Coronavirus crisis ‘strengthens’ Italian PM Conte at home and abroad

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's handling of the coronavirus crisis has allowed him to shed his reputation as a weak-willed puppet of other parties and even bolstered his country's image abroad.

Coronavirus crisis 'strengthens' Italian PM Conte at home and abroad
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

Italy – once the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, which has killed around 34,000 people in the country since February — is slowly emerging from the world's longest coronavirus shutdown, which has ravaged its economy. At the same time, the once discounted prime minister is now seeing his approval ratings soar.

“Conte's management of the crisis has been broadly appreciated,” said Alessandro Giacone, political history lecturer at the University of Bologna.

A recent Ixe poll found that 59 percent of Italians trust Conte, who uses Facebook and direct appeals on national television to take his message to the masses.

“Conte isn't seen as being a traditional politician but rather as a free agent who provides information in an independent way,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, political science lecturer at Bologna's Johns Hopkins University.

In a political culture known for bluster and rhetoric, Conte has been perceived as a clear head who has not tried to spare Italians from the difficult realities of the past few months, but who has spoken clearly and directly of challenges ahead.

At the same time he has shown political courage in taking potentially unpopular decisions, such as Italy's long lockdown which helped stem the spread of the virus, yet drastically hurt its economy.

That decision will hang over Conte's head as the country now tries to regain its economic footing after the crisis.

“He dealt very well with some aspects of the crisis, less well with others,” said Vincenzo Galasso of Milan's Bocconi University.

Setting the tone

When Conte was named prime minister in June 2018 by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), to which he is close ideologically, he was a complete unknown.

A law lecturer with no political experience, the press portrayed him as a puppet whose strings were pulled by his two deputy prime ministers, M5S's Luigi Di Maio and in particular Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League.

But that all changed when Conte formed a new coalition government in September, between the M5S and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

Conte “strengthened his position, he has much more room for manoeuvre, without deputy prime ministers impeding him”, said Giacone.

“During the (coronavirus) crisis, government measures became centralised, with the prime minister emerging at the fore of the political (and media) stage,” he said.

While stereotypes of Italy as a spendthrift nation hampered by structural weaknesses remain, “at the end of the day, the results have been more or less similar to those in most big European countries, and so Italy's own image has improved,” said Giacone.

After China, where the outbreak first emerged last December, Italy has “almost in spite of itself set the tone: the experiment of lockdown and its easing started in Italy. The country was a kind of laboratory,” he said.

Along with France and Germany, Conte was also a driving force behind the 750-billion-euro European recovery plan which was agreed last month.

Salvini down

Conte has also benefited from a slight weakening in support for far-right leader Salvini, who made a strategic blunder when he brought down his own coalition government last year.

The Ixe poll found only 30 percent of Italians have confidence in Salvini.

His League party, which a year ago had 35 percent of voter intentions, now has only 25 percent, though it remains Italy's most-popular single party.

There could be a reckoning for Conte, however, as a fuller picture emerges of Italy's economy — the third largest in the EU.

The country faces its worst recession since World War II, with 45 percent of Italians out of work at the end of March and a third seeing their salaries slashed.

“Italy stopped,” Galasso said.

“The employment market was hit hard and in a very unequal way because it mostly affected unskilled workers, those who could not work from home,” he said. “It's not yet entirely visible, but this is a potential time bomb.”

Member comments

  1. I have deep respect for Conte and am grateful he has steered Italy so adeptly these last months!! Support him 100%!

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”