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POLITICS

Italy’s Calabria region turns to war relief charity as third health commissioner quits

Faced with a dysfunctional health system and the resignations of three local leaders in quick succession, Italy's poorest region has turned to a charity more accustomed to working in warzones to help tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Italy's Calabria region turns to war relief charity as third health commissioner quits
Hospitals in the southern Calabria region have long struggled due to mismanagement and mafia infiltration. AFP
International NGO Emergency, which specialises in providing healthcare to victims of war, poverty and landmines, has agreed to help out in Calabria, including by providing field hospitals.
 
But its surgeon founder Gino Strada, a veteran of health crises in Sudan and Rwanda, denied he was being lined up as the next health commissioner for the
southern region after a series of chaotic postings and departures.
 
Calabria – the toe of Italy's “boot” – was spared the worst when the country became the first in Europe to be hit by coronavirus earlier this year.
 
 
But as cases again rise nationwide, with more than 32,000 recorded on Tuesday, Calabria has been placed under the government's toughest “red zone” restrictions.
 
Doctor shortages, chronic mismanagement and the pervasive infiltration by the 'Ndrangheta, Italy's most powerful organised crime syndicate, have weighed
for decades on the local health system.
 
Emergency charity director Gino Strada, who says he is not being lined up as the latest health commissioner, after three quit in the past few weeks. AFP
 
In recent weeks, the system has also become a byword for managerial incompetence, as not one but three local health commissioners have quit.
 
Eugenio Gaudio, a doctor and former rector of Rome's prestigious La Sapienza university, stepped down on Tuesday after barely a day in the post, saying his wife did not want to move to Calabria.
 
His predecessor, Giuseppe Zuccatelli, quit on Monday after a furore over remarks he made questioning the usefulness of masks, which are mandatory in all public places in Italy.
 
Zuccatelli also suggested coronavirus could only be passed on by kissing someone “with tongues” for at least 15 or 20 minutes.
 
He hadn't been in place for long either, after replacing Saverio Cotticelli, who was fired in early November after a television interview in which he appeared unaware that it was his job to develop a plan to tackle coronavirus.
 
In an interview on Wednesday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte apologised to the people of Calabria, saying “they deserve a response after years of poor
health management”.
 
The emergency entrance of Locri hospital in the Calabria region. AFP
 
He told La Stampa newspaper that the government had agreed Emergency would start immediate operations in Calabria “with field hospitals, Covid hospitals and triage operations”.
 
'Old problems'
 
The head of Federconsumatori, a leading consumer organisation, condemned the rotating cast of local leaders in Calabria in an open letter Tuesday to the government.
 
“For more than 10 years, Calabria has been experiencing a dramatic situation in its health system,” Emilio Viafora said.
 
“Its people have not been able to benefit from health services that other Italians have access to – a situation made even worse by the crisis of the pandemic.”
 
Health policy is usually controlled by Italy's regions, but for the last decade the central government in Rome has run services in Calabria.
 
The region, Italy's poorerst, has the highest rate of unemployment at 21 percent in 2019 compared with 10 percent nationally. Among young people it is 30.6 percent, compared with 14.8 percent nationwide.
 
“The health system in southern Italy lacks structure and trained personnel,” Fabio Amatucci, affiliate professor of government and health at the University of Bocconi in Milan, told AFP.
 
“These are old problems that cannot be solved in a few months.”

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came top in Italian elections on Sunday, exit polls suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.

Exit polls published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 22 and 26 percent of the vote.

BLOG: Italian election exit polls suggest victory for Giorgia Meloni

Her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, lagged behind but between them appear to have enough seats to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.

The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.

Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, has abandoned her calls for one of Europe’s biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.

“Today you can participate in writing history,” the 45-year-old tweeted before the polls closed.

Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections.

Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.

Hers was the only party not to join Draghi’s coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

For many voters, Meloni was “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP before the election.

But the self-declared “Christian mother” – whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi’s 2008 government – has huge challenges ahead.

Like much of Europe, Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.

‘Limited room for manoeuvre’

Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.

She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four percent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday’s triumph.

Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy’s nationalist interests abroad.

They want to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.

But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums”, political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for manoeuvre”.

The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Draghi.

 Ukraine support

Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.

Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.

It is only one area in which Meloni and her allies do not see eye to eye, leading some analysts to predict that their coalition may not last long.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Italian politics is historically unstable, with almost 70 governments since 1946.

A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”, “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam”.

She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.

The centre-left Democratic Party claimed her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.

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