Disaster Capitalism and COVID-19: Flattening the Curve in Italy

Once upon a time there was a monkey who was very fond of cherries. One day he saw a delicious-looking cherry, and came down from his tree to get it. But the fruit turned out to be in a clear glass bottle. After some experimentation, the monkey found that he could get hold of the cherry by putting his hand into the bottle by way of the neck. As soon as he had done so, he closed his hand over the cherry; but then he found that he could not withdraw his fist holding the cherry, because it was larger than the internal dimension of the neck. Now all this was deliberate, because the cherry in the bottle was a trap laid by a monkey-hunter who knew how monkeys think. The hunter, hearing the monkey’s whimperings, came along and the monkey tried to run away. But, because his hand was, as he thought, stuck in the bottle, he could not move fast enough to escape. But, as he thought, he still had hold of the cherry. The hunter picked him up. A moment later he tapped the monkey sharply on the elbow, making him suddenly relax his hold on the fruit. The monkey was free, but he was captured. The hunter had used the cherry and the bottle, but he still had them.

—As told by Khwaja Ali Ramitani, from Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah,

Schools across Emilia Romagna in northern Italy were closed over six weeks ago leaving parents stranded and the usual choices fell quickly upon Italian families: which parent stays home to take care of the kids and worse, of distance learning? It was a scene we have witnessed before right from the era when American men returning from the Second World War took back the factory jobs that women had covered for them during their absence overseas. Suddenly, these women were faced—as they are today—with the harsh reality that their lives and careers come in second-place to those of men’s. The traditional roles of women have been surprisingly given a reboot and Italian publications have begun noticing the social mechanism which defaults to women abandoning their livelihoods for the good of the family, especially when there is insufficient income to pay a babysitter.

Since February when the first state-decreed COVID-19 lockdowns in northern Italy were imposed, we have witnessed the two distinct classes who would pay dearly for this domicile quarantine: women and freelancers. For instance, Italy employs many badly-paid, freelance physicians who are unable to sustain their families in the face of this epidemic. Currently, there are approximately 139,000 freelance doctors in the country many of whom are not economically able to afford childcare so that they can work in the hospitals currently understaffed due to strains on Italy’s medical system. The end result of the medical freelance class is that this doubles up on the problems of state healthcare as female doctors and nurses with children are often absent from hospitals because they cannot afford to go into work. In this northern lockdown which was enacted from 23 February to 9 March, female medical professionals were caught in a catch-22 since they were expected to keep the family functioning with Italian women staying at home with the children and men going off to work.

In the first weeks after the lockdown initially limited to northern Italy, few Italians followed the rules. Even though the schools were closed across Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna from 24 February, there was a widespread disregard for the early government decrees ordering people to stay at home. After all, what good is keeping kids out of school if the male children congregate in sports centers or on football pitches to play football? Music and dance schools closed their doors, girls stayed home in physical isolation alongside their mothers who sacrificed their jobs for the greater public good. The message in the first few weeks of the lockdown in northern Italy could not have been clearer as girls and women upheld the government-mandated public ordinance that in quite clear terms prohibited “all events and cultural, recreational and sporting events, both indoors and outdoors, which involve the gathering of people.” With the boys and men out playing ball, it’s no surprise that the numbers of COVID-19 cases ballooned even after the lockdown in the north.

Italy, a country with the second-highest percentage of elderly after Japan, was considered the ground zero for COVID-19 in the EU a month ago with the numbers of infected and deaths rising more quickly than in China two months earlier. The Italian government decrees aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus only began to be taken seriously by Italians once the deaths started to move into the thousands and the police began stopping people on foot in town centers.

