
► Italy, which was the first country to be affected by the coronavirus epidemic in Europe, has gradually reduced the restrictive measures that have been enforced for 1.5 months after the 4 May. What has changed in your life after 4 May?
In Milan, where I live, the lockdown has been very strict, and almost everybody was confined at home, except for very essential needs (buying food and medicines, going to the hospital). Only those employed in essential economic sector were allowed to go to work. Milan became a kind of shanty town. With the partial re-opening we were finally authorized to get out of home for non essential needs, but all the people is still very cautious. And a lot of shops are still closed (like clothing, barbers, restaurants) or only partially open (like bars and cafes). Personally, now I stay at home most of the time, I’m in smart working and I do all my work though online platforms. I allow myself a run in a nearby park 2 or 3 times a week, something that was absolutely forbidden during the lockdown.
► What is your observation of the latest situation in the your country? How do people spend time in quarantine? What is the situation of those who have to work?
I think that the majority of the Italians has found a way to cope with the quarantine. There is a sharp difference between the North of the country, where a lot of new cases and of deaths are still recorded every day, and the South, with very few cases and declining. In the latter the pressure from the people for less rigid rules and an opening of businesses are very strong. In the North there are pressures as well – consider that the North is the core of economy – but the people is aware of dangers.
People want to start working again, for economic reasons of course but also as a sign of normality. One of the main obstacle is the fact that the schools are closed, and children are at home, with a strong recommendation not to contact grandparents. Households, therefore, face great problems in reconciling work and family needs. Women are strongly penalized.
► According to the data of the World Health Organization (WHO), Italy is the second country with the most efficient health system. So how did Italy's health system collapse in the face of an epidemic?
The Italian health system has a very glorious history in terms of universality and professional skills of doctors, nurses and technicians. I wouldn’t say that the “system” collapsed, rather in some specific areas it collapsed. I refer to some provinces in Lombardy (Bergamo, Lodi, Brescia and Cremona), and some provinces in Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. A comprehensive explanation is very complicated, because health is a regional competence, therefore we have different regional organizations. In the case of Lombardy, two main problems. Firstly, since the second half of the Nineties, it was promoted a quasi-market system based on the competition among actors, both public and private, for public resources. This has weakened all those branch of health that are less remunerative. Second, a political reform of health organization approved 5 years ago put the hospital at the centre of the organization, at the expenses of family doctors and other health actors spread on the territory. When the epidemic blew up, Lombardy was unable to treat the sick at home, and hospitals became the main source of cantagions.
► In the long term, the low purchasing power of the people and the lack of a saving or an additional budget that can combat the virus makes it impossible for the poor to implement quarantine conditions. What is your opinion in this topic? What is the majority and feature of the sections that survive under these conditions?
This is going to be the real problem, when the epidemic will be over. It is now estimated that 1 million of people required food help to no profit organizations, in addition to those that were already supported. Workers with non standard or temporary contracts will suffer the main consequences of the economic crisis. Those employed in sectors like tourism, leisure, restaurants and cafès, gym and so on, usually with very basic contracts and low wages, are at risk of impoverishment, with very serious consequences on the long run. Also self employed with low revenues and few clients are at risk. The Italian government is supporting the majority of workers with extraordinary subsidies, but this cannot last for more than few months. Moreover, all the people employed in very marginal position, aften without contracts, or in the subsistence economy are in a very weak position. Fortunately, since a couple of years a basic income benefit has been implemented, and it would support the most disadvantaged houseolds.
Prof. Dr. David Benassi
► In the UK, where at least 28,446 deaths due to coronavirus have been recorded, death rates in the epidemic are higher in the country's poorer regions, according to a study by the National Statistical Office (ONS). Britain is just one example and we can increase example. For example, Brazil; locals were most affected by Covid-19 here. How is the situation for Italy? What can you say about the section affected by the virus? What is the situation like in poverty-intensive locations, suburbs, lower income citizens and especially factories in your country?
We are not witnessing this kind of distribution of contagions. On the contrary, the richest regions (Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont) have been hit much heavier than poorest regions in the South of the country. This could be explained by the fact that the epidemic started in the North, giving the chance to southern regions to timely adopt countermeasures, or to the fact that in the South the climate is warmer, a fact that probably hampers the spread. We don’t have detailed data on cities (I’m working on that, but no results yet), it is likely that in deprived suburb we will register more cases as consequence of stricter cohabitation in smaller homes. But we don’t have real evidence until now.
