At the start of 2020 no one would have guessed that Italy, one of the most recognisable and beloved countries in the world, would be facing its largest crisis since the end of WWII - and only three months after Christmas. Yet it took the novel Coronavirus several weeks to put the country’s economy on its head. The pandemic could have been anticipated, but the sheer magnitude of its impact on Italy was seriously underestimated by basically everyone in the Western world.
It only took less than a month. The Harvard Business Review reminds us how on February 21, the country had reported its first cases, but everything seemed under control. Fast-forward to March 22, and Italy is on a nation-wide lockdown, with all non-essential commercial activities forced to close and movement in the country prohibited. Many have faced fines for leaving their houses or have been sued by their cities for breaking quarantine measures.
With Italy’s most beloved outdoor activities, such as aperitif and football, cancelled, the Italian psyche has been brought to face an even harder truth: that Coronavirus might not be temporary at all. The country could be forced to accept that this lockdown will have a long-term impact on the lives and the conscience of the majority of people in the ‘Stivale’.
Gideon Lichfield at MIT is convinced that “we’re not going back to normal”: we will need to rethink, redefine, and restructure many of our essential and non-essential routines in order to perform them remotely. Emergency measures, imposed on one-fifth of the world population, will completely alter our conception of what it means to engage socially with one another.
Lichfield cites sacrifices that Anglophone societies will have to make to contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease, yet such measures are completely unfeasible for a country like Italy, which is characterised by close relationships, strong familial kinship and even intense outdoor gatherings. Italians ‘live’ outside: even though we love our homely comforts, we are people with a strong sense of the aesthetic, with an impossible-not-to-answer call to association and reciprocation.
Taking the social out of Italy might not merely level the Italian economy, it would leave a deep-seating scar within the minds of the people. Experts have clearly stated what contributes to this state of numbness, emotional disbalance or constant anxiety: it is grief. We grieve because our lives are changing, and while we feel a sense of togetherness with our fellow humans because of the ‘external’, viral threat, we still tend to alienate from others when at home and merely accelerating to survival mode.
Italian institutions and its health system have been completely redesigned to withstand the epidemic. “We were expecting a tidal wave, but then came a tsunami”, one doctor said while describing the rise of Covid-cases in the country. Thousands of physicians had to be hastily trained to become ICU specialists in a matter of days; Another thousand Civil Protection officers have been working non-stop to sanitise the Italian urban areas, as well as providing necessary supplies. Thousands of young people in Italy will be placed under redundancy funds, and hundreds of thousands will be forced to adapt working at very different conditions than how they are used to. With these changes in mind it is timely to ask: So where to go from here?
The concept of a ‘shut-in’ economy is gaining more traction in Italy. This economic model enables most of its activity to be conducted remotely, or to be socially ‘contained’. This means that, for the time being, even when stay-at-home measures are loosened, we might be pressed to avoid busy bars or restaurants, concerts, rallies and many more.
For Italians, this might be even harder. But the hardest part in the peninsula will be without a doubt to come to terms with the comforts that we will not be able to afford after this crisis.
Without a doubt, many Italians are starting to think about tax evasion. Italy is one of the “oldest” countries with thousands retiring ten years earlier than expected and still earning high pensions. Absurd amounts of money are spent on these “super-pensions”, while the youth is struggling with low work flexibility, corruption and high requirements even for entry-level positions. The high cost of living, moreover, means that old family members earning pensions often help young people, therefore beginning the cycle anew. The Italian economy is effectively a snake that bites its own tail - but a very ageing snake, with rotten teeth and almost bed-ridden.
There is a possibility that the coming economic crisis might indeed be an opportunity for change. The shut-in economy does not merely mean that we will follow gym classes from home or that we will forget the packed nightlife of Friday evenings. It could be an opportunity for many companies to re-train or re-educate many of its employees, or it could also mean for citizens to start studying new trades remotely. This curiosity with regard to work is something Italians find almost annoying. Many Italians still have a sense of ‘I should do only one thing in life and that will support me all my life’. But in the current economic system, such thinking is rarely efficient.
According to OECD data, one-quarter of the adult population in Italy (hence, population eligible to work) reports either no prior experience with computers or very limited digital proficiency. This is even more troubling when compared to data regarding literacy and numeracy, where Italians fare even worse compared to other OECD countries.
Italy has an education problem that it is not entirely willing to address, because for thousands within the school system, modernisation is not the right choice. Many professors in Italy have never used computer-based teaching. It is impossible due to lack of funds and/or equipment within universities. If Italy wants to get back on track with other OECD countries, it must pass consistent, innovative reforms of its education system. The shut-in economy might help people address this issue in the right light.
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So, where to go from here? The future is uncertain, and it is not clear how to make the most out of this situation. Italians are grieving, and even though videos of us chanting from balconies go viral, the spectre of poverty and a loss of community might be too much for many to shoulder. If, as Italians, we wish to finally move beyond the mistakes of the past and not to attribute the disastrous situation to mere ‘sfortuna’ (bad luck), we will need to rediscover the values of diligence and civic commitment.
Rediscovering civic commitment and social responsibility means to restore the importance of ‘public wealth’ - the idea that living in a responsible and conscious community of equals is for everybody to be richer, and safer than before. For years, Italians have been used to “exploiting” their rich heritage of the past. Maybe this tragic crisis is a high time to recognise the roots of present misfortune and take steps towards a more adapted, fortunate future.