The rushed easing of lockdown measures could devastate Italy

When the novel coronavirus began spreading across the world earlier this year, Italy quickly became one of Europe’s worst-affected countries and went into lockdown. Schools, shops, leisure centres and churches were swiftly shut and all Italians were told to remain indoors as much as possible.

On May 4, as the number of new COVID-19 cases started to fall, the country moved to gradually ease the lockdown restrictions that kept 60 million Italians at home for nearly two months and devastated the economy.

At first, the central government was firmly in control and determined to ensure that the restart of the economy would not take place at the expense of human lives. The manufacturing sector and wholesale retailers were allowed to resume their activities, but many other businesses that require close human contact to function, such as hairdressers and gyms, were told to remain shut.

Within two weeks, however, many of the safety measures initially put in place to guarantee a safe, gradual and calculated reopening were scrapped. Rome buckled under pressure from regional governments that warned against the negative effect that a too strict approach to safety could have on economic recovery, and took steps to guarantee the speedy resumption of all business activities. The recommendations for the safe reopening of businesses were significantly diluted, and regional governments were allowed to use a considerable degree of discretion in their implementation.

On May 18, retail shops, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers and barber shops, museums, leisure centres, and other businesses were told that they can now reopen as long as they follow the recently updated – and significantly softened – safety measures. Restrictions over home visits to friends and neighbours were also lifted. Moreover, it was announced that travel between regions and to and from the country will be allowed from June 3, in the hopes that it would help revive the country’s moribund tourism industry.

In other words, the government told the Italian people that they can return to a certain degree of normalcy, as long as they follow social distancing measures and other basic safety rules such as wearing face masks on public transport and in closed public spaces.

All this led to fears that Italy may be trying to reopen its economy too quickly, before taking the necessary precautions to prevent a second outbreak.

Many have criticised the government for not taking decisive steps towards mass testing, contact tracing and isolation – the three key policies in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recipe to effectively contain the virus – before reopening the economy.

An app for contact tracing is in the works, but it has not been rolled out yet and there are already some questions over its efficiency. Critics have also noted a scarcity of human contact tracers in the country.

Isolation facilities have been set up across Italy during the lockdown, but people who test positive for COVID-19 are still allowed to quarantine at home with other family members.

Testing is another contested area. Many regional governments are investing in anti-body tests, which determine whether a person had COVID-19 in the past and may have immunity. The WHO, however, has warned against these tests due to lack of scientific evidence on this issue. There are no plans yet to conduct regular mass tests on Italian workers to determine if they have COVID-19 at the time of testing.

Economy in emergency

Despite his initial intention to embark on a cautious and gradual reopening, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte found himself cornered by two opposing currents: The threat the virus, which already claimed more than 33,000 Italian lives, continues to pose to the country, and the need to ease the lockdown to avert an economic catastrophe.

The economic situation is dire, and it is not affecting big business only. The small and medium-size enterprises that drive Italy’s economy have also suffered significantly under the lockdown. Sectors such as tourism and hospitality are devastated, with little hope of recovery this year. The gross domestic product (GDP) has declined by 4.7 percent in the first quarter of 2020, and is projected to fall by 8 percent for the whole year.

The government has undertaken an unprecedented number of economic measures to mitigate the effect of COVID-19, which include significant grants for the self-employed and those who have lost their jobs during this crisis. But many workers who do not have regular labour contracts – a phenomenon particularly common in the southern regions – can not benefit from these grants and are left to survive on the limited poverty grants that are designed to provide some relief to the poorest sectors of society. Undocumented migrants in the country, meanwhile, are left with no safety nets, except perhaps for food aid organised unevenly at the municipal level.

There are worries that the government’s economic measures will not be enough to shelter many Italians from the worst of the crisis. The lack of a universal welfare delivery infrastructure that cuts across professional categories and industries, has resulted in uneven coverage, and in bureaucratic delays of payments to many who are eligible for support.

The 80 billion euros ($87.8bn) mobilised so far to help families and businesses amid the pandemic has also added to the growing public debt that has been burdening Italy for decades. Government bond yields are rising over fears that a debt default might be in the cards – this is a real risk, especially if EU institutions do not protect Italy’s finances and fail to provide favourable lines of credit. This could have catastrophic consequences for the country and could escalate into a full-blown eurozone crisis.

There is little doubt that the Italian economy needs to restart, and restart soon. But at what cost?

From coordination to compromise

Despite the heavy death toll and the delays in taking firm action at the beginning of the epidemic, the coalition government led by the centre-left Democratic Party and the post-ideological populists of the Five Star Movement was able to deliver a strong, coordinated response throughout March and April, reverting the legacy of an often inefficient state bureaucracy, and working against the resource constraints imposed by decades of austerity programmes.

During the lockdown, intensive care beds were increased from 5,300 to 8,660 in just a few weeks, and a repeat of the disaster in Lombardy, where tens of thousands died unnecessarily in overflowing hospitals and care homes, was avoided in other regions. Far reaching social distancing measures and movement restrictions were imposed efficiently, and largely with the consent of the population.

During this unprecedented public health emergency, what was once a weak marriage of convenience between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement blossomed into a surprising show of political unity, under the sober, non-partisan leadership of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who currently enjoys very high approval ratings.

This political capital, however, has already been weakened by the re-emerging of the usual factional politics within the governing coalition, as well as the tensions between the central government and the regions, and the deepening of the North-South divide.

The contradictions and ambiguities that currently surround the reopening of the economy signal a return to the prepandemic politics of compromise, where central governments negotiated important matters with a myriad of local and regional interest groups, with often incoherent results.

This system, established in the aftermath of World War II, provides for a good degree of social and political consensus, but might not be the most effective way to undertake the kind of firm and decisive action required to contain COVID-19. The lockdown imposed in March was perhaps so successful exactly because its implementation did not follow the usual channels of institutional negotiation. And yet, it did not pose a threat to Italian democracy.

With more movement and contact, an increase in infections is expected. But will the current set up, with the regions in the driving seat, allow for a swift containment of potential hotspots, or is there a risk of another wave of uncontrolled infections?

At this stage, nobody knows, but a more orderly and nationally coordinated reopening of the economy with mass testing, a contact tracing app, a significant increase in the number of contact tracers, and stricter measures for the isolation of confirmed cases, would certainly reduce the risks.

Even though the regions have the upper hand at the moment, the central government has the legislative and executive instruments to take back control if the spread of the virus in the country gains pace once again. In the meantime, Conte and his cabinet should work towards expanding the country’s health surveillance and intervention capacity so that the government can move swiftly when necessary to contain potential hotspots locally, and avoid another national lockdown.

The rushed easing of lockdown measures could have devastating consequences not only for public health, but also for the prospects of economic recovery.

If Italy’s leaders are not careful, they can find themselves in a situation where the number of COVID-19 cases is rapidly rising and a second lockdown is needed. This would cause Italians to lose trust in the government, which has promised to prevent a second outbreak. Herd immunity discourses have not gained much traction in Italy. Amid a second spike in the number of cases, it would be hard to convince Italians to go to work, shop on the high street, enjoy cafes and restaurants or participate in other leisure activities. All this would not only bring the economy to a stop once again, but could also ignite significant social and political instability amid a pandemic and a looming debt crisis. 

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