Coronavirus: Fears in Italy shift to growing number who can't afford to eat after shutdown

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Coronavirus: Fears in Italy shift to growing number who can't afford to eat after shutdown
A woman puts food on a public bench in Rome as part of a citizens' initiative to help those who can't afford food. Photo: AFP

There are hopeful signs that Italy's quarantine measures have limited the coronavirus outbreak. But they have also left millions with little or no income, and for many the situation is getting desperate.


Images have been shared this week of food packets, tins and parcels being left out on benches around central Rome for those in need, in the latest expression of kindness and solidarity among people struggling under lockdown in Italy.

And it seems that such gestures are badly needed. With a rising number of people in Italy now running out of money for food and necessities, emergency government funding for those who have lost their income has reportedly been difficult to acess, and some describe offical measures as “inadequate”.

Food is left by signs reading "whoever needs, take, no one is left behind". Photo: AFP

Since national quarantine measures began on March 12, businesses such as cafes nd bars have been closed. As rules were tightened, all but the most essential businesses have since been shuttered.

The government ordered the national lockdown amid concerns the outbreak could spread to poorer souther regions, where it's feared hospitals would be unable to cope. The severity of the outbreak has brought some of Italy's best hospitals, in comparatively wealthy regions like Lombardy and Veneto, to their knees.

So far, it seems that the quarantine measures have worked. Overall figures are starting to “plateau” and here has been no major outbreak in the south of the country, where regions continue to report far lower numbers of cases and deaths than in the worst-hit parts of the north.

But while the south of the country seems to have been spared from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, business closures are having a particularly serious impact.


READ ALSO: Five reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard

With a rising number of people now left with no money for essentials, there have been reports of shop owners being pressured to give out free food, while police have been sent to guard supermarkets in some areas after looting.

As the threat of social unrest grows, the Italian government has released 4.3 billion euros in emergency funding for municipal authorities, and an additional 400 million euros for mayors to give out in in the form of food vouchers to those who can't afford groceries.

But mayors across the country have said this funding is not enough.

In the town of Bresso, in the northern region of Lombardy, the allocated funding amounts to “five euros per person,” according to mayor Simone Cairo.

“Tell me: with €5.30 each, what do I do? I will have to make painful choices,” he told local media, adding that government announcements of help had left people expecting a lot more.

In Palermo, Sicily, mayor Leoluca Orlando is pushing for the government to extend its reddito di cittadinanza, a social security payment scheme introduced only last year to ease poverty in the country, to help those hit by the coronavirus crisis.

“We must give basic necessities to those who are hungry and we must do it immediately, without bureaucratic complications,” he said in an interview with La Repubblica, warning of potentially dire social consequences for the whole country, and particularly southern Italy.

"The south will implode first and then other Italian regions,” he said. “Contagion will arrive in the south later, but the social emergency will erupt here first due to the fragile conditions.”

Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando. File photo: AFP

“It's about undeclared work, but not only. Think of the self-employed and the small to medium-sized traders,” said Orlando.

Gianluca De Paulis, a chef at a seafood restaurant in the southern city of Bari, is also out of work due to the closures. He tells The Local his family is “one of the lucky ones” as they had savings to fall back on after both he and his wife were left without work.

“We're living on savings for now. But if this goes on for much longer, we'll run out and then what? I don't expect much help from the government, at least not for a long time.”

While some banks in Italy may allow homeowners to suspend mortgage payments, De Paulis and his family live in a rented apartment; “monthly rent, bills, all of this still needs to be paid now.”

He says he knows “many, many” people who work  “casually” in the city and who have now been left with “nothing at all”.

“Some have gone back to their family's village so at least they will have something to eat. In the old town here, people are sharing food with neigbours.”



It's feared that many small businesses may not survive. Tax, insurance and commercial rent payments for small businesses have all been suspended, but will need to be paid eventually – and some business owners fear the loss of income will leave them unable to make up the payments.

Self-employed and seasonal workers can now apply for a 600-euro payment to help with the cost of living.

But this has reportedly proven dfficult to access so far. As applications for the 600 euro payments opened on Wednesday, people trying to register via the INPS (Italian social security office) website said it was crashing and malfunctioning.

READ ALSO: Italian social security website crashes as '100 people per second' apply for emergency payment

The website reportedly began showing users other peoples' personal details

And millions of others in Italy will not even be eligible to apply for these emergency payments.

There are an estimated 3.3 million people in Italy working off the books, and some five million were already living in “absolute" poverty in the country.

Many of these are in the poorest southern regions, where mafia organisations are poised to take advantage of rising desperation.

"The Italian mafia can turn threats into opportunities," top government anti-mafia investigator Giuseppe Governale told AFP, adding that the mafia "is already carefully planning ahead to when the economy will start to be rebuilt."


Palermo's mayor warns that the crisis could easily undo progress made against organised crime in Palermo, which “we have mended, piece by piece, to create a tourist economy that has now become non-existent.”“

"The mafia will exploit the lack of liquidity necessary for survival, supporting a criminal element which then becomes social, and this is very dangerous."

Economic analysts have warned that Italy's economy will suffer its worst recession in decades should the lockdown last through to May.



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