Covid in Italy, the never-ending State of Emergency and the “othering” of dissent

Posted: 12/30/2021 by editormary in Europe, Politics
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Written by Mary Rizzo

Vaccinations are widely perceived as useful and necessary, but there is growing civil unrest, as all criticism and dissent to public policies is silenced or demonised. The progressive vision of potential for a positive transformation of a hard-hit society after the tragedy of the pandemic has been all but lost, as worries about the lack of pluralism in the political debate and the fragility of democracy in a what resembles a cultural hegemony are concrete

The vaccination campaign in full swing. PHOTO BY GIOVANNI DIFFIDENTI

A shortened version was first published in German on Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich Böll Stiftung

Crawling from the Covid wreckage, “Whatever it takes”

Two years after the outbreak of Covid and its rapid diffusion in Italy, the country still finds itself under a State of Emergency, despite the fact that the data of the vaccination campaign show that Italy outperforms other countries. While Prime Minister Draghi has had the opportunity of boasting of the effectiveness of government policies both at the European Council and the G20, the fourth wave could reserve some negative surprises, so the Health minister is not taking off the table the possibility of extending the State of Emergency into the spring, with other hotly contested restrictive measures continuing through (at least) June. All of this in the midst of establishing a budget law that sees workers losing more rights, and incrementally moving the finish line for retirement further in the distance, an issue in which the reformist left is woefully disinterested and which shockingly met with barely an outcry from the labour unions.

With the vaccination campaign in full swing, since July 2021 there has been a gradual loosening of the closures put on most forms of sport, commerce leisure and cultural activities. A policy of total closure was enforced starting on 9 March and lasting until 18 May, rather than opting for using the WHO recommended preventive and sanitary measures. In essence, investments had to be made to adapt facilities to the new reality, but then the facilities, from cultural centres to gyms, restaurants to shops, were ordered to be shuttered, some for 18 months, as if the loss of these sectors for such an extended time would not damage actors in part of the economy, in what might be seen as a form of “austerity”. The grip applied by the State to some economic sectors has indeed been deadly, after the tragic parenthesis and linguistic shift that determined workers, and not just sectors, being classified as “essential” and “non-essential”. Unfortunately, the fate of those positioned in some forms of labour and entire economic sectors, namely, workers with precarious or no contracts, and the SMEs – that alone represent 78.5% of workers -, is clearly not even close to being a priority.

Draghi, as former head of the European Central Bank and part of the directorate of the Group of 30 think tank, has expressed clear ideas about which workers are expendable. For the think tank that moves from a role of consultant to one of policy-maker when its members become Prime Ministers, the post-Covid philosophy is that not all suffering businesses should be saved and that the choice of recipients of public support should be determined by their potential to be profitable after the pandemic. The two Italian governments in power during the pandemic (Conte’s second legislation, governing during its onset, and Draghi since 13 February 2021) each introduced economic aid packages intended to bring relief to most of the affected actors, but in reality, the aid was deemed by the beneficiaries as insufficient to even meet costs (in the Ho.Re.Ca. sector, for example, of 243 billion euro being lost, only 29 billion was financed, a mere 7%). Access to aid became increasingly limited through the perdurance of the epidemic, as efforts were made to avoid indiscriminate disbursement, and the infamous red tape involved discouraged their pursuit.  This left some businesses unable to even contemplate reopening after the closures were lifted, much less derive a profit from their activities.

In light of all these hardships for the workers and citizens and the clear programmatic tendency toward supporting only the profitable, Covid remains the crux of public policy and discourse, considered as the primary problem to be addressed by those in power, at the expense of other concerns. The State attributed to itself the successes of the vaccination campaign and hard lockdown, while framing any failures a result of the action of individuals and successively, imputing to the anti-vaxxers and the conspiratorial thinking that largely defines and influences their position, all criticism of the governance of a vaccination campaign that is, in the eyes of many, including researchers and public administrators, severely flawed and poorly managed. It did not help matters that the Extraordinary Commissioner for the Covid-19 Emergency  (Army General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, replacing Domenico Arcuri), responsible for the implementation and coordination of the necessary measures for the containment and contrast of the epidemiological emergency, was issuing contradictory indications for recipients of the available vaccines from one week to the next. Suddenly pulling vaccines, as was the case with the AstraZeneca vaccine which was already given to millions being taken out of circulation in many countries, including Italy, only created confusion, fear and hesitation in the Italian public that takes the saying, “Con la salute non si scherza – Health is the most serious thing” as an oath.