► Problems leading to the outbreak days for poor citizens and immigrants living in Italy; a narrower living space, difficulty in accessing cheap food, and inadequate social helps. How would you summarize the conditions that forced the Italians during the pandemic days? What is the situation especially for immigrants?
We only have journalistic accounts on this issue. Of course, immigrants have been heavily hit by the epidemic, because they enjoy a weaker occupational status. Moreover, their living conditions on average are tighter, which means smaller houses, less tools for electronic communications, less cars or scooters and so on. In general, it seems that no profit organizations have been very proactive, offering support to all the people with economic or food problems. The Government distributed something like 400 millions € to municipalities for food support to impoverished households. It is estimated that 1 million of people received food support from ONG, in addition to the 2,5 millions that are supported in ordinary times.
► During this period, many citizens were fired or forced to allow compulsory in Italy. Is there any social unrest in the community?
Dismissals have been prohibited by the government until July. But this concerns only employees with permanent contract, workers with fixed term contract or without contract are losing their job. And also self employed are facing great troubles for the decrease of demand, considering also that they have very limited access to welfare benefits. This is particularly true for young professionals with few customers.
Coming to unrest, we hade some tensions at the beginning of the emergency, but I don’t have the impression that we risk riots. We will see in autumn, when we will be back to normality and emergency benefits will be over.
► It is expected that the economic contraction in Italy due to the epidemic and outbreak measures. The number of "new poor" is reported to increase in the country. According to the statement of the Italian Union of Agriculturalists (Coldiretti), 1 million “new poor” needs help throughout the country due to the COVID-19 crisis. Caritas, the charity foundation of the Catholic Church, also announced that the number of applicants has doubled. What awaits Italians after the virus? What do you think will change?
I’m optimistic by nature, so I think (hope) that the economy will recover quickly, so that the masses that in these months are impoverishing will be able to recuperate their income and their social position. It is estimated a 9% decrease of the GDP in 2020, but an increase of 5% in 2021: we will have a fall of wealth, but apparently not so sharp. I suppose that the already vulnerable people will have to face heaviest consequences.
► It is expected that Italy will face the greatest risk of recession after the Second World War in the upcoming period. It is worried that this will strengthen far-right parties and this will damage relations with the European Union. Do you agree with this opinion?
I hope no, of course! At the moment, it seems that far-right parties are losing ground in polls, especially the Lega, as a reaction to 1) the confidence in what the Government is doing to face the epidemic, and 2) the narrower space that Salvini and friends have on the media. What will happen after the crisis will depend strongly on the capacity of the EU to support recovery in Italy and in the other countries hit by the emergency (Spain, France). If the EU will be able to demonstrate that the European cohesion is real, and that it is important for our wellbeing, well at that point I think that populistic and anti EU parties will be weakened.
► In concluding the conversation, do you think that the state and local governments in Italy were successful in providing social helps to disadvantaged groups in the fight against coronavirus?
Given the historically weakness of social policy in Italy, yes, I think that in these first two months the action of the Government has been quite effective. They did a number of mistakes, but during an unprecedent emergency I think that this was unavoidable. Similar mistakes have been done in all other countries. Workers have been protected with a wide enlargement of access to wage guarantee funds (furlough), self employed are receiving, for the very first time, a universal income support (for those with an income below 50.000€), an Emergency Income has been approved for households in troubles. The implementation of these (and others) measures is the downside of this story, with several delays and inefficiencies.
Instead, it is impossible to give a comprehensive account of the capacity of local governments to face the emergency. As you maybe know, in Italy regional governments have large autonomy in a series of issues (including health). Therefore, the response to the epidemic was differentiated. Considering only the regions that were mostly, we can say that the Veneto region has been much more capable to handle the situation than Lombardy (both regions are governed by the Lega, just to underline how different the quality of the response can be). Also Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany did well, while Piedmont and Liguria are on the negative side.
► Finally, what happened in Italy, Spain and the USA due to the epidemic revealed that neoliberalism was bankrupt. What is your opinion in this issue? When the pandemic ends, what awaits Italian citizens, especially for the poor?
Easy question! I think that this event is revealing that the State is able to manage social and economic forces, and that private interests often contrast with public interest. This is more and more clear. It’s like at the end of the second world war, when the military experience showed that it was possible to coordinate social forces in order to boost economic development, and to build social protection systems. People is more and more aware that the interest of the rich is not the interest of the large majority of the population, and not at all the interest of the poor. The risk is populism.