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The View of the Pandemic from Milan


During the past several weeks, Italy has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than eighteen hundred deaths and thirteen times that many cases. The health system has been forced to ration care—especially in the north, which has seen the majority of infections. “The outbreak has put hospitals under a stress that has no precedents since the Second World War,” Massimo Galli, the director of infectious diseases at the Sacco University hospital, in Milan, told the Times. Quarantines have now been implemented across the entire country, giving the rest of the world a vision of what might be coming.

Italy was already in the midst of several crises, including a long period of anemic economic growth and a political system shaken by the rise of Matteo Salvini, a far-right, anti-immigrant demagogue whose party, the Lega Nord, captured regions across Northern Italy in the 2018 general election. He was likely only kept out of the Prime Minister’s office by a coalition between the center-left Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, which were becoming increasingly unpopular before the pandemic. To talk about the state of the country, I recently spoke by phone with Tito Boeri, a professor of economics at Bocconi University, in Milan, and the former president of the Italian Social Security Administration (I.N.P.S.). During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the situation in Milan, what this catastrophe is likely to mean for Italian workers, and why the coronavirus might actually be political trouble for Salvini and his party.

Where are you right now, and what has your life been like the last several days?

I am practically locked in at home with my wife. This is something Italy has done right. My wife is disabled, so I have to take care of her, and cannot receive much help, because I decided that the people who were coming to take care of her shouldn’t come. They work in offices, and outside, and the risk of contagion is very high. So there is just one person living with us and helping me out in this undertaking. I only leave the apartment in very rare cases because I really don’t want to get—if my wife gets the coronavirus I don’t think she will be treated, because of the comorbidity. So I have to be extremely careful because of that.

And I am working. I am teaching, which is also time-consuming, because teaching entirely online seems to be easy, but it is not. You have to prepare way more things than in teaching in the presence of the students. But so far we are coping with that and working well with the students.

How old are you and your wife?

I am sixty-one, and my wife is sixty-two.

Who is the other person living with you?

She is a person helping me out, a caretaker. And my son is a doctor. He was living with us until a few days ago. Given that he works in a hospital, we decided together that it was better for him not to stay with us. He has taken a room close to here but is no longer living with us because of the contagion.

I know that you said you are limiting your trips outside, but what can you even do if you want to leave the house?

I do as little as I can, but there are very few things. The other day, I had to go to the university because I had to do an interactive lesson. Today, I had to get some medical exams, but I go out as little as I can.

Italy is a country that has been going through a very difficult last decade economically, so—

More than a decade. [Laughs.] For the last twenty-five years, the economy has been extremely weak and stagnant. We are still below our G.D.P. levels from before the Great Recession.

What is this pandemic likely to do to the economy?

I think we are going to have a serious fall in G.D.P. for the first semester of the year. That is unavoidable, because everything has been stopped in the most important regions—Lombardy, Piedmont, and Veneto together are more than forty per cent of Italian G.D.P. Everything has been stopped for almost three weeks, so that will have a major impact in the first quarter. But if this goes away the economy could recover for the rest of the year. It depends on the duration of this damned thing, and nobody knows how long it is going to be with us. Nobody knows how it will react to a change in the weather conditions. The impression is that it is going down in the northern part of Italy, but, unfortunately, it is spreading south. And the southern regions are also way less equipped than the northern ones in terms of the health system, so the death toll may be higher.

Italy now has a coalition government, with opposing parties joining forces to keep out the far right, but it was shaky before this crisis, and it was unclear how long it would last. Salvini’s party was rising. How has the government responded to this crisis?

I don’t think the government has done badly. They made a few mistakes at the beginning—for instance, in closing all the direct trips from China, while not taking into account that people coming from China would also come from other European capitals or somewhere else. They did other things that weren’t well done, and there were some contradictions in their messaging. But mostly they have done the right things, which I think people understand.

So, to some extent, Salvini and the populists are in the doldrums now, and are losing ground in the polls. There are a few characteristics of the virus that make it not so friendly to the populists. First of all, they resort to conspiracy theories and look for people to blame for bad things that happen. And, in this case, there is nobody to blame, or it is not easy. Salvini is always criticizing the government for what it does, but there is not so much else that can be done right now. So I think he is losing a lot of credibility. He is very against foreigners and migrants and so on, and now other countries are closing borders with respect to Italians. He wanted to close the borders to migrants, and now it is others who are closing the borders to us. That’s a problem for his propaganda.

Can you explain that more? At a surface level, it seems like this might be helpful for propaganda, because not only can he say that the border should be closed but he can blame it on a foreign country where the people don’t look like Italians.

I agree with you, but you have to put it in a context. The idea of closing the border was closing the border to everybody coming from North Africa and Turkey, and other refugees. And now the issue is others closing the borders to Italians. Salvini was always campaigning about people coming from the south, and refugees importing illnesses. And now it is just the opposite. It is us who are considered to be like that. I think it has had an impact on people.

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