Singing stops in Italy as fear and social unrest mount

Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

A few days into Italy’s lockdown, people across the country sang and played music from their balconies as they came together to say “Everything will be alright” (Andrà tutto bene). Three weeks on, the singing has stopped and social unrest is mounting as a significant part of the population, especially in the poorer south, realise that everything is not all right.

“They are no longer singing or dancing on the balconies,” said Salvatore Melluso, a priest at Caritas Diocesana di Napoli, a church-run charity in Naples. “Now people are more afraid – not so much of the virus, but of poverty. Many are out of work and hungry. There are now long queues at food banks.”

A man reaches for a basket where people can donate or take food in Naples on Monday. Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters

There have been far fewer coronavirus deaths in Italy’s south compared with the worst-affected northern regions, but the pandemic is having a serious impact on livelihoods.

Tensions are building across the poorest southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia as people run out of food and money. There have been reports of small shop owners being pressured to give food for free, while police are patrolling supermarkets in some areas to stop thefts. The self-employed or those working on contracts that do not guarantee social benefits have lost salaries, and many small businesses may never reopen.

Paride Ezzine, a waiter in Palermo, Sicily, no longer gets his salary. “Obviously, due to the lockdown, the restaurant closed,” he said. “I have a wife and two children and we’re living off our savings. But I don’t know how long they will last. I asked my bank to postpone payment instalments – they said no. This situation is bringing us to our knees.”

The ramifications of the lockdown, which is poised to be extended until at least Easter, are also affecting the estimated 3.3 million people in Italy who were working off the books, of whom more than 1 million live across Campania, Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, according to the most recent figures from CGIA Mestre, a Venice-based small business association.

A billboard in Naples reads: ‘All together, without fear.’ Photograph: Carlo Hermann/AFP via Getty Images

“In reality, we don’t know how many are working in the black as these numbers are only estimates,” said Giovanni Orsina, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome. “However, a significant number of people live day to day, doing occasional jobs. There are also many shopkeepers, or professionals working for themselves, who may have moderate reserves that will run out the longer they’re in lockdown.”

Amid the brewing social unrest, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said €4.3bn (£3.8bn) from a solidarity fund would immediately be advanced to all municipalities and an additional €400m would go to mayors for conversion into food stamps. But mayors have protested that the funds, especially the €400m for food vouchers, are insufficient.

“It is absolutely not enough,” said Salvo Pogliese, the mayor of Catania. “We were expecting more and I hope the government will find a way. The situation is extremely delicate as a significant part of the population has zero income. Those who before lived with dignity, now find themselves in difficulty.”

A woman waves an Italian flag from a balcony in Naples in the days after the lockdown announcement. Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters

One of the issues is that the €4.3bn was due to be given to mayors in May, and much of the funding had already been designated to be spent in other areas.

“If the government expects this money to be used to feed people, then municipalities won’t have money for other things,” said Orsina. “And the new tranche of €400m, if you divide it up between all municipalities, is peanuts. The problem has been offloaded to mayors – Italians will now go asking them for money that they can’t give. Expectations have been created that can’t be satisfied.”

There are also signs that criminal organisations are exploiting the situation. Investigations are under way into the activities of a Facebook group called “National Revolution” that has been inciting people to loot supermarkets.

“The people [behind this group] are those who, before the lockdown, made a living from house robberies and shop thefts,” said a source from the Sicily unit of Digos, Italy’s anti-terrorism police squad. “But with some of these criminal activities being on standby due to the lockdown, the only shops open to rob are supermarkets and chemists. These are people who, due to rampant poverty in the south, usually survive from criminal activities, but who are now not doing so well.”

Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, has asked the government to establish a “survival income” for the poorest citizens owing to fears that “criminal groups could promote violence acts”.

Officials also worry that the mafia will take advantage of the rising poverty, swooping in to recruit people to its organisation. “Criminal organisations have plenty of money and people could end up working for them, and once that starts, they won’t go back,” said Orsina.

Meanwhile, taxes for small businesses have merely been suspended, not abolished, meaning owners will still have to find money for contributions at a later stage, despite losing income during the lockdown. And those who can tap into financial support are coming up against stifling bureaucracy.

“Bureaucracy is the real enemy of this country and in a crisis situation it’s impossible to solve this problem,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a professor at Luiss University. “People may have tried to keep their spirits up at the beginning of the lockdown, but now their thoughts are returning towards the bitter reality of a terribly fragile country.”