How the mafia and right-wing are flourishing during Italy’s latest lockdown

Federica Marsi
·7-min read
APTOPIX Virus Italy Outbreak Protest (LaPresse)
APTOPIX Virus Italy Outbreak Protest (LaPresse)

Pasquale Telese holds a Guinness World Record for baking a 7.15m long fried pizza.

In his pre-pandemic days, he travelled with his portable oven to bring Naples’ traditional cuisine across the Italian peninsula.

Now, the chef said, “hawks” were buying pizzerias on the verge of bankruptcy and periling one of Italy’s ancient culinary arts.

New containment measures brought in on Monday, which require all businesses to shut at 6pm as of Monday and theatres, cinemas and gyms to close for a month, dealt a further blow to workers and business owners still reeling from one of Europe’s harshest lockdowns.

Some warn that, as poverty rises and political alliances crumble, organised crime groups and neo-fascist militants could seize the opportunity to fill any financial and political vacuums, which could cast a larger shadow on Italy in the long run than the pandemic.

As public unrest broke out on the streets in protest of the new measures announced over the weekend, politicians of all colours have taken aim at the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini vowed to challenge the new measures in court while former Prime Minister and leftist leader Matteo Renzi called on the premier to amend the decree, despite having voted in its favour as part of the ruling coalition.

The newspapers poked fun at the unlikely political alignment, with La Repubblica featuring a satirical strip calling the left-wing Renzi an “asymptomatic Salvini".

Those desperate to save their businesses, however, had few reasons to laugh. Telese, who is also the president of the “Little Naples” union of restaurant owners and an organiser in the protests, said closing at 6pm, busting aperitivos and dinners, meant condemning some restaurants to lose up to 90 percent of their revenues, while taxation and other fixed costs remained largely unfazed.

Around 200 restaurant owners represented by the union complained of having made investments to implement safety measures and social distancing inside their premises, only to be shut down again.

Desperate for help, some in the south have turned to the mafia , who are known to have been offering financial support to cash-strapped families. Italian minister of the interior, Luciana Lamorgese, warned ‘‘the mafia could take advantage of the rising poverty, swooping in to recruit people to its organisation’’.

Peaceful protests against the curfew have also given right-wing and new-fascist groups an opportunity to stoke social tensions.

In Naples, bins were set on fire and firecrackers thrown at the headquarters of the regional administration. Rome, Turin and Milan also saw a few hundred violent protesters demanding “freedom” from the “sanitary dictatorship” clash with anti-riot police. Luxury goods shops, including a Gucci fashion shop, were ransacked in the centre of Turin, while in Milan rioters threw glass bottles and a Molotov cocktail that injured a policeman, according to local media.

Anti-riot squads responded with volleys of teargas to disperse the crowds. Police confirmed the arrest of far-right militants, largely regarded as responsible for the violence.

“If you’re protesting to save your business you won’t smash the windows of others who are suffering as much as you are,” Telese said, before conceding that frustration had been mounting among business owners too.

“If the wolf is hungry, it will go out of the woods.”

Hunger, however, is not just figurative in the southern coastal city, where poverty is becoming scarier than coronavirus. The European Union set up a 750-billion-euro economic recovery fund this summer to avoid a lasting depression in Italy that could tear apart the euro. The third-largest EU economy has the second-highest public debt after Greece and the possibility of social unrest if businesses fail and lay off workers now feels very real, according to economist Andrea Fumagalli.

“The risk of a downturn is very worrying,” Fumagalli, a professor of economics at the University of Pavia, told The Independent. “Measures were taken by the government [to assist businesses during the pandemic] but they were late and inefficient.”

Thanks to the EU’s recovery fund, Italy now has better liquidity than it did during the first wave of the pandemic. Much hinges on the government’s ability to find useful and equitable ways of distributing aid.

“The problem is not the lack of money, but a tendency to help medium and large industries rather than independent or precarious workers,” Fumagalli said.

The coronavirus crisis has already caused half a million Italian workers to lose their jobs, despite government measures to freeze layoffs. Italy, alongside Greece and Spain, is estimated to have the largest share of underground economy, which includes workers with no contracts and social welfare.

From north to south, distrust in the government’s willingness and ability to provide sufficient assistance to make up for the lost income has been growing. Andrea Penzo Aiello, president of Treviso “United Business Union” and one of the organisers of the protests in the northern Veneto region, called the new measures a “masked lockdown.”

“The government didn’t have the economic might to offer assistance during the first wave, so now they’ve imposed a curfew that does not require the same assistance they would have been obliged to give had they imposed a full lockdown,” Penzo Aiello told The Independent.

Virus Outbreak ItalyLaPresse
Virus Outbreak ItalyLaPresse

Redundancy funds suffered major delays, with hundreds of thousands of workers still waiting to receive overdue assistance. “As employers, we are ashamed to tell our workers that we have to stop paying them when we don’t know if the government will step in,” Penzo Aiello, who owns a bar in Treviso and was forced to shut a soon-to-be-launched second venue due to the pandemic.

During a nationwide lockdown that started on April 3 and lasted more than two months, Penzo Aiello said he lent money to employees who did not have “enough to buy bread and milk”.

He argued “the government cannot impose new measures upon us when people can’t make ends meet.”

The sentiment was echoed by protesters across Italy, with many asking for tax reductions or a moratorium. One banner in Rome summed up the sentiment: “If working is no longer a right, paying taxes is no longer an obligation.”

Lawyer Andrea Pisani, who heads a consumer union in the Naples area, said “the biggest fear is chaos.”

“Businesses cannot take loans from the bank because banks don’t trust the government. When this bubble bursts we will all be swept away.”

Pisani called on the government to “act faster than the mafias” and to support small businesses and independent workers who risk falling in their net.

Despite the criticism and the nationwide protests, Conte refused to back down. “The decree has been approved and it will not change,” the Prime Minister said. “We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that people can move around and go to restaurants without fear.”

He pledged to fast track five billion euros in assistance to those most in need, but few protesters seem inclined to take his word for it.

Conte has been criticised for failing to use the summer months, during which the pandemic was largely under control, to prepare a coherent strategy to implement during a second wave. The imposition of a curfew has come on the heels of two previous decrees, fierce debates over the closure of schools and of travel between regions – all of which has been taken as a sign of little planning ahead of time.

No political party or country, however, seems to have the perfect recipe for containing the pandemic while keeping a battered economy alive. Italy registered on Tuesday a record of 21,994 new cases and 221 deaths, raising the spectre of a localised – or even a nationwide – lockdown. Milan and Naples are the most likely cities to become “red zones”, where movement is restricted, should the curve continue to rise.

For Prime Minister Conte, the main goal “must now be to regain control of the epidemiological curve,” which "will allow us to be more relaxed by Christmas”.

Holidays, however, are not the only thing that is at stake. What must be urgently preserved, he said, is “the stability of the entire social and economic system.”

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