Italy is currently the scenario of a full-blown protest movement, upon which the Ministry of the Interior has put a clampdown as of 12 November, “From tomorrow, all marches will be prohibited, and this is true for all protests, not just the no vax ones,” in the words of Carlo Sibilia, undersecretary of the Ministry, with static sit-ins in areas away from city centres being still allowed. These words reveal the conflation being made between two distinct issues: protests about the vaccination and protests about other measures introduced and the continuation of the State of Emergency. Opposition is not coming only from the anti-vax faction, or the fascist movements, which indeed are present in the dissent, and in the case of Rome, have a massive presence. Dissent is much more capillary, diversified and democratic than the mainstream media lets filter through, and a great deal of it is coming from anarchist and antifascist movements and the reformist and revolutionary left.

The Parliament seems to accept that the Prime Minister’s authoritative “Whatever it takes” statement is peremptory and that all debate is therefore closed. By and large, the mainstream media and the pundits of the centre-right and centre-left political areas have all faithfully reiterated the government line in a narrative that promotes its single-minded approach as sound, as well as unquestionably the only course of action that must be considered so as to safeguard the health and safety of the population. This notion extends to most of the progressive media as well. All this seemingly universal agreement appears so coordinated and harmonious, much more than would even be rational to be expected in a country that often feels like it is in a never-ending electoral campaign.

“The problem, comrades, is not that there is also the right, the problem is that we are not there!”

Italians need to keep in mind the words of Umberto Eco, that freedom and liberation are never-ending tasks. And this holds true even during a health emergency. In these two dramatic years, the lack of real pluralism in the political debate and discussion of containment and recovery measures is noticeable, with citizens and workers feeling excluded from the body politic. When practically all the institutional and communication points of reference exhibit a dangerous lack of critique and display a choral backing of anything the government says or does, it shifts the space for dissent about government measures “to the fringes” of the left and the right, where they are then easily demonised. While all Italians agree that “everything’s changed” and that a return to the past is out of the question, some people see what they label as the government’s obsessive focus on security as continuing to use Covid-19 as a diversionary tactic to bring about policies that otherwise might meet with resistance, since they involve more government control but fewer safety nets, resulting in more polarisation within an exhausted population, which has in effect led to protests demanding change.

While the progressive and revolutionary left is present, it is disheartening that is not organising the street, or as better expressed by a far-left organiser, The problem, comrades, is not that there is also the right [organising], the problem is that we are not there!”.  However, the majority of the protesters may not have any ideological identification at all and, in the narrative, the divergence of the dissent is downplayed. In a constant stream of televised discussions, the line is hegemonic, there’s no hint that the imposition of some measures that many ordinary people are concerned about could be a problem, they are too busy framing the people being worried as the true problem. In essence, all resistance or opposition to measures either dealing with Covid or a consequence to Covid are being articulated as deriving from nationalist-populist-fascist tendencies, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they actually do or not. This is precisely what is happening with the current wave of protests that are sweeping Italy, and the media coverage that frames it and consolidates public opinion. As was stated by sociologist Luca Fazzi, “When in a democracy it is necessary to emphasise that one agrees with the dominant opinion in order to even have the right to speak, it is cause for alarm … with the result of destroying the very principle of dialectics that is the basis of every truly democratic system.”

