At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, a few weeks ago, Italians seemed to have found a moment of national unity when the country’s lockdown began March 9. Everyone understood that it was a difficult moment, but took it as a challenge to fight the virus together. Italian flags were hung from windows and people sang from their balconies and windows.
More than three weeks later, patience is wearing thin and the singing has stopped. Locked in their homes, people are scared, bored, and they don’t know what to do or what to expect. The media has done what they are experts at: terrorizing people by a barrage of numbers taken out of context, gratuitous sensationalism, and fake news. Politicians quickly discovered that scaring people pays, and that in difficult moments they could gain popularity by enacting tougher and tougher laws enforcing the lockdown.
Being locked at home with the police patrolling the streets is eerie. It looks like a post-apocalypse science fiction movie, something one would never have expected to see in real life.
In this situation, it seems that everyone has found convenient culprits in the European Union and Germany, who are accused of not doing enough to help Italy in this difficult moment. Several right-wing politicians are openly calling for Italy to leave the European Union and, perhaps in anticipation, the European Union flag has been taken down in some government buildings without anyone daring to enforce the law that makes it mandatory to hang it. The Germans are viewed today by Italians in the same way their ancestors in the Roman Empire viewed their neighbors: Northern barbarians to be feared and despised.
It is not just a question of being locked inside their homes. Italians are discovering that they have suddenly become poor. The Italian economy has taken a terrible beating from several sides. The income from international tourism – which generates 40 billion euros annually – is lost for this year, and nobody knows when (or if) tourists from abroad will return.
And that says nothing about the effect of the crisis on other industries: airlines, transportation, and entertainment among others. Optimists say that the Italian gross domestic product (GDP) will lose 10 percent this year, but some say it will see larger losses. But GDP is an abstract number, whereas workers in the tourism industry who have lost their jobs, very actively feel that loss. Many others are still theoretically employed, but they don’t know if their job will still exist after the emergency is over. Plenty of others are simply running out of money, and food riots in southern Italy have been reported – fortunately only minor episodes have occurred so far. What is perhaps the most anxiety inducing is that no one knows what might happen if the lockdown continues for much longer.
Yet, there is also good news for Italy: The most recent data show that the epidemic has peaked and is now winding down. In a few weeks, it may be over.
Not only is it a victory for the Italians who accepted the sacrifice of the lockdown, it is a historical occasion to learn from past mistakes and to do better going forward. Unfortunately, no one in power can seem to conceive anything but a return to the old ways: there is an absence of progressive policy makers developing a real transition to a green energy economy, for example.
Only a few people recognize the opportunities that the moment offers. We could go for a “green reboot” that could free the Italian economy from its traditional dependency on imported oil and gas. Further, with more activities becoming virtual, it could be time to reform the bloated and inefficient Italian state bureaucracy.
Italians are known to be resilient and enterprising, and there is still a chance to work for a better Italy. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll remember the time when we sang from balconies as the start of a new era.
Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy, and he is a full member of the Club of Rome. He is the author of “Before Collapse” (Springer 2019).