Despite the startling speed with which covid-19 has spread, Italians have adapted very quickly and comprehensively. What’s happening in Italy may tell us a lot about how social norms and political practices adapt in a crisis — and what may happen afterward.
Italians are changing how they behave in public
Both popular mythology and some political science suggest Italians (especially southern Italians) are less inclined to obey the law, comply with social norms or think of the public good. In 1958, Edward C. Banfield, an American political scientist, controversially claimed that southern Italians tended to adopt an attitude of “amoral familism,” looking after their immediate family, without caring about broader society. More recently, Italian politics has become increasingly divisive; the leader of the right-wing Lega party, Matteo Salvini, blames immigrants for a variety of social problems.
Pessimists might be surprised at how Italians have adapted to life beneath the lockdown. The streets did not empty out immediately, but they have grown emptier as time has passed and the restraints on movement have tightened. As people have learned more about the virus, new social norms have emerged. Italians are more used to pressing together than to forming a line; now they queue up with at least one meter of distance between them. This is driven by mutual respect as well as by wary self-interest in avoiding infection. People maintain distance because that is necessary for the benefit of the community. “I [choose to] stay home” is a trending hashtag on Twitter and Instagram (#IoRestoaCasa) — as well as the nickname for the emergency legislation.
There is a palpable sense of national solidarity, particularly in the cities. During the day, people lean out their apartment windows to applaud health-care workers fighting the spread of the virus; in the evening, they come out again to play music to reassure one another that they are not alone and that eventually this lockdown will end.
Meanwhile the country’s once-omnipresent political divisions have temporarily vanished from Italy’s national conversation. Salvini is relegated to the pages deep inside the newspapers, while his opponent, former center-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, now only merits an occasional mention.
Political problems remain
However, it is not at all clear that this will transform Italy over the longer term. Voters’ divisions may be deepening beneath the surface. Salvini’s Lega is losing support to the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party. Support for the ideologically amorphous Five Star Movement remains volatile as the party splits into different currents. The nonpartisan “Sardines” movement organized mass protests against the reemergence of the far right in Italy and re-energized politics in the run up to the regional elections that were held in Emilia Romagna in January. Now it cannot organize to express public frustration because public gatherings are banned.
Furthermore, people are openly fearful about the serious economic repercussions of the epidemic. The Italian official statistics institute, ISTAT, estimates that Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 — even before the crisis started. Just as the infections were starting to spread other estimates suggested Italy’s economy could contract by as much as 1 to 3 percent over the year. What will happen to the Italian economy under the current lockdown is hard to estimate but if recession was the benchmark, the future is going to be worse.
New political challenges are likely to emerge. Since the arrival of the virus, many Italians have moved in large numbers from northern Italy to the south and to Italy’s islands — perhaps bringing infection to poorer parts of Italy that are less well equipped to deal with it.
Another even greater problem is the aftermath of the rebellion that took place in Italian prisons. Italy’s inmates revolted against overcrowded conditions and the fear they would be left unprotected, rising up in institutions across the country. They often destroyed their own facilities; in at least one case, some escaped into the general population. At least 12 inmates died in the violence. Now the rest are being relocated from those institutions no longer fit for habitation. The prisons have calmed down, but there are questions about what might happen in other overcrowded public facilities: Italy currently hosts more than 95,000 migrants and asylum seekers in reception areas. Italy also has a substantial homeless population — counted at just over 50,000 in 2014 (which is the last year for which there are figures).
Much depends on the government’s actions
All this means the government’s ability to respond to these challenges will be unusually politically important. Another cliche of political commentary is that the Italian state is weak and ineffective. Unusually, the public seems to believe the government is doing a good job, at least at the moment. On March 16, the government announced an ambitious raft of measures to blunt the impact of the crisis by supporting low-income families and small firms, shoring up the banking system, cleaning the schools and putting more money into the health-care system.
The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was a political neophyte when he was appointed in June 2018. Most political commentators were skeptical that he would be able to have real influence on politics. But the Italian public seems to appreciate his ability to explain what they need to accomplish and why in measured, reassuring tones. His public approval rating has shot up as a result. There is also strong public support for the president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella.
So far, Italy is holding together under the lockdown, and Italians have adapted their behavior to unexpected new circumstances. They have had to respond quickly and are clearly apprehensive about what lies in store. But their success — at least to date — suggests European democracies can respond better to major crises than many pessimists might have expected.
Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones_SAIS) lives in Bologna, Italy, where he is professor of European studies and international political economy and director of European and Eurasian studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, co-editor of Government & Opposition and a contributing editor of Survival.