The State of Emergency has become the ordinary state

The government didn’t make vaccinations mandatory, possibly out of fear about managing or controlling dissent, but it might also be because the constitution indicates that it would require an intervention of Parliament to impose it, and not just a Prime Minister’s Decree, as has been the mode of governance during the pandemic. Very few politicians would be willing to take the risk of deliberating on such a delicate issue where politicians are never popular (the attitude of the populace toward politicians has been defined as “a culture of perennial resentment” in Foreign Policy). Urging the government to do so was never an aspect of this crisis, although there were some seeing obligatory vaccinations favourably. A journalist of a major far-left site wrote, “A government seriously concerned about safeguarding its own citizens would not have any doubts, it would make [vaccines] mandatory. And it would also assume that substantially small percentage of unpopularity (that 25% of sceptics, the uncertain, doubtful, etc.) as long as they achieved the result.”

Instead, it was chosen to extend the adoption of a certificate that has taken on a totemistic role and extended its range of action, the Green Pass. This is a document valid for 9 months when one is vaccinated or for 48 hours after a negative swab for those who are not. It was introduced by decree and without democratic process or public debate. Initially seen by the general public primarily as an inconvenience when applied to allowing access to restaurants and leisure activities, it revealed itself to also have dangerous discriminatory potential when it became obligatory for all workers as of 15 October and has since become that bridge too far, since each required molecular swab, paid by the individual workers, has an average cost of €72, putting it well out of the reach of many workers. The Green Pass is not in any way medical and the critical issues that exist about its use are serious, though kept far from the political debate. It can be used in a vexatious and discriminatory way in the workplace, and all workers who do not comply with it will be fined, suspended and have their pay frozen. Foreign workers also run the risk of having the renewal of their stay and work permits denied. Its application also involves issues of violation of privacy and tracing. According to Niccolò Bertuzzi, researcher on social movements, Italy would be “the only country in the ‘developed world’ that binds the exercise of any profession at all to the exhibition of a pass that certifies the absence of one sole illness.”

Others in the left claim that the imposition of the Green Pass has a nefarious political project behind it, “Numerous citizens crushed by the crises, whose grievances have been reduced to silence by the continual “emergency” nature of the situations, understand that submitting to an instrument that separates, with substantially arbitrary motivations, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is the definitive weapon to break the back of all resistance.” Its imposition in place of mandatory vaccination “without even bothering to explain the reasons,” is also labelled as “cunning, hypocritical and chaotic” in an editorial in MicroMega, a leading progressive magazine.

If the issue is vaccinating as many as possible, herd immunity has more or less been obtained in Italy. Neither is it a question of bringing the anti-vax movement into the fold of science (which is not going to happen, fears have to be respected, even if they are irrational); the true issue is how the political class will be able to manage, in the respect of human and political rights, the strong dissent to the punitive bureaucratic controls of a slice of the population that refuse them.

Pushed to the margins is the reasoning that a more effective way to fight the pandemic and increase vaccinations could have been to adopt a policy of persuasion, rather than imposing the Green Pass, widely viewed, even by those involved in social solidarity and bioethics as a necessary punitive coercion to vaccinate, (though there is still the contradiction of leaving the citizen free to refuse being vaccinated). Citizens do at some point, even during a health crisis, expect to be treated as beings with agency, and democratic processes and silencing of criticism being put on the back burner to impose diktats (the State of Emergency only serves ostensibly to streamline purchasing and distributing vaccines) is an idea that is tearing at the seams. The hegemony of the institutions does have some cracks though, as authoritative figures outside of politics are questioning these policies, including the virologist Andrea Cristanti, who stated, “After two years, the State of Emergency has become the ordinary state, and this is not acceptable, this demonstrates that they haven’t understood us well enough.” 

Who’s the enemy?

