Italy’s Long Covid

Coronavirus pushed the government to the brink of collapse. But political fallout from the pandemic is just beginning.

Illness triggers a psychological journey. At the start, the patient seeks the most reputable doctors. But if the sickness persists, the patient turns to more eccentric practitioners, those claiming special methods. If this fails too, the patient may look toward the snake-oil salesmen—perhaps not the first peddler in the streetmarket but the one who seems most promising. And eventually, the patient drinks a potion, nauseating though it may be, thinking he has little left to lose.

Over the past year, Covid-19 has ravaged Italy more severely than all but a few countries, and left its economy in tatters. At first, people were so frightened that they accepted what the authorities said. But Italy’s economic malady will outlast this medical crisis. Will voters start to think like that patient who cannot shake off his illness, looking to hucksters and charlatans?

The question became urgent this week as Italy fell into political crisis, with the governing coalition teetering on the edge of collapse, and future leadership of the country in doubt. And the instability is a direct result of the pandemic, rooted in disputes over how to respond to the emergency.

According to Worldometer data, Italy is the fifth-worst country in the world for coronavirus deaths per capita, with about 80,000 fatalities in a population of 60 million. Italy was among the first countries savaged by the disease after it spread from China, but the second wave beginning in October brought about at least as many casualties as the first, thus laying bare chaos in government and the healthcare system.

The economic damage has also been among the worst globally. In 2020, gross domestic product fell by about 9% and returned to 1997 levels in real terms, following two decades of stagnation and frequent recessions. This meant that Covid-19 took Italians’ average per capita income back to a time when 3% of the national population was using the internet (today, it’s 80%) and China contributed 3% to the world GDP (today, it’s nearly 20%).

However, the pandemic’s real economic implications are yet to emerge. They will in the next two years, when government subsidies come to an end. By then, corporate insolvencies and mass unemployment will surface to their full extent. In Italy, as in dozens of other advanced countries, the social and political consequences of Covid-19 are yet to be seen.

As the first lockdown descended last March, polls showed unprecedented levels of confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as Italians agreed to put their lives on hold. The sale of contraceptive pills increased by double digits in the spring, and Google searches for “gravidanza,” the word for “pregnancy,” plummeted to a level not seen since the aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in 2008. In parallel, there was a boom in the purchase of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, according to Iqvia, a market-research group.  

Many Italians expected to resume their former lives soon, and many did during the summer: Once the first wave of the virus was over, the purchase of drugs such as Viagra rose sharply. It looked as though everybody was in a hurry to shelve the Covid-19 experience and reclaim lost time.

Unfortunately, the virus hadn’t been defeated. In autumn, as fresh restrictions on businesses and travel kicked in, Italy experienced a wave of protests and rioting for the first time in years. In Rome, Milan, Naples and dozens of other cities there were clashes with the police and smashed shop windows. The government’s popularity began to wane. And the daily count of Covid dead on the evening news stopped being a moving event—concern about income for the living seemed more urgent. The head of the employers’ association in Macerata, a city in central Italy with a fashion-manufacturing industry, captured the mood when he declared in mid-December that he could cope “with a few more deaths” provided that businesses were allowed to stay open. (He later apologized.)  

Are we nearing that moment when the patient turns to a snake-oil salesman? According to polls, not necessarily. Anti-European populism in Italy—most notable in political parties like the Five Star Movement and the League—seems to have peaked in 2018, and the pandemic hasn’t yet brought it back into vogue. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement is now part of the meek center-left governing coalition but looks a shadow of its former self, polling below 15%, having lost more than half its support in two years.

Even the right-wing League of Matteo Salvini—who famously declared that he felt more at ease in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than in the European Union—is enduring a rough patch. Among the numerous parties in Italian politics, the League still ranks first in polls, yet has lost more than 10 points, now hovering at around 24%. Salvini, who is under pressure from a more moderate wing of his party, has softened his tone. It’s dawning on him that “sovereignism”—his peculiar mix of populism, nationalism and illiberal rhetoric—may be a dead end.