The national government had initially shut down all schools across the country until 15 March restricting movement to and from 14 provinces in the north where COVID-19 has hit the hardest and where the regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto accounted for 85% of the cases and more than 90% of the deaths. The results of this lockdown, initially set to last until 12 March, has already had far-flung repercussions from the continued closing of schools and universities to a prison riot in Modena which resulted in six inmate deaths after prisoners were informed that there would be no more visits allowed until the end of the quarantine period. The government also imposed fines or three-month-terms of imprisonment for breaking quarantine as many Italians tried to flee the north after media leaks emerged of the government’s plan for a full-country lockdown. Southern Italians living in the north attempted to escape the quarantine by traveling south after having been told not to return home. Even the country’s top football association, the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio), stepped in to announce the suspension of all activities related to football championships, tournaments, training courses, and training sessions until 15 March, now suspended until further notice.

With over 132,000 COVID-19 cases in Italy as I write this it seems that social isolation is finally mitigating the spread of the virus. But Italy is not out of the woods. Since 9 March, the entirety of the country has been in “lockdown,” a term that is often associated with prisons. And it feels like this now in the seventh week as each few days new directives emerge from Rome further confusing the population. Initially, Italians were told to go to work while having closed the schools. Then newer directives changed the previous decrees by stricter social distancing measures and prohibitions agains leaving the home unless exercise, to visit family members, to buy food or for emergency services.

As the decrees increased in number and in severity Italians were suffering “decree fatigue” all the while, mostly women were placed in the position of having to give up their jobs to do childcare while also having been saddled with the tasks of long-distance learning. The assumption in this new COVID-19 reality for most women in Italy is that they happily sacrifice their careers to taking care of the family and more so, that women don’t eat or sleep given the time needed for these tasks. Have you ever photographed 45 pages of a child’s homework and uploaded it?

I speak to women from across the streets and in pharmacy queues as they are exhausted from the non-stop expectations placed upon them. One tells me, “How are we supposed to send the teachers all our children’s work? We have other children to take care of and we must also eat and sleep. We cannot photograph 50 pages of homework for each class and send it in. We don’t even have paper left to print out the exercises!” Another woman recounts how the pressure on her to do everything has broken down family relations as letters to parents are habitually addressed, “Dear Mother…” She tells me how she is expected to be a disciplinarian, carer, cook, cleaner, and educator, roles that become even more burdensome within the confines of lockdown. “Why is it assumed that we are the ones who must be there for our children’s work? My son is seven-years-old and I cannot leave him to follow everything online. The presumption is that women have all this free-time to do everything. Do they expect us not to sleep?”

When people ask me why Italy took so long to respond to the spread of COVID-19, I tell them that it was largely the fault of capitalism and the disregard for marginalized workers. In the early days of the outbreak in Italy, it was clear from the ground that the Italian government’s first concern was to palliate all negative repercussions to the tourism sector of its economy resistant to close its borders or order people to stay home. Also, in Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna freelancers make up a far larger percentage of workers than in the rest of the country. It is no irony that these are the very workers are being omitted from economic measures being adopted to assist businesses affected from the lockdowns. Even in the UK where COVID-19 has made a dent, freelancers there have expressed concern about the fact that their work has been canceled and those living under self-quarantine will be missing wages for weeks, if not potentially for far longer.

But there’s an adjacent chapter as to how capitalism failed us. A huge part of why the economy was centered over public health concerns is directly related to the assumption the Italian government made about who would take up the slack in the early partial lockdowns: women. The burdens placed upon women from February in the north were a large part of the reason why the government was so slow to respond to the virus back when the first cases were reported at the end of January. The prevailing idea in Italy was that women would be the glue to hold together the country and the economy in what officials then falsely believed to be a containable disease. Hence the 23 February partial lockdown in the north which allowed many businesses to continue commercial activities and for many to work with the exception of mothers who were set up as the default caretakers of children. Instead of mitigating the spread of the virus, the partial lockdown ended up disseminating the virus much further as many Italians sought to escape the red zones. Had the government not assumed that women would take up the slack to support the national economy, the government would have been forced to order a lockdown far earlier than it did.

Now that Italians have been out of work for over a month, there have been various government calls to action within European countries to protect workers’ salaries. Not surprisingly freelancers who make up a large percentage of the work force in countries like the UK and Italy, are being left behind. Andy Chamberlain, Deputy Director of Policy at IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) noted how freelancers are being left behind in government planning around the coronavirus noting that freelancers “are at particular risk because, unlike most employees, they are not eligible for sick pay if they have to self-isolate or their client office closes.”  Or, as one British freelancer asks, “How is [£94 a week] going to pay anybody’s bills?”

