Italy has been especially hard hit by COVID-19. Maddalena Celano talks about the political and economic consequences of the virus crisis.
CPUSA: How are you and your family doing?
Maddalena Celano: #andràtuttobene [it will be alright] is the hashtag full of courage and positivity that Italians are spreading on the web. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has changed everyone’s life, both infected and uninfected people. For Italians, in particular, quarantine is bad due to the fact that it is changing our lifestyle, but the same will happen to everybody else. Complaints and intolerance are growing bolder nowadays, above all after the latest government decrees. Even healthy people are venting on social networks, and they still sometimes underestimate the emergency and the danger of going out. They think it is a situation of deprivation and not a way to protect public health: “This is not life, they are depriving us of freedom”; “I can’t stay at home, I’ll get arrested”; “clubs are closed and there is no entertainment; it is certainly a scheme to destroy Italy and our economy.” In fact, conspiracy theorists invade Facebook, where many . . . “scholars” elaborate theories without a having clear idea of what is going on. For many this is a new war to be desperately fought from home, comfortably lying on the couch; a sacrifice that Italians make with much difficulty and despair. Even today, despite the harrowing numbers of infected patients, there are people who don’t give a damn about others and take risks by leaving their homes for no good reason. “It is just a flu,” or “but it’s not here yet,” when so many people are dying or are placed in intensive care. They would need to strongly consider that beds in intensive care are becoming scarce, especially in northern Italy, where we live the most difficult situation. At the moment, the rest of the nation, in particular southern Italy, fears the worst for its economic health.
I am trying, as a Marxistand political activist of Convergenza Socialista (Socialist Convergence), to react with wisdom and moderation to the current situation. I use this free time to study more intensely, to get informed, to write more and work on future projects. Of course, I also dedicate myself to often neglected hobbies, such as watching movies on DVD or on streaming, listening to music, and reading books on a wide variety of subjects. I also use my free time to clean and tidy up my video library, my record collection, and my books. The rest of my family, who are very different from me and who don’t have great political passions and ideals, are dedicated to domestic errands, watching TV, cleaning the house …
CPUSA: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, coming from the rightist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League, has formed a coalition government of M5S and the center-left Democratic Party. Has the mix of political outlooks affected the national response to the crisis? Is the response a unified one? Or is there arguing among political parties about what to do?
MC: With the latest decrees passed by the government, the official announcement came: the constitutional referendum on [reducing the number of] parliamentarians will be held in the autumn, and this is just one of the many setbacks caused by the coronavirus emergency. It is very lucky that the regional and administrative elections, scheduled for spring, will be postponed as well, even though there has not been an official decision yet.
The state of emergency could last up to several months and will certainly reduce the possibility of running for reelections in the short term. Such situation makes the ordinary political confrontation less “convenient” and the political orientations less relevant. In spite of this, the polls continue to come out, and this is what the situation looks like nowadays.
In our weekly Supermedia [poll] (based as always on surveys of the last 15 days), the League continues to slightly lose ground while confirming itself as the first political force with 29.1% [approval]. The Democratic Party remains in second position, but it is rising above 21% for the first time in about six months.
The Five Star Movement is followed closely by the [right-wing] “Fratelli d’Italia”: 14.2% versus 12.9%. The other minor political parties remain substantially stable but with two notable exceptions: the Left (ex LeU) leaps more than half a point and exceeds Italia Viva, which loses ground, reaching 3.2%.
How can we read these recent polling trends? On the one hand, some are merely a continuation of what was seen even before the explosion of the coronavirus “bomb”: namely, the fall of the League and Italia Viva and the growth of Fratelli d’Italia; on the other hand, it seems to be a product of the “political freeze” that has been underway in recent weeks. We have experienced a great erosion of consensus coming from the Five Star Movement, and a modest rise of the Democratic Party. But the fact is that all these political forces embrace liberal and conservative policies. They are all pro-capitalistic forces, and they all serve capital.
In Italy, Marxist and Leninist forces have been out of the Parliament for quite some time. And rightly so, since they have all lost their way. They have all focused their attention on some sort of electoral or parliamentary strategy, meaning a futile practice to pursue class struggle through the use of parliament reforms only. Something that is so far away from any Marxist-Leninist teaching. For us, for Convergenza Socialista, reaching the Parliament is not a priority at all if it is an end in itself, since we aim at spreading the idea that an alternative organization of society is possible: the socialist society as a first step to reach the classless society, the communist society. Convergenza Socialista is just in its childhood; our work is theoretical and political, and while all political parties mentioned before work within the capitalistic system, all serving the same master, capital, we focus on overcoming the capitalistic system by conquering the power and reaching our political goal of a socialist state. We are therefore fundamentally different, and our game is different as well. All the political parties mentioned before represent the interests of the various formations of the bourgeoisie.
CPUSA: What is the response of labor unions?
