Giuseppe Conte during COVID-19 pandemic: from hero to zero

Giuseppe Conte

2nd May 2020

Italian Prime Minister Conte reached his finest hour on March 17, when Hans Kluge, World Health Organization Europe Director stating that “Italy has become the platform for know-how in Europe” and that other European countries should learn from Italy’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.


While everyone in the country and all around the world underestimated the crisis they were about to face, Mr Conte audaciously decided to impose drastic curbs to contain the spread of the virus through the shutting down of schools, restaurants, museums, bars, universities, sports centres and almost every retailer in the country.


Following the measures concerning the public’s health, Mr Conte had to quickly take care of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. To prevent a looming recession, the Italian Government enacted the so called “Cura Italia” decree, with the aim of helping Italian families and enterprises. A €25 billion stimulus package including measures ranging from financial help for businesses to the suspension of tax payments for families was introduced. Moreover, as reported by the Prime Minister, the law decree “will leverage another €350 billion”.


A few weeks later, the government made available another €400 billion to Italian companies with the “Liquidity Decree”, guaranteeing up to 90 percent of loans to businesses for €200 billion and allocating the remaining €200 billion to support the export market.


Two law decrees full of good resolutions for the recovery of the country that led to PM Giuseppe Conte earning the approval of voters during the beginning of the crisis. A national opinion poll showed that seven out of 10 Italian citizens approved his handling of the crisis. (FT, 2020)


However, just when things seemed to be working out perfectly for the Prime Minister, the first problems started to arise. Many Italians continued to try to claim the money they believed they were entitled to, with most having no success. Instead of getting to the people, the money allocated by the government ended up in the hands of the banks, that promptly took advantage of the situation and speculated over the needs of Italian families and businesses.


Before you know it, the public’s faith in Mr Conte’s actions disappeared, and people started to lose their patience. Shopkeepers, restaurateurs and artisans did not receive any money from the government but they were still expected to pay their rent and utility bills. Alongside the decreasing trust in actions concerning social and economic issues, Italians started to raise doubts about the healthcare system. Over 45,000 relatives of coronavirus victims have joined “NOI Denunceremo” (“We Will Denounce You”), a Facebook group for people who believe that more could have been done to save their loved ones. (NY Times, 2020).


With Italians starting to grow restless after more than 50 days of lockdown, there was a glimmer of hope when PM Conte announced the forthcoming “Phase 2”, starting on May 4. Waiting for Mr Conte’s press conference, Italian newspapers and mass media made predictions about the so called “Colao Plan” (the plan for “Phase 2” named after Vittorio Colao, leader of the taskforce put together by the government to face the crisis), raising the expectations of the population regarding the possibility of a true reopening of the country.


As Italians were now full of hope and eager to get out of their houses and slowly get back to their normal lives, Mr Conte’s press conference on April 26 brought something that was completely unexpected. The Prime Minister announced with a Prime Ministerial Decree that the measures existing at the time would remain the same until May 18, with only a few differences. “We are now allowing access to public parks and gardens, but the safe distances and precautions must be respected”. The PM also allowed Italians to visit their relatives and to organise funerals, but with no more than 15 people. The most controversial statement of the press conference came at the end, when he announced that restaurants, bars and hairdressers all over the country would be allowed to reopen on June 1.


Harsh criticism instantly followed the press conference. Not only did the leaders of the opposition Matteo Salvini (“Lega Nord”) and Giorgia Meloni (“Brothers of Italy”) organise protests, but Matteo Renzi, leader of “Italia Viva” (one of the parties that build the majority in the Italian Parliament) also expressed his annoyance in a speech at the Senate pointing out the fact that it was unconstitutional for Mr Conte to take such important decisions with a Prime Ministerial Decree and not consulting the Parliament. The new decree provoked anger in small Italian entrepreneurs, who decided to take drastic measures and symbolically give the keys of their shops to the mayor of the city, to send a message to the Prime Minister. “We can’t continue like this, we want to reopen our businesses” explains a restaurant owner in Grosseto, Tuscany.


In my opinion, the main problem with the new decree is not what it includes, but what it does not include. Comprised of unclear, inconsistent and illogical decisions, the decree appears to change everything on the surface, while in reality doesn’t change anything.


A few days after the press conference, after Italians had critiqued the lack of clarity surrounding Mr Conte’s decree, he said that people were allowed not only to visit their relatives, but also “stable affections”, meaning boyfriends and girlfriends. To create even more confusion, Deputy Minister of Health Pierpaolo Sileri stated that “friendship is also a stable affection, but only if he is considered a true friend, not an excuse”. Italians were confident that the lockdown was going to end on May 4, and for this reason they are going to visit their friends, relatives and go jogging at the park with them since they are allowed to. Here lies the main issue, people want to get out of their house and they are undoubtedly going to take advantage of the opportunities that the government gave them, but shops, bars, restaurants and barbers remain closed and the recovery of the economy is delayed.


Why should I be allowed to get a pack of cigarettes from a tobacco shop but not an ice cream from the ice-cream parlour near my house even if in both shops people enter separately and the same rules of social distancing are followed? Why should I not be allowed to attend Mass if the necessary distance between people can be guaranteed? Why should a beauty-salon in Sardinia, Basilicata, Umbria or Molise (regions with less than 10 new cases per day) wait until June 1 to reopen?


The logical thing to do seems to be to ease the lockdown and, by listening to experts and scientists, create new protocols and rules that all businesses should follow. Why only allow some sectors to reopen and let others die if they all can guarantee the safety of the members of the public in the same way? The solution might be to reopen step-by-step, starting with the regions of the country where the peak COVID-19 cases has been small.


In general, it seems that during this pandemic the government lead by Prime Minister Conte takes action only when it is too late, and always after fierce public criticism. In the latest Prime Ministerial Decree, no strong further actions were undertaken to help struggling small businesses. After the leaders of the opposition and the same businessmen asked for help, the government replied that the next decree would include measures to provide liquidity for these businesses without involving banks. Alessia Morani, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Economic Development, was pressed on the topic of struggling enterprises and citizens on national television, leading to her promising that the government would quickly solve the problem of utility bills and rents that people cannot afford to pay.


To bring the country out of the COVID-19 crisis, the government needs to understand that time is the key factor. The most important thing to do now is to act quickly and efficiently, putting aside the “old” political debates. In such a difficult moment, the EU plays a crucial role. It has already started to increase its support of the countries struggling the most, but that is unfortunately not enough. A substantial amount of money is needed, and that is why European leaders have agreed to a recovery fund, but this does not escape the fact that the crucial factor remains time and using it wisely. As we wait for help to come from the outside, we should now do whatever we can to save our country’s economy. In addition to working hard to create new measures to fight the virus and fluctuating threat level, the government should seek to utilise the more effective elements and the good intentions of the first decree law to try to create a better future for our country, in the hope of coming out of the crisis as a stronger Italy, and a better and stronger European Union.

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