While Twitter, Google, Sony, and other companies have either closed their offices or encouraging employees to work from home, most of these workers’ salaries are secured. Not every country has Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in the EU and for those with an IVA (individual voluntary arrangements) in places like England and Wales, the legal means to formal alternatives to bankruptcy are not readily available. In short, the coronavirus is leaving freelancers across Europe in a precarious situation both physically and financially as gig economy workers are often left to choose between working while sick or not getting paid.

In Italy, there has even been talk of a tax strike while freelancers had only protected with economic packages in the former red zones despite the fact that the coronavirus has affected most every freelancer around the country whose jobs are being canceled as they receive messages to stay at home. A recent survey by the freelance association, ACTA, polled 410 freelancers and the results show that within 48 hours of the survey, 47% of freelancers had a cancellation of at least one job in the past week and/or the cancellation of an impending job over the next few weeks. 57% reported the suspension or postponement of at least one order and three-quarters of the freelancers surveyed said that they expect more cancellations and postponements in the coming months.

Between women and freelancers taking on the brunt of the hardships inextricably linked to the official lockdown of this disease, COVID-19 will continue to have serious economic repercussions for millions. Last week when rent was due, Italians found no grants or laws enacted to help them to pay their rent. The Italian Tenants and Inhabitants Associations and the Union of Renters have addressed this problem informally with calls for the government to act. But neither the national or local governments have enacted any measures. It’s been a series of speculations but no action to help Italy’s most vulnerable. I contacted the press office of Emilia Romagna’s president, Stefano Bonaccini, to find out if there were any plans to assist renters in the region or, at the very least, to make a decree about rent suspension. After being told to send my questions in writing, I never received an answer to my questions. Emilia Romagna is one of Italy’s most left-leaning regions.

The toll on the mental health of those locked up now entering their seventh week has yet to be visited. As women hope that their families will be safe and freelancers need for the governments to protect their lost earnings, many likewise want to return to work in order to maintain both their economic equilibrium and mental sanity. Where several months ago Italians were planning their summer vacations and following through a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking, today chewing on CBD gummies and planning vacations in the mountains has replaced the previous vices of those with means. However, the masses do not have the luxury to plan for the future. Theirs is the choice between which to pay: rent or food.

COVID-19 highlights the need to tackle the three seemingly disparate issues that each highlight the other: the traversing fields of public health, the ecology and economic security. In order to mitigate such future disasters, these inextricably connected problems can no longer be derailed by governments around the word relying on the default elision of women’s and workers’ rights. In the twenty-first century, it is women’s lives and freelance earnings have been sacrificed for the interests of big business and government that want to keep the economy moving, to include Italy’s protectionism towards the tourism sector. Italy could have avoided its current public health catastrophe had it not assumed that women and gig workers were expendable. Ultimately, in trying to pull the cherry from the jar, Italian politicians quickly found out that they had to make a choice between their hand or the fruit.

The solutions to our current ecological crisis have been right in front of us for decades. We must examine how the fundamental lack of women’s rights and diminished job security for freelancers has directly contributed to the choices that governments like Italy’s made in postponing the necessary measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. When you can count on the silence of unsalaried workers and the unpaid labor of women who shoulder the economy and its losses as you refuse to shut down all public forms of trading, you have created the perfect storm for the viability of present and future pandemics.

COVID-19 is demarcating the haves from the have-nots as women and gig workers carry the social, economic, and political burden for the disaster that greed-driven capitalism has left in the ashes. A friend writes on her Facebook wall that it would be a mistake, in the context of this pandemic, to “believ[e] that suffering on a mass scale inevitably leads to greater political consciousness.” While I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, I desperately hope that my fellow humans might begin to allow for criticism of the capitalist machinery that creates the perfect storm for biological and economic sites of catastrophe.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com