Despite the initial progressive and revolutionary belief of leftist movements that the pandemic would lead to cooperation and a revived sense of community to face the common enemy, (the virus), the reality was instead that the State, which has a low level of trust (in a poll from 2020, only one person in three trusted it), assumed the role as the sole representative of the general interest of the community. This disappointment in a missed opportunity was expressed by activist and author Nicola Casale: “To regain legitimacy, [the State] established measures in which the only possible solution was to put all the responsibility of stopping the pandemic on individual behaviour, up to the point of unleashing a phobia of the other, each one terrorised by the possibility that the other is the public enemy, ready to attack him in case of lack of respect of the social distancing rules. The theoretical potential of the community that could open the way toward a new community of class consciousness was immediately resolved in the opposite direction.” Social cohesion has started to fray as the pandemic has evolved, given the social stigma associated with the carriers of the virus, who were identified to those in their communities, quarantined and often feared or blamed, particularly if they were exposed to the virus through travel or leisure activities.

With a strong belief in the necessity of mass vaccinations, the left, both reformist and revolutionary, has found itself promoting many of the same policies as the government, but unable to suggest an alternative in Italy to the crippling economic measures or the contradictory mode of imposition. It has instead been the fascist movements (organised in parties and movements and eager to ride the wave of discontent) who are attempting to represent themselves as organisers of the people against an authoritarian system that does not engage in a dialogue, much less a deliberation.  “Dissent” in times of Covid is being treated either as a privilege or a deviant activity. There is indeed considerable political disaffection of the populace in a country where the governments formed don’t usually represent the will expressed by the voters, since coalitions can be forged and smitten without any reflection on the popular vote, seen most recently in the record low turnout for widespread administrative elections in October.

No one can deny that the two administrations governing during Covid have wielded an unspeakably immense power in imposing a generalised national lockdown during what has been, objectively, the most stringent lockdown in the world. According to Global Risks Insights, “The government’s ‘stay at home’ strategy became increasingly hard to implement after it became clear to the public that the vaccine rollout had stalled and there seemed to be no end to the lockdown in sight.” The Italian people exhibited an extreme amount of obedience and compliance, making sacrifices both for the greater good and to avoid punishment, “always confined to the home in a timeless night of the virus.” But over time, public goodwill changed to dissatisfaction and a growing anger at the fact that the government constantly changes the indicators for this required obedience. Nationalised hard lockdown and closures until vaccine. Selective, often inequitable and arbitrary closures and lockdowns. Access restrictions in some closed spaces (Green Pass) until herd immunity is reached. Herd immunity as established by the commission to manage the emergency somehow arbitrarily moving from 70% to 85%, even to 90% and beyond. Division of society where only the vaccinated have the right to work. The policy-makers have done anything and everything to make individuals responsible for the prevention of the collapse of the healthcare system that Covid put to the extreme test, except resolving the problem at the structural level, which would mean reversing the cuts in public health spending, modernising the hospital system, hiring more healthcare professionals and doctors. But that would require too much negotiation and a change of course. In Italy the health system is national only in name, it is actually fragmented into twenty-one different systems, making it all very much based on political patronage, and therefore, extremely discontinuous from region to region.

Technical government mon Amour
At this point, understanding the dynamic between the governed and the distrust of those who govern them is essential for comprehension of the particularly complex Italian situation during the pandemic. The number of governments Italy has had (69 since the republic was formed in 1945, making it an average of one new government every 13 months) can strike people as surprising, but it is telling as to the amount of political fragmentation that exists in this country’s politics.  Following the collapse of the second Conte government through the ultimatum of a junior member of the coalition, the technocrat Draghi was called in by the President of the Republic who said it would be too much of a risk to hold elections at this point in the pandemic. If a parliament cannot reshuffle the coalition, the President has the liberty to decide whether to call elections or postpone them to an undetermined point in the future. Italians actually never know when they will be voting or which parties will be created and dissolved in the meantime. This tends to distance the public from the political sphere. It was never made clear how voting during a pandemic might be too much of a risk, and considering a period of time when voting is not permitted at all (six months before the election of the President of the Republic by the parliament for a seven-year term) this leaves enormous power in the hands of a few. The one thing that the pandemic situation has made clear to all is that a handful of people can sink and form governments without a popular mandate or a large parliamentary representation, and then govern by decree or with votes of confidence.

