Notes From Italy’s ‘Red Zone’

by Anthony Cristofani, Special to Change Links

I moved to Italy two months ago because I thought it would be a more reasonable government under which to live and work for change.  After the COVID-19 outbreak friends and family started writing and calling me with great worry in their voices, asking how bad it was here.  In truth, I’m all the more grateful I moved here, and far more worried about my old home, the USA.

      Let’s start with the government’s response to the virus. In Italy, we’ve seen the freezing of mortgage and interest payments, as well as workers being paid 75-80% of their wages even while they’re staying home from work.  As an independent contractor I will get $700 from the government this month.  There are also childcare initiatives and support for families. We haven’t seen the mass firings that we’ve seen in the USA, because it is quite difficult to fire people in Italy.  Monthly checks like mine are being handed out to workers of every stripe, from small businesses to those who work in the hard-hit tourist and entertainment sectors.

      As for the public’s reaction, we have no shortages of toilet paper or anything else. To the extent that there are short lines at the grocery stores, it’s because we are very diligent about letting only a small number of people in at a time. Indeed, due to the delectable, adorable, and big-business resistant Italian penchant for buying many groceries at small specialized stores such as bread-makers, butchers, delis and cheese-and-other-goods shops, it is easy to shop for food and only encounter one or two people.

      Why aren’t we hoarding in Italy?  My guess is that it is owing to the consciousness of a culture habituated to a government that tends to take care of the absolute essentials: universal free healthcare, housing, right to work.  We have very few homeless and even the relatively poor tend to own rather than rent.  In the USA, on the other hand, there is no such feeling of assurance that the government will take care of you if things go wrong.  It’s so pervasive that those raised in the U.S. think ‘every man for himself’ is the default human response to crisis.  Not in countries like Italy.

Dostoevsky famously said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  In Italian prisons we’ve seen mass revolts in response to the coronavirus outbreak, due to a (correctly) perceived absence of adequate provisions to protect prisoners.  We’ve seen a number of deaths, mostly by overdose, as prisoners have taken over parts of the prison and stolen supplies of benzodiazepines and methadone.

Detainees protest on the roofs of the San Vittore prison in Milan, northern Italy, 09 March 2020. Violent protests broke out on the day in 27 Italian prisons against the novel coronavirus restrictions affecting the country with many inmates asking for an amnesty due to the virus emergency. Serious riots are taking place at San Vittore in Milan and Rebibbia in Rome where, as well as burning mattresses, some inmates attacked the infirmaries, media reported. ANSA/ANDREA FASANI

As tragic as this is, for me it’s indicative of another glaring difference between the countries: few jails and prisons offer methadone maintenance in the USA, a situation that exacerbates both instability upon release and within the walls, where the absence of legal safe alternatives has the same effect as it does on the streets:  increased violence and wasted Drug War taxpayer money.  The rioting to me is a positive sign—this kind of riot would be immediately crushed with excessive force in the belly of the prison industrial complex in the USA.

      As far as governmental response, on Monday they assured those on the Right, unfortunately, that there was no plan to release prisoners en masse.  But they have enacted various other sensible measures:  early release for those scheduled to get out soon; transfer to house arrest of those with a sentence of 18 months or less and various other groups, such as those who have participated in a re-education program; and a plan to keep the furloughed prisoners from re-entering the prisons.  In Italy many prisoners can go home on the weekends to see their families, which goes a long way to explaining the low recidivism rate, given that enforced separation from loved ones has a toxic effect on the human psyche.

       What makes me nervous is the talk being bandied about—mostly by the Italian right but also elsewhere—of military surveillance and patrols.  Italy is not a country with a fetish for policing, for the most part, and I’d like to see it stay that way. (You don’t see the ‘thank our police force /armed forces’ posts throughout our social media, but rather ‘thank the doctors.’) Nevertheless, the military has already arrived in Lombardy, the focal point of the contagion.  We’re starting to hear talk of surveilling people with drones (which is already happening in Spain) and via their cell phones.  My hope is that enough people will raise their voice against this newer technology-based fascism, such that the public debate begins also to touch on the areas where Italy is already overstepping the line vis-à-vis surveillance and policing.  Any person of color immigrated to or even born in Italy can tell you that it’s already a problem.  It’s been three quarters of a century since Mussolini, but fascism tends to cast a long shadow.

Economist Ilaria Bifarini warned recently that the effect of this pandemic created economic shutdown will be the collapsing of the middle class and the space for the rich to ‘buy our country with a few billion dollars’.  This is a prospect that has many people wondering just how to balance the need for saving lives from a virus with the need for saving democracy and the 99%.  We can be certain that the wealthy will come out of this OK, and manipulate the situation politically to their advantage.  The rest of us must stay as vigilant against that ‘virus’ as we’ve been against the other one.

Anthony Cristofani is a Southern California transplant to Italy, who has seen US prisons from the inside, and was a participant in Occupy LA and Occupy UC Riverside.

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