As the first country after China to be infected, Italy has endured the pandemic’s emotional and economic hardships the longest, and the hardest. As of 1:28 pm (17:28 GMT) on May 5, 2021, the country has confirmed 4,070,400 cases and suffered 122,005 deaths. The first nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 9, 2020, and as cases exceeded 12,000, all bars, restaurants, and other nonessential businesses closed their doors. Since then, the country experienced eased restrictions during the summer as many regions became orange or yellow zones (medium to moderate risk). But once Christmas rolled around, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte again imposed internal travel restrictions, curfews, and quarantine measures that lasted from December 4 to January 15.
As the country passed its one-year anniversary of the initial lockdowns last month, restaurants and other nonessential businesses were again shut down nationwide for Easter. When it was announced that it would be extended for the whole month of April due to rising cases, suffering business owners took to the streets.
For two consecutive weeks on April 6 and April 12, protestors clashed with police in front of the Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome, demanding that Parliament ease restrictions and allow businesses to reopen. Signs reading “Io Apro” (“I Open”) rippled over the crowds (open restaurants COVID-free). Many marched toward the Prime Minister’s office, chanting “Freedom!” and “Libertà!”, but were stopped by police. According to Italian news source ANSA, far-right group Casa Pound joined the crowd in the same way they did in the first week of demonstrations. That’s where things got violent.
Smoke flares, stones, and other objects were hurled at police as they tried to restrain the crowd. The last time Casa Pound infiltrated a demonstration, it ended with the arrest of seven protesters and an injured police officer who was taken to the hospital. Many who protest extended lockdowns fear that the government will have too much control and that it is up to the people to take the economy into their own hands.
What is Casa Pound?
Casa Pound, who takes its name from Mussolini-supporter and poet Ezra Pound, is Italy’s far-right militant group closely tied with the neo-fascist political party, Forza Nuova. Casa Pound openly glorifies the policies of fascists dictators and communists Che Guevara and Karl Marx (which doesn’t make sense, if you think about it: a fascist group supporting famous communists?).
Founded in 1997, Forza Nuova’s policies are anti-gay, anti-immigration, nationalist, and ultra-conservative. The party’s controversial, hate-speech signs and billboards shocked many across the country, and to this day, the group has low support nationwide but is very loud.
What is the political situation in Italy?
The violent protests in Rome, not the first demonstrations since Italy’s series of lockdowns, reflect the country’s political turmoil as a result of the pandemic. In January, Giuseppe Conte handed President Sergio Mattarella his resignation after the small party Italia Viva withdrew support from Conte’s coalition in Parliament. The withdrawal resulted from disputed COVID relief funds and left Conte’s coalition in the minority.
Many saw this as the beginning of the end for Conte. Wolfgang Piccoli, co-president of consultancy firm Teneo, said in a note obtained by CNBC that Conte resigned “to ensure his own political survival.”
Conte ended up surviving: he won the confidence vote in the Senate. However, he stood firm in his decision to resign so he could take the helm in rebuilding the collapsed 5 Star Movement.
What does this have to do with lockdown protests?
Despite receiving approval ratings as high as nearly 60% during his leadership, Conte’s resignation could not have come at a worse time. The after-effects of political turmoil, followed by the economic frustration of a devastating pandemic, manifested in fed-up people on the streets of the capital.
Fortunately, the new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank, eased the restrictions on April 26, bringing back yellow zones so nonessential businesses could resume operations and restaurants could welcome diners alla fresca. This is earlier than the prediction made by Health Minister Roberto Sperneza, who had previously told ANSA that he saw restrictions being eased as late as May.
At last, there seems to be cause for hope. Is this a result of the protests?
Of course, with eased restrictions comes the stringent monitoring of mask compliance and social distancing, but as a country whose economy diminished by 9% in 2020, it will certainly be worth it. The downside to this is that not every business owner can adapt to lockdown restrictions so easily, nor can they bounce back from money lost.
“I had to spend €10,000 to adapt the pizzeria so that it was in accord with virus safety precautions, then the government made us close down,” pizzeria owner Ermes Ferrari told the Corriere della Sera newspaper, obtained by VOA News. “It’s shameful. I have no more money left. My employees don’t have money to eat.”
Leaders make their political maneuvers while frustration only builds. While the tension may ease due to Draghi’s positive news about the lockdown, Italians are getting whiplash from the constant shutdowns, reopenings, and more shutdowns. For that matter, much of Italy’s population has yet to be vaccinated. Unlike the U.S. and the U.K., vaccine rollouts in Italy and the rest of the EU have crept at a snail’s pace. In fact, supplies are so lacking that the European Commission is suing pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca over failing to provide the number of doses the EU contracted them to deliver (despite a clause in their contract stating they can’t be sued over delayed deliveries).
Tensions between the company and the EU have been going on since June when the EU sent a formal notice to AstraZeneca after it didn’t deliver 90 million doses. By the end of the year’s second quarter, the company is projected to deliver approximately 70 million doses, when it was contracted by the EU to deliver 300 million. The lawsuit has not been supported by all members of the EU, such as Germany and France, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that there is no guarantee that AstraZeneca will deliver more doses just because they are sued. Another reason is that once sued, the company’s image will likely be tainted and therefore cripple the public’s trust in the vaccine. Despite obtaining 1.8 billion Pfizer vaccines through 2023, the EU has been frustrated with a low number of vaccine rollouts overall and points to AstraZeneca as part of the blame.
Draghi announced a goal of administering 500,000 vaccinations a day for the whole month of April. As of May 5, 21.6 million out of 60 million Italians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with only about 6.5 million being fully vaccinated. This mostly accounts for the elderly and healthcare professionals, leaving much of the rest of the country waiting for their turn.
Without inoculations, what assurance do business owners have that another lockdown doesn’t loom on the horizon? Without widespread vaccinations, hope seems even farther out of reach for people who only want to take back control of their lives.
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