MC: On March 14, 2020, the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL), and the Italian Labor Union (UIL) (the largest unions in Italy) signed a protocol with the government, a very clear and detailed protocol that must now be implemented in all companies and workplaces. It clearly defines everything that companies are obliged to do to contain the spread of the virus and protect the health and safety of workers. In this phase of serious health emergency, it has been decided to suspend production and activities for a period. It will be possible to use social safety nets, smart-working, different company organization, a new management of working hours, and other agreed-upon tools, until the workplace safety measures are completed. This is a very important achievement at a time when everyone has the first and foremost greatest responsibility to ensure the safety and health of workers and women workers.
We know that the hour is dire, and we know that Italian workers, women and men together, will be able to act and contribute—with the responsibility they have always been able to demonstrate—in adapting the company organization and production rhythms and guarantee the greatest safety and the continuation of essential production to avoid economic setbacks. It is very important, in my opinion, [that] . . . the government . . . promotes the full implementation of the protocol. Obviously, we, as Convergenza Socialista, do not have the illusion that this protocol is actually an expression of the workers’ interests. CGIL, CISL, and UIL have long been an expression of the interests of employers and cooperatives. They are not “class” unions.
CPUSA: Is the government providing economic assistance to laid-off workers and small and large businesses? Do you see any favoritism in who gets help?
MC: A decree approved on March 14, 2020, called “Cura Italia,” contains measures to support and boost the economy. As [Prime Minister Giuseppe] Conte tells us, it is a “powerful economic maneuver” of 127 articles that [provide €25 billion (euros) in stimulus and leverage €350 billion in loans].
Cura Italia is not the last economic intervention. From tomorrow “we will be at work on a plan of huge investments,” said Conte, who will introduce a subsequent “April decree.” Cura Italia is divided into five main points: 1) €3.5 billion for health, civil protection, and other structures that are necessary to manage the emergency; 2) €10 billion for employment support and work and income protection; 3) liquidity support; 4) suspension of the obligation for taxpayers to pay taxes and contributions; and 5) specific measures for some economic sectors. This remains, however, an initial response to an economic emergency that right now is unfolding and that will require subsequent actions to be taken boldly and rapidly in terms of resources before the collapse of our economy.
Decisive, in this context, will be the role of Europe: in recent days it has taken encouraging decisions, such as the suspension of certain clauses of the Stability and Growth Pact and temporary measures on state aid. But it is now time to take further actions to ensure economic and social stability for workers and the poorest social classes.
The main measures for companies included in the March decree are the following: postponement of tax periods, measures to facilitate access to credit, refinancing of development contracts, establishment of the Fund for the Integrated Promotion of “Made in Italy,” suspension of mortgage installments, etc.
Obviously, the measures to protect temporary, seasonal, or occasional workers are very weak. Only a small, one-off subsidy is envisaged. This will inevitably lead to an increase in social distress, degradation, and misery. We need to take into account that temporary or seasonal workers are the main part of the population, especially among young people and women.
CPUSA: China recently sent a medical team of nine members and tons of supplies to Italy. Are other countries helping, especially the European Union?
MC: We are welcoming material, personnel, and experience from China. This Asian nation is helping Italy to fight the virus. At the forefront of this collaboration is the Chinese Red Cross, which has brought us “31 tons of materials, including crews for respiratory equipment, suits, masks. There are also some anti-virus medicines along with blood and plasma,” as China’s Vice President Sun Shuopeng explained during the press conference with colleagues from the International Red Cross.
In addition, last Saturday, March 21, 2020, 65 Cuban doctors specialized in infectious diseases landed at the Milan airport. The Regional Council of Lombardy asked for help from various nations, but the only ones that proved to be ready, fast, and available were China and Cuba. So far, no help has been received from either the European Union or the USA. All this is very strange considering that Lombardia, a northern region of Italy, is a strongly right-wing and anti-communist region. But the only aid that has arrived so far and the only confirmed availability comes from “communist” countries.
CPUSA: Are there special considerations for helping the homeless population?
MC: In Italy, over 55,000 people cannot implement one of the main directives imposed by the government regarding Covid19, namely, “to stay at home.” The head of the Italian Civil Protection, Angelo Borrelli, has declared . . . that after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus being “a pandemic,” he turned to the local administrations to ask them to organize facilities for the assistance of the homeless.
At this time of health emergency homeless people can put themselves and others at risk. They unfortunately feel even more isolated and abandoned. The situation of the facilities for assistance is not optimal and many could close down. We need, in fact, a great number of volunteers, tools, instruments, masks, and disinfectants. Moreover, some canteens no longer serve hot meals but only cold, take-away dishes, due to the fact that they have not an adequate space to respect the safety distances. The result is that often these people are forced to consume food on the street or in parks, and many parks are now closed in big cities like Florence or Milan. This is a real issue for homeless due to the possibility of further spreading of the virus.
It is precisely at times of real emergency that capitalism and free-market dogmas show their complete ineffectiveness. Capitalism does not survive unless it devours and annihilates part of itself, its resources, workers, and consumers. An increase in the pandemic (caused by the abandonment of the clochards and the homeless) would lead to a further worsening of the economy, which is already barely solvent, and a further halving of the population. This will inevitably lead to the closure of numerous companies and private enterprises and a dizzying collapse of all consumption.
This interview has been edited for clarity.