LOS ANGELES — While the world was plagued with despair as COVID-19 lockdowns reached unparalleled heights, unity among Italians provided a sense of hope to the world. Viral videos of Italians singing on their balconies and Andrea Bocelli’s performance at the Duomo di Milano drew global attention in the early stages of the pandemic, effectively shielding the underlying political and socioeconomic hardships that awaited the country and their rising political titan, Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
An interview with Francesco Loiola, a USC senior and Italian-born citizen, shed light on the country’s sociopolitical complexities.
Currently, over 118,000 deaths have been reported in Italy, and the government is again scrambling to contain a new surge and the emergence of variants. As the first European country to enter a full lockdown, Italy has become all too familiar with the imposed stringent restrictions.
“Italy is fragmented,” Loiola said. “There are parts of the nation where people tend to behave in a certain way.”
Geographical regions are color-coded on a map, depending on their level of contagion. In red-zone areas, individuals cannot leave their homes except for health and work-related reasons, and all non-essential businesses are closed. In orange zones, various shops can open, but restaurants and bars exclusively offer take-away and/or delivery services. In yellow zones, businesses, restaurants and bars may remain open until 6 PM.
However, over Easter weekend, the entire country was considered a red zone and subjected to a national lockdown from April 3 to 5. In tandem with inoculation delays and medical concerns with the AstraZeneca vaccine due to unsubstantiated claims of blood clot formation, the nation finds itself at a crossroads.
Vaccination delays across the European Union (EU) inevitably explain Italy’s low vaccination rates, but are not the sole contributing factor. News of AstraZeneca’s vaccine efficacy and health-related concerns halted the EU’s vaccination efforts, giving rise to controversial claims among health and safety experts. A lack of transparency and a disunited front led Italy to temporarily suspend the use of the vaccine until the European Medicines Agency (EMA) granted clearance. In April 2021, the EMA’s Executive Director, Emer Cooke, said there is no clear evidence linking the negatively experienced symptoms, such as clotting and bleeding, to the vaccine. However, the impressions of Italian citizens vary.
A scientific study published by the European Journal of Epidemiology, “Mistrust in Biomedical Research and Vaccine Hesitancy”, assessed vaccine hesitancy amongst a random sample of 968 Italian citizens. The report revealed that citizen trust in scientific research and vaccine efficacy decreased, especially amongst middle-aged individuals. According to the results, the proportion of citizens willing to receive the vaccination is too miniscule to prevent the effective spreading of COVID-19 within the nation. Trust in the European Medicine Agency is essential to extinguish misleading claims that deter herd immunity efforts.
“In general, people are aware that there are no side effects but are fearful because of health concerns… some are calling upon Draghi to receive the vaccine on camera and will not receive it until Draghi and the Minister of Health do,” Loiola said.
Draghi has faced unbearable pressure since winning the Senate’s confidence vote, a formality in creating a new government within Italy. At the request of Italy’s president, Draghi formed his own government in January 2021 to tackle the nation’s health and economic crises.
When Draghi was elected, “newspapers all over the world reported on an Italian giant taking over Italy,” Loiola said. “They called him ‘Super Mario’… this is the first time in 25 years that Italian politics has been shown in a positive light,” posing a direct contrast to the notorious corruption that had taken center stage in Italian politics in years past.
The “cheating mentality” in Italian politics, as Loiola mentioned, has led to widespread misconduct, as evidenced by Matteo Renzi’s term as prime minister and the infamous referendum of 2016. The proposed plebiscite encompassed a series of drastic changes to the Italian political system. If passed, it would have allowed for major reforms to the constitution.
Francesco Galietti, chief executive of a Rome based political risk consultancy expressed concerns about the referendum’s disillusioned goals: “Renzi, like David Cameron, thought he could unite the party with a referendum and all he achieved was to divide it more than ever,” said Galietti. For most, the referendum was tied to the prime minister’s performance in office. Renzi received high approval ratings when initially assuming the role in 2014, but voters became increasingly frustrated over high unemployment numbers, the migration crisis and health-related issues.
The referendum received unparalleled voter turn-out, with 70% of the population voting ‘no’ not only on the issues at hand but on Renzi’s rule. While Renzi promised to step back after an ignominious defeat, he returned after a month, launching his own party and igniting a governmental crisis amid the pandemic.
Thus, the most notable effect of Draghi’s emergence into Italian politics has been both the nation’s and the European Union’s renewed trust in Italy. His experience as former chief of the European Central Bank, credited with “saving the Euro,” has gained him immense popularity amongst Italians and political opposition parties. He remarkably received the support of moderate and conservative politicians alike and now leads a six-party government.
“Draghi’s presence means we have access to a lot more European money because they [the European Union]trust him,” Loiola said.
In addition to restoring transparency, Draghi’s main task is to redesign the recovery plan that determines how Italy will spend 251 billion dollars in loans and grants from the EU. Draghi’s extensive experience in handling financial markets has made him the quintessential leader to lead Italy out of its economic crisis and improve the quality of life for Italian citizens.
The wave of restrictions has caused a 30% decline in Italy’s industrial production and an economy shrinkage of 8.9%, a comparable recession to Italy post-World War II.
Record unemployment numbers and business closures drove the masses into poverty. Approximately 36.7 billion euros were lost from the Italian economy due to travel restrictions that halted their tourism industry, which traditionally makes up 13% of their GDP.
The European Commission is expected to release more information about an EU-wide digital vaccination passport that would allow for a certain degree of tourism. When asked about how Italians would respond to a digital vaccination passport, Loiola said: “At this stage, more people care about the economy… by May, citizens under the age of 60 should start being vaccinated and they comprise a huge majority of the population and those most heavily affected by COVID-19. When they administer those vaccinations… Italy will [encourage]tourism.”
With a clear agenda ahead, Italians are hopeful in a reformed governmental approach that can effectively tackle the myriad of crises that have plagued the nation. With an emphasis on transparency and diplomacy, Italy’s growth may be insurmountable within the next few years, making way for a second renaissance under Mario Draghi’s guidance.