The View of the Pandemic from Milan

It depends on the duration of this damned thing, and nobody knows how long it is going to be with us,” Tito Boeri said, of the coronavirus’s effect on Italy’s economy.Source Photograph by Alessandro Grassani / NYT / Redux
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.

Has Salvini gone along with what the government has done?

He is always criticizing. In all the northern regions, the governors are with Salvini. And there has been quite a conflict between the central government and those regions. It is an emergency situation, and our constitution says, in this type of situation, it should be the central government that makes these types of decisions. And they have been constantly criticizing the government, saying they should have done more in every way: more in terms of restrictions, more in terms of spending.

I think the central government was quite smart in this, because it tasked itself to write down the requests, and therefore they were somewhat committed to these requests, and, when the government decided to pursue the requests, very much in line with what the Northern regions wanted, the League very clearly tried to argue that they should still have done more. But they had already done something, so it was hard to play that game again. The game was always to ask for more. You do something, and they say, “No, you should have done more!” Money? “No, more!” Restrictions? “No, more!” That was the game of the governments of the Northern region. The central government did most of what they were asking, and therefore the governors could not effectively say they want more.

How have people responded to the quarantines? I know you are in your house mostly, but do you sense a spirit of camaraderie and togetherness, or—

Yes, I think there is cohesion right now, and people do understand this thing. But it took a long time to understand the seriousness of this. For instance, what happened during the weekend was not good. On Friday night, there was a leak of a decree that forced people in the Lombardy region not to move. Therefore, by 9 p.m., all the news was about this decree that was coming and would have prevented people from leaving Lombardy. Therefore, there were a lot of people—young people in Milan, mainly—that decided to go and get the train to their families in the south.

But that was terrible—first of all, because we are trying to prevent crowds, and there was a huge crowd at the train station. And, secondly, they went south and are spreading the virus in the south. These were young people, and young people mainly do not suffer much from the virus, but they are clearly transporters, and run the risk of killing their parents. But I think people now understand this is a very serious thing. It is no longer only in the north, and the whole country is facing the same types of restrictions. I feel more solidarity.

The only area where I see tensions is with industrial, blue-collar workers, because they cannot work remotely, and employers want them to go to plants. In Italy, there is still a lot of manufacturing—about one-fourth of Italian employment is in manufacturing, and it is located in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto. So there were workers protesting, saying, “You want to kill us. We have to work short distances from each other, and this is very risky for us.” So there have been spontaneous strikes and protests, not organized by the union, but workers feeling so much danger that they decided to go on strike.

You alluded to this earlier, but Italy is often talked about as a country riven by a huge north-south divide. How much do you see it playing out in terms of the quality of medical care and other things?

The system clearly offers way better treatment in the north than in the south. There are quite important differences in that respect. Indeed, many southerners come to the north to get treated in normal times. Right now, given that the virus has been concentrated in the north, the northern hospitals are really in a very difficult situation. There are not enough ventilators. And therefore the northern hospitals cannot take anybody and are trying to send people elsewhere. What worries me is that, if the virus spreads out from the south, then they will have way less effective health systems to deal with this.

Is there some sort of hope you have for the country once it comes out of this?

Well, right now we are in a situation of an economy at war, by any definition. Of those who could make projections, I have seen scenarios that go from one month to one year, so it is very difficult to say. But, to some extent, going through such a traumatic event may somewhat strengthen the social cohesion if it is handled in a proper way. I think the government has decided on good measures, including helping those economically suffering from the situation, and that was extremely important. Think about people with small shops and restaurants, or working in tourism and these types of things. They have been extremely damaged by this event. And the government is intervening to support that.

At the same time, my impression is that the government is really dealing with the issue on a day-by-day basis. I understand that it is extremely difficult to go beyond day-by-day management, but perhaps trying to look at what we have been up to when we will be outside this economy of war, when the state will go back to normal roles, would be important. I think this vision would be extremely beneficial for us to get out of this nightmare in a good way.

Isaac Chotiner