Strongmen like Putin or the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, were always implausible allies in a country where conservatives have tended to look toward America. And after Donald Trump’s defeat, Salvini lacks an American reference point. The League’s international isolation is clear, while its anti-EU stance looks increasingly untenable. Most voters grasp that Italy would go instantly bankrupt were it not for EU financial support. The European Central Bank responded to Covid-19 by buying Italian public debt worth nearly 10% of the country’s GDP, while the EU made available sums equal to an extra 16% of GDP—part loans, part grants—for recovery and reconstruction over the next few years. The Euroskeptic narrative, which worked wonders after the eurozone debt crisis erupted in late 2009, seems to have lost traction.

It’s no wonder that Salvini has been testing new arguments with his large social-media following. In early December, he copied an anti-tech campaign launched in France, calling for “Christmas without Amazon,” where people would buy gifts from neighborhood stores to help them survive. His idea was quickly ridiculed online, including by many of his supporters. “Bullshit,” commented one fan, who was a shopkeeper. “Luckily, we scrape through by selling on Amazon.” Another wrote: “I worry more about the state of healthcare in my region than about Amazon.”

But not all populists are struggling. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, a descendant of the Italian Fascist movement, enjoys considerable personal popularity, and has seen support for her party soar. It was at 6.5% in the June 2019 European elections, and was at around 17% by January. Yet her party’s growth in polls has stalled while her personal popularity is sliding for the first time in years, increasingly captive to her aggressive but empty rhetoric. Her rise on the jingoist right no longer seems unstoppable. 

So, will Italians be inoculated against an illiberal takeover when they go to the polls in national elections, at the latest in the spring of 2023? The populist narrative that reigned a few years ago grew from the Great Recession, heavy with anti-German and anti-European feelings. After Covid, the ground may be fertile for a new narrative of resentment, and the authorities’ inadequate response to the health emergency could intensify this.

According to an Ipsos survey taken between the first and second pandemic wave, 56.2% of Italians are “disappointed with democracy” and believe “it’s high time to look for a different way to govern Italy,” while 78.7% favor strengthening direct democracy, with powers granted “to the people without going through their representatives.”

Italian democracy has degraded during the Covid crisis, with the government essentially running the country by prime-ministerial decrees since last February, with little involvement of parliament. The bureaucracy has proven slow and unresponsive in the face of widespread human hardship. More subtle signs of democracy’s decay are visible elsewhere. Increasingly, prominent politicians of all stripes appear on televised debates only if they can vet the other participants and discard unwelcome invitees. The Five Star Movement began this practice because of its hatred of the independent media, but it is now widely imitated by liberal parties.     

Also, financial incentives in the mass media contribute to extremism and manipulation. Star hosts of live-television programs work under contracts that ensure higher compensation if they exceed audience thresholds. The quest for bonuses leads to noisy debates with polarizing figures. TV hosts avoid those guests who espouse measured arguments—moderates might reduce their audience, and threaten the survival of the show.

Pollsters are subject to greed too. Some seem to claim higher support for the parties that commission opinion polls (one round of polling might cost 10,000 euros, more than $12,000)—and pollsters subtly punish parties not employing their services. After the Democratic Party discontinued its contract with SWG polls in November, it suddenly lost 0.5% in those surveys. Since polls are broadcast on live television at peak time, parties go to lengths to ensure that they look successful. This, in turn, puts pressure on party financing.

Little surprise that many citizens feel that something in their democracy is wrong, and are willing to experiment with other systems.

Italy may be primed for a new kind of illiberal messaging. This might not be quite as anti-European as it was a few years ago. But it could focus on the inefficiency of the state, as exposed by the Covid emergency. A future illiberal lurch might not be anti-capitalist per se. But it could feed off the growing inequalities in the face of technological change. New populism might also exploit widespread distrust of mass vaccination—a new fault line emerging between the educated and the rest.   

The other day a friend of mine, a career politician, confessed that he had been thinking about launching some new incendiary messages in order to move up in the polls. “What if I said we should forbid public-sector strikes on Fridays? It would work wonders,” he said, adding: “But I know I won’t do it. I’d be too ashamed.”

My friend won’t dare. Yet it may be a matter of time before Italy finds a leader with less compunction.      

Federico Fubini is editor-at-large of the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, where he covers economy and finance.