The current government is a “national unity” coalition representing the entire political spectrum present in parliament with the exception of one party, defined as “the Cutting Edge of Post-Democratic Governance” in The Jacobin. The catch-all movement that won the majority in the last general election (MoVimento 5 Stelle) has lost almost all public support in polls and the governing style assumed by each successive government is more “top-down”, using a strategy of personalisation of leadership and consolidating it in the management of the Covid crisis where “the source of legitimacy has shifted from traditional democratic procedures to the use of emotional capital,” in the view of researchers for Frontiers in Political Science.  Almost all policy by the Conte II government has been due to the use of Prime Minister’s Decrees (avoiding legislation), with panel of “experts” providing guidance. Nearly weekly televised messages to the Nation were focused on announcements of more Decrees and a call to personal responsibility. With the health emergency, democratic institutions were left out of the decision making, and the die was cast for the normalisation of a paternalistic pinnacle of power that prefers decrees to deliberation, and it doesn’t matter whether this individual’s entitlement to power is based on charisma or expertise.

As in other countries, parliamentary right-wing forces that act like opposition serve a long-established function. They represent a fake opposition able to intercept the real discontent and channel it to where it cannot cause any damage to the system. But they also provide an outlet for those in the centre or left who defend the system to silence or slander all of the discontent that cannot be tapped into by the right-wing and by the fascist-inspired forces, by associating all dissent with them. In essence, all resistance or opposition to measures either dealing with Covid or a consequence to Covid are being articulated as deriving from nationalist-populist-fascist tendencies, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they actually do or not. If, as the majority of Italians, one gets all news from the television or mainstream press, they would think there was a sole fascist “mastermind” behind dissent. This is precisely what is happening with how the media coverage is framing the current wave of protests that are sweeping Italy, while a closer look reveals a much different picture. The heart of the protests has actually been organised by social movement unionism.

Democracy means that the freedom of the individual has to be filtered by collective freedom, but also that the freedom of the community is achieved only with the freedom of all its members: in a true democracy, there is no demand that everyone comply with a sole possible worldview or idea, even when that idea is elevated into to being for the common good. Instead, as long as we are in a democracy, the thoughts of everyone are to be respected and divergence of opinion is to be allowed and especially, dissent is not to be silenced, vilified or misrepresented.  Two years into this pandemic, the dialogue between different analyses has been shut down, in a Manichaean way, every issue has two clear sides and no compromise is possible: on one side or the other of the Green Pass, the discourse is reduced to either saving the community through the necessity of restrictions that unfortunately might be discriminatory, but these are the times and this is the demand, and all those against it are anti-science and a danger to society or, alternatively, that Italians are living in a “health dictatorship” where our free choice and freedoms are no longer a value and we are living in a regime that has put democracy on hold. There is no middle ground in the public discourse when maybe each side contributes some valid points which require addressing. In the same way, parliamentary deliberation to address the structural causes of the health service being in such precarious condition is off the tables right now, given the health emergency and political climate.

The weakness of the system itself and its difficulty in dealing with dissent are barely touched upon (if at all) by all the pundits and journalists, and now we are at the boiling point and the only way out is for those who govern to loosen the reins, declare the state of emergency to be over and begin democratically managing the Covid crisis as part of ordinary administration of a pluralistic democracy acting in its full powers and not an eternal sword of Damocles where obedience is required and persuasion is eschewed. Then the polarisation will be fitfully ended because the actual thing that exists that pits the system against “the people”, its unilateral power to control freedom of movement and prevent people from going to work, school or even leaving the house, will have no reason to exist. At present, there is a total avoidance to utter the concept of this clash between State and population, as if we aren’t witnessing it and to speak of it at this delicate moment (if not now, when?) would break the spell. It would mean that the government is in reality not strong, but weak, and must resort to a monopoly on discourse or vilification of dissent every time its control is too severely challenged.

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