This weekend marks exactly a year since the first, tentative lockdown in Italy. The closures were only in certain regions (such as Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna), and in specific sectors (such as schools), but the drastic measures still shocked the world. The country had recorded only 152 cases of, and three deaths from, Covid-19, so it all seemed like an overreaction.
But with every passing day, the closures became more draconian. By 4 March 2020 every school in Italy was closed; a week later the whole country went into full lockdown. By 12 March there had been 1,000 deaths (it seemed like a terrible benchmark back then), and only four days later, we passed 2,000. Most other countries were still partying at a time when we were prisoners in our own homes, watching scenes from an apocalyptic film on the news: medics in hazmat suits, hospital wards full of oxygen hoods and mortuaries so packed with coffins that the army was called in.
Soon we were seeing almost 1,000 deaths a day. Even local newspapers had page after page of one-paragraph obituaries. Parma, the city where I live, was so quiet that almost the only sounds were birdsong and ambulance sirens.
While other countries were lackadaisical in following guidelines, Italy had legislative clarity and societal adherence.
In those frightening early weeks, there was an exuberant defiance as suburbs began singing together, each household joining in from its own windows and balconies. Virtuoso violinists and guitarists turned their balconies into stages and, most memorably, two young girls played tennis between their respective rooftops in Genoa.
Despite the grief, something extraordinary was happening: there were shoals of fish in clean Venetian canals and bottlenose dolphins leaping around inactive ports. Hares and deer strolled through public parks and golf courses and mallards appeared in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. As the notoriously polluted air of the Po valley cleared, we often sang Rino Gaetano’s The Sky is Evermore Blue.
It was a period that altered not only how outsiders perceived Italy, but also how Italians saw each other. They’re often stereotyped (by themselves as much as by foreigners) as a nation of rule-benders, eager to bypass the public good for private gain. But throughout that spring the country was orderly and obedient. “We’ve learnt to queue,” joked my Italian wife. There was no hoarding of loo roll. While other countries were being lackadaisical in applying or following guidelines, Italy had, on the whole, legislative clarity and societal adherence.
It felt, to me, as if there was a sombre dignity to the country, rather like a good funeral that attends to great sorrow. As Bergamo became the centre of the crisis, its football team, Atalanta, dazzled in the closing stages of the Champions’ League: it felt, briefly, as if the country’s suffering might have, at least, a sporting redemption story.
It didn’t, of course. As the spring dragged on and we passed 10,000 deaths at the end of March, then 20,000 (mid-April) and 30,000 (early May), the mood changed. The strange euphoria had gone, and the “Everything will be OK” slogan hung on bedsheets on many balconies seemed vapid, if not insulting.
Italy’s economy – so reliant on the sector hit hardest by the Covid crisis: hospitality – was on its knees. Very few tourists booked their holidays here and restaurants and bars were struggling with vastly reduced opening hours and ever-changing rules. “If my only income were from this restaurant,” my friend Luca says bluntly, “I would shoot myself.”
Sadly, many did. By mid-May at least 14 business people had taken their lives because of the economic catastrophe. By September that figure had risen to 71.
Behind those tragedies were many others: bankruptcies, divorces and domestic violence. Unemployment now stands at 9%, with youth unemployment at 30%. Within those stark figures is an astonishing gender imbalance: of the 444,000 people who lost their jobs in 2020, 312,000 (or 70%) were female.
Amidst the statistics, sometimes it’s just the individual stories that stay with you: like the successful restaurateur in Florence, Luca Vanni, who took his own life, or Adriano Urso, the famous jazz pianist forced to reinvent himself as a delivery driver and who died aged 41 of a heart attack whilst trying to push-start his ancient Fiat.
There have been two noticeable consequences of that economic suffering. As often happens when the Italian state seems flat-footed in a crisis, organised crime has stepped in. Mafiosi have distributed food parcels in deprived suburbs, suspended protection payments and offered immediate cash loans. This “mafia-welfare” is a strategic assertion of superiority to the state, a means to create consensus, control and indebtedness, literal and metaphorical.
The mafia is also buying up struggling companies: 43,688 Italian firms changed hands between April and September 2020: not all passed into criminal ownership, but – because of the high number of new owners choosing anonymity through offshore solutions and opaque trusts – it’s believed that many did. Mafia-controlled companies will, of course, be looking greedily at the €209bn recovery fund that Italy is about to receive from the European Union.
But there’s also been an increase in genuine solidarity. Given a growing awareness of the vulnerability of the weakest in society, voluntary associations, charities and informal foodbanks have been created to protect them.
In Brescia, one of the cities worst hit by Covid, an Italo-Palestinian, Yas, created Cibo Per Tutti (Food for All), which distributes up to 450 food parcels each week. It’s an experience that has changed the social fabric of the city. “The virus was isolating us,” says one woman, “and there was a need, a physical need, to be a community. Food became a fundamental way to do that.”
There have been other, subtle changes. Since 2006, 2.4 million Italians, many of them young and highly qualified, have emigrated, meaning that 9% of the Italian population now lives abroad. But in the last 12 months that brain drain has been reversed. There are no reliable figures on how many young Italians have returned, taking advantage of being able to work outside their city office, but at least three friends of mine are now, after years in London, back “in patria”.
That demographic shift is happening internally too. Remote working, coupled with tax incentives, has allowed many southerners to return home from the industrial cities of the north (it’s been called, rather clumsily, “south-working”). And since so many Italians have second homes, some have decided to sit out the pandemic in the countryside. All these shifts mean that some hollowed-out towns and villages are being, perhaps only temporarily, repopulated and reinvigorated.
But the pessimism is, perhaps, best reflected a trend called the “baby-bust”: even before the pandemic, Italy had one of the lowest birth-rates in the world, but in December 2020 – nine months after the initial lockdown – births were down 21.6%. Overall births for 2020 are forecast to be 408,000, which would be the lowest annual number since Italian unification in 1861.
Those figures are particularly striking because the country has been starkly reminded of its ageing population: the fact that roughly 17% of the country is over 70, and 7.2% over 80, is considered a primary cause of Italy’s high Covid mortality rate. Just over 95,000 people have now died of Covid in Italy.
The economic outlook, too, remains dire: in the last year Italy’s debt ratio has spiked 33 points to stand at 160% of GDP.
The country now feels – and they’re adjectives that might describe the country’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, who took charge last week – a sober and serious place.
Tobias Jones lives in Parma. He is the author of the prize-winning Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football (Head of Zeus)