The Italian Job: home truths from abroad

Italy’s Covid-19 crisis, with the highest death toll in Europe, fuelled by right-wing populism and a decade of austerity is painfully reminiscent of Britain’s unfolding public health catastrophe, writes Toby Abse

Italy has been more severely affected by Covid-19 than any other European country – 22,170 deaths by 16 April. Even if Spain has also suffered badly, and has had more confirmed cases (182,816 as opposed to Italy’s 168,941), Italy’s official Covid-19 death rate is higher (13.1%).

Many would argue that Italy’s official figures are inaccurate (i.e. an underestimation of the prevalence of the virus due to insufficient testing). But a similar degree of inaccuracy would be found in the official figures of many other countries, especially those of the UK.

Therefore the key question is why has Italy been so much more badly hit than Germany, a country with a larger population and a relatively substantial number of cases (135, 663), but only about 4,000 deaths.

Although Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and its Health Minister Roberto Speranza have taken a far more serious and responsible approach to the crisis than Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the underlying reason for the disaster is not so different from that in the UK, namely decades of austerity, neo-liberalism, cuts and privatisation, that have undermined public health provision.

The last 20 years, and the period since the 2008 financial crisis in particular, have seen a drastic decrease in the number of hospital beds per 100,000 of the population, and a fall in the number of doctors and nurses available to treat them.

The Lombard Anomaly

Whilst this national trend parallels that of the UK (and it is worth pointing out that the Prime Minister who cut more hospital beds in 2014-16 than any of his predecessors was Matteo Renzi, the  self-proclaimed disciple of Tony Blair), there is a regional complication. This is not so much the north/south division that UK readers might expect (although there are weaknesses in health provision in Sicily and the south), but what one might call the Lombard Anomaly.

It is no accident that more than half of Italy’s 22,170 deaths – 11,608 of them, to be precise – have occurred in a single one of Italy’s twenty regions, namely Lombardy. A very foolish concession to the regionalist fervour whipped up by the old Lega Lombarda/Lega Nord (now Matteo Salvini’s Lega) occurred 20 years ago, when a centre-left government devolved control of health to the regional governments.

The fourth five-year term of the Forza Italia Lombard regional President, Roberto Formigoni, ended prematurely with his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for receiving millions in bribes for handing over a large part of Lombardy’s health provision to private clinics and hospitals.

Whilst the current Lombard Lega Regional President, Attilio Fontana, is probably not as personally corrupt, his handling of Lombard health has been manifestly incompetent, most notoriously his decision to send Covid-19 patients who were no longer showing serious symptoms, but were in most cases still infectious, out of the overcrowded hospitals and into empty beds in old-age homes. This has resulted in hundreds, perhaps thousands of avoidable deaths amongst the elderly and infirm.

Inside the Red Zone

In addition, Fontana has acted as a servile and obsequious lackey of Confindustria (the Italian CBI), who ensured that he blocked the attempt to create Red Zones (i.e. total quarantine) in the Province of Bergamo, which is why the death rate in that area has been astonishingly high, with the Italian army having to transport coffins by the truckload every day.

So far Conte and Speranza have to some extent resisted Confindustria’s call for a return to ‘normal’, in other words, to prioritise their profits over ordinary people’s lives, in the manner of Johnson and his UK cabal. But with the IMF forecasting a 9.1% fall in Italy’s GDP in 2020, there is increasing pressure from Italy’s bosses – the Agnellis, the Benettons and their lesser-known but equally ruthless counterparts – not to let the lives of factory workers or old-age pensioners get in the way of their dividends. Of course, these are frequently shared out and then banked in fiscal paradises (like Mark Rutte’s rabidly anti-Italian Netherlands) to avoid Italian taxes, perhaps the ultimate hypocrisy of those who so often claim to be the spokesmen for the national interest, in contrast to the alleged sectionalism of the trade unions.

Toby Abse, a member of the Socialist Alliance and AGS national committees, is under lockdown in Italy.

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