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MILAN

How Milan’s ‘new poor’ are struggling to afford food amid the pandemic

After a year of the coronavirus crisis, even the wealthiest parts of Italy are seeing a sharp rise in poverty rates.

How Milan's 'new poor' are struggling to afford food amid the pandemic
People queue at a food bank in Milan on March 8th, 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Since coronavirus swept across Italy a year ago, the line outside Milan’s Pane Quotidiano charity has grown and grown.

READ ALSO: Poverty rises to 15-year high in Italy amid coronavirus crisis

“I’m ashamed to be here. But otherwise I would have nothing to eat,” said Giovanni Altieri, 60, who has been coming every day since the nightclub where he worked was shut under virus regulations.

“I had a good salary, but I’m at rock bottom here. I have no income and live off my savings,” he told AFP.

Every day, 3,500 people turn up at the two distribution points run in Milan by the charity, which hands out surplus food it receives from a range of organisations, as well as through individual donations.

People queue for bags of food at a charity food bank in Milan on March 8th, 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Milan is the centre of Italy’s industrial north, and one of the richest cities in Europe. But as the pandemic has battered the country, poverty rates in the area have soared.

Some of those standing in line hide their faces with a scarf or bag, fearful of being recognised.

Many leave with several packages – one for each member of their family. Inside, there is milk, yoghurt, cheese, biscuits, sugar, tuna, a kiwi, a tiramisu and some bread.

Such sights were once rare on the streets of Milan, but across the wealthy north of Italy, more than 720,000 people have fallen below the poverty line in the last year.

Throughout Italy, the number of people in poverty jumped by one million in 2020 to 5.6 million, a 15-year high, according to national statistics agency Istat.

Italian non-profit association Pane Quotidiano (Daily bread) gives out food in Milan, on March 8th, 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Poverty rates are higher in the south, which has long been poorer, but at 11.1 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in the north, the gap is narrowing.

“The queues have increased with Covid, there are more young people and more undeclared workers who have no right to social benefits,” said Claudio Falavigna, a 68-year-old volunteer at Pane Quotidiano, which has been running for 123 years.

“And there are also members of the middle classes, from the world of entertainment and events,” he said.

He recognises them “as they still dress well, they are elegant – it’s a question of dignity”.

Pre-pandemic, the region of Lombardy, which includes Milan, accounted for 22 percent of Italy’s GDP.

In 2019, the region had a per capita income of 39,700 euros (47,000 dollars) a year – well above the European average.

But it was also the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak last year that knocked Italy off its feet, and has so far left more than 100,000 people dead.

“The shock of the pandemic reduced to zero the revenues of many categories of workers, notably the self-employed, who number many in the towns of the north,” David Benassi, professor of sociology at the Bicocca University in Milan, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Why are so many women unemployed in Italy – and what’s being done about it?

And although a new citizenship income for the lowest paid came into effect in 2019 and is widespread in the south of Italy, many in the north often fall through the cracks of state support.

“Many families who fell into poverty in 2020 don’t fulfil the income and asset requirements,” said Benassi.

The worst hit are women and young people, who often have precarious jobs, noted Mario Calderini, professor of social innovation at Milan Polytechnic. 

“Women have paid a heavy price in this crisis, as have families with underage children,” he said.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Milan’s fashion world mobilises for Italy vote

Go out and vote to protect your rights, top Italian designers urged compatriots this week as the Milan shows coincided with elections predicted to see a far-right government take power in Rome.

Milan's fashion world mobilises for Italy vote

From Donatella Versace to Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, calls to mobilise have been everywhere at Milan Fashion Week. Houses such as Gucci and Fendi are actively helping their employees cast their ballots in Sunday’s general elections.

“Go out and vote, these elections are so important for our country!” Versace said on Instagram ahead of her fashion house’s Friday show.

“On September 25 vote to protect rights already acquired, thinking about progress and with an eye on the future,” she posted.

“Never look back.”

Left-wing activists fear the ascent to power of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, who is leading opinion polls, will lead to a step backward for rights in Catholic-majority Italy.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

Meloni and her main ally, League party leader Matteo Salvini, advocate traditional Catholic family values and rail against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”.

Meloni says she would not change the law legalising abortion, but says she wants to give mothers “the choice” not to terminate.

Piccioli, creative director at Valentino, published a lengthy post on Instagram in defence of tolerance, under the title, “A man of the left”.

‘Afraid of the consequences’ 

“The idea that there are people, human beings, who at this moment may be afraid of the consequences of this election fills me with rage,” he wrote.

He called on young people in particular to go and vote, because “we must not step back a millimetre on rights we have, and in fact the time is right to acquire new and fundamental ones”.

Influencer and fashion entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni has also called on her 28 million Instagram followers to defend LGBTQ and abortion rights.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

While accepting that many people might feel unhappy about the choices on offer, she warned that not voting “is only to delegate to others what is up to us to decide”.

For millions of Italians, however, taking part in elections is not straightforward.

Postal voting is not available except for those living abroad, meaning they must physically return to their legal place of residence to cast a ballot.

And here again designers in Milan are getting involved.

READ ALSO: TIMELINE: What happens on election day and when do we get the results?

Giacomo, a member of staff for Gucci based in Rome who did not give his last name, said the fashion giant “has completely reorganised the work to allow us to go home to vote”.

Like the rest of his team, he is in Milan for the spring/summer 2023 catwalk shows that run until Monday.

Paying for travel home

“We organised a lot of things to finish up on Saturday — we’re on our knees but reassured to be able to go and vote,” he told AFP.

“Some of us will go back to Milan on Sunday evening or Monday to continue the post-show work, and everything is taken care of by Gucci.”

From designers and stylists to production and marketing staff, about 80 percent of the teams of fashion houses are mobilised to Milan both for the show and, afterwards, sales.

Serge Brunschwig, head of Fendi, which had its show here on Wednesday, said its Milan showroom would close on election day on Sunday.

“We are paying for the travel of our Italian teams so they can go to their polling stations and return to Milan on Monday or Tuesday,” he said.

With turnout predicted to be historically low, below 70 percent, many here feel that if they can get back to vote, then they should.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: What’s behind the decline in Italian voter turnout?

“Some of us have to go and vote in Puglia, in Sicily, in Sardinia,” said Roberto Strino, 39,  who works for Giorgio Armani, railing against the lack of a technological alternative.

“I will do it, because the elections are very important and we must take a stand against the far-right.”

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