As part of a La Stampa–Byline Times collaboration, Jacopo Iacoboni explores what Italy’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic exposes about the state of its politics.
As often happens with information wars, Italy’s lockdown began on 8 March with a leak, the origins of which are still unknown.
The draft of the decree that closed the northern regions – curiously and dangerously –had been circulated (we still don’t know precisely by who in the Rome of politics) from 7 pm the evening before, on Saturday 7 March. The most important newspapers, websites and television news programmes led with the headline, ‘North of Italy to Close’, long before the evening press conference of the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
A crowd of people in Milan, many immigrants from southern Italy, had run to the central station to catch the last available train to go back home to the south. Panic, mobs, fear commenced, without the taking into account of the potential for the Coronavirus to spread to the south.
Since then, the emergency management of COVID-19 in Italy has been a mix of the Prime Minister’s press conferences – often held without questions – announcements first leaked to journalists and then to the nation, and a sense of a spasmodic waiting and uncertainty in the country, which is increasingly restless and disorientated.
The head of the Italian Government’s communications to the country are, in Coronavirus Italy, made directly (often via his Facebook page), in which the Prime Minister announces – often late at night or on weekends – that he will be speaking to the nation to make important communications.
Between the announcement of the live broadcast and the broadcast itself, a few hours pass in which Conte’s Facebook page inevitably jumps up by 50,000 followers, much to the delight of his social media managers. On more than one occasion, thanks to the nationwide lockdown, there have been no journalists in attendance as they are also stuck at home. Sometimes, they have joined by videochat, but the questions for the briefing are ranked in a precise order. (Italy’s Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Rocco Casalino, became famous 20 years ago for being one of the contestants of the first edition of Big Brother on Italian television).
The space for asking questions shrinks for everyone due to physical and social distancing: an ideal situation for a de facto normalisation of relations with the country. In the era of digital ops, with a party in Government whose arrival coincided with a huge experiment of social propaganda (the Five Star Movement of Casaleggio), communication with the country, instead of being horizontal, becomes very vertical and almost without escape for Italians who, locked in their houses, can only listen.
We no longer have public opinion, we are merely a public. The internet has become like the radio during the wars of the last century. And when the questions do arrive, the answers are not always those that are needed to understand whether the Government has a strategy for when we gradually emerge from quarantine. Prime Minister Conte, overestimating himself at the same time as trying to protect himself from everything, repeats the metaphor of the film The Darkest Hour, evokes Winston Churchill on his Twitter account, and says that “history will judge us”. As if it were impossible that impartial critics and Italian public opinion could pass – secular – judgement, here and now. Without waiting for history. It feels almost as if asking questions is being equated, slowly, to having an anti-Italian attitude.
All the doctors and scientists explain that the national lockdown was necessary. Italy has been wise and relatively quick in imposing it, in contrast to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his theories of ‘herd immunity’. Here, we have been spared this.
In Italy, the Prime Minister did not go around bragging about shaking hands with everyone “because shaking hands is important”. But, the head of the Italian Government said on television (at the end of February, on La7) that “we are at the forefront in the world in prevention” – a claim that has been proven dramatically untrue.
The crucial point of this normalisation, that stops the virus but at the same time reduces life, the economy, criticism, is this: how are we going to be able to leave our homes sooner or later if we have not used the time of lockdown to prepare measures that are complementary to the lockdown, such as digital tracing of asymptomatic people, the home treatment of patients who are left at home without help and, above all, an extension of the tests that help us understand how many people really have COVID-19, perhaps without having developed the disease or having reacted to it?
This is perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Italian normalisation: in the age when we potentially have artificial intelligence and big data to study – with respect to privacy, we of course say no thanks to the Cambridge Analytica model – the Government has fought the Coronavirus as if we were in the Middle Ages, shutting up the country at home and hoping it will somehow pass. There has been no smart data and little transparency. A task force for digital tracing was created 20 days ago, partly because of pressure from articles and the criticism of La Stampa, but this has not yet produced any concrete results. And without real data, how can we know when it will be appropriate to go out again?
Years of anti-science propaganda (the UK’s Brexiters and Italy’s Five Star Movement have been profoundly allied in this) and now – behind a feigned adherence to science – we witness the same denial of data and transparency.
In another of the many leaks of this season – the draft of the technical report of one of the decrees of the head of Government, the ‘Cura Italia’ (each of these laws enacted directly by the Prime Minister bear a name that is halfway between propaganda and the Orwellian) – there was a chart with this caption: “Based on the data reported on the site of the Ministry of Health and on the trend of infections up to 8 March and assuming a future trend of daily infections in about three days until mid-March and subsequently a gradual decrease due to the containment measures launched by the Government, this trend would lead to a total number of infected subjects equal to approximately 92,000.”
The graphic does not appear in the in the final version of the decree, but the estimates remained the same: that the peak should have arrived on 17 March and, from there, the decline was expected. This did not happen because, on 19 March, cases rose again by 5,322 – more than 1,100 beyond what the Government had foreseen. It is possible to make a mistake of course, but what data are we discussing? And who’s in charge of the Prime Minister’s scientific committee? Nobody knows so far.
In Italy every day, the Civil Protection – which has enormously improved the hospital response and increased the number of ICU places by 80% – holds a press conference with the precise list of new infections, those in ICU, those recovered and how many people have died. It is a generous and contrite war bulletin, from which the basis of strategy is totally absent, because two crucial data points are always missing: the real number of those infected including those who are asymptomatic, and their location. Doctors believe this number to be more than 10 times the official number and Angelo Borrelli, the head of Civil Protection, has admitted as much.
The number of the dead is underestimated because there are very many people who die at home with the symptoms of COVID-19 who have been never tested. The number of swab tests does not coincide with the number of people tested, because two tests are done on those who have recovered, to confirm they are negative. And also because many sick people are not tested.
In a Civil Protection press conference held on Easter day, one of the doctors from the Government’s scientific committee uttered a phrase that explains a lot about this situation: “doing more tests somehow falsifies the number of positives because the more we do, the more we find”, said Luca Richeldi, chief of pulmonology at Rome’s Gemelli hospital. But the opposite is true: the number is distorted by not having done enough tests before.
In Italy, there have been serious outbreaks in hospitals and devastating outbreaks in care homes, such as at thePio Albergo Trivulzio in Milan, which is now under judicial investigation.
On such failures of our system we have had too little information too late and usually from the newspapers before the authorities. All this while we have been confined to our homes, with clumsy self-certification papers to be able to go grocery shopping, without knowing exactly when we will be allowed out again and with an economy that could lose 11 points off its GDP in 2020. And with a not small number of people tempted to not respect the rules and to escape as soon as possible to seaside or mountain homes. After all, even in this normalisation that smells a bit of authoritarianism, we are Italy – anarchic and nutty, not China.
Jacopo Iacoboni is a journalist at La Stampa.
This article was translated for Byline Times by Kamin Mohammadi.