Politics and the Pandemic

Mario Draghi has been Italy’s Prime Minister for eight months now. Even in normal circumstances, that is pretty good going in a country that is famous for the speed at which it gets through governments. But in the current climate, it must surely count as a major achievement.

Draghi was appointed by President Sergio Matarella in mid-February following the failure of the then Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to build a new coalition after Matteo Renzi withdrew his tiny Italia Viva party from the Conte government in a senseless political tantrum that lost the coalition its wafer-thin majority and collapsed the government. The timing of Renzi’s move could barely have been worse: the country had only just emerged from its Christmas lockdown, industry and commerce were desperate to start receiving some of the €200bn EU recovery funding Italy had been granted, and the vaccination programme had yet to get out of the starting blocks. So in order to steady the ship the ever-pragmatic Matarella decided against calling a time-consuming and distracting general election and instead sought the safest pair of hands he could find with which to entrust the task of putting together a technocratic ‘government of national unity’ capable of ensuring the country’s safe passage through the stormiest waters it had experienced in a generation – and took little time to choose those of Mario Draghi.

Known as ‘Super Mario’ after successfully rescuing the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis, Draghi is a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and former President of the European Central Bank, roles which earned him a formidable reputation as an astute political operator with legendary negotiation skills. And he wasted no time in applying these skills: far more quickly than anyone anticipated he managed to bring all the different parties and factions together and form a truly cross-party cabinet that immediately got on with the business of steering the country through the continuing pandemic.

Once Brussels had got its vaccine procurement act together and member states could push ahead with getting people inoculated, Draghi oversaw the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme, which has so far achieved a 75% vaccination rate. The spring surge that peaked at c.26,000 daily cases and that came along before the vaccine programme had fully gained traction was contained by a series of regional lockdowns, but in early June, most restrictions (other than obvious basics such as mask-wearing and social distancing) were lifted again. Then by the time the Delta variant arrived, parameters, thresholds and restrictions had all been adjusted in a way that enabled the country to manage the particular characteristics of the new strain without either an explosion in cases or reimposing restrictions. And by then, of course, the vaccination programme was also running over half a million jabs a day across all age-groups, including teenagers. Although the campaign slowed over the holiday period, its success up to that point, along with the other measures still in place, meant that the summer surge was contained at just under 8,000 daily cases and has steadily fallen back to currently around 3000 daily cases .

The new factor in the mix, though, has been the Green Pass, the digital or paper certificate that provides proof of vaccination, of a recent negative test result, or of recovery from Covid-19 which was introduced in June, mainly to facilitate travel and allow entry to large scale public events – initially at least. And therein lies the source of the choppier waters that the Draghi government has now hit. When it was introduced, the Green Pass was accepted, it seemed, as a minor yet necessary inconvenience since it was seen as an effective means of nudging more people into getting vaccinated – jabs of course are free, but tests cost €15 a time. And when its use was extended to enclosed venues such as museums, theatres, cinemas and restaurants later in the summer there was still little objection: going to such places is optional and inconsequential, and if you are that opposed to the Green Pass, you can always wait for No Time To Die to come out on Netflix. When it was made obligatory in all public sector workplaces, however, the first distant murmurings of discontent could be heard. The nudge, it seemed, had suddenly become quite a bit sharper: people don’t have any choice about going to work, after all. But in the end, there was little active resistance from public sector employees, who perhaps regarded it as an acceptable trade-off for the relative job security and other benefits they enjoy.

Those murmurings became louder, though, when in mid-September the government decided – with overwhelming parliamentary support – to extend the Green Pass mandate to all private sector workplaces from 15th October until the end of the year (with non-compliance risking fines or suspension without pay) at which point some started to feel that the nudge was becoming more of an armlock. And while it was only a minority who objected to the policy, that minority was becoming increasingly disruptive. Initially, those involved in the anti-Green Pass demonstrations that took place in several larger cities were members of Italy’s relatively small anti-vax movement, traditional civil rights campaigners and self-styled ‘freedom activists’. Subsequent protests, however, were hijacked by violent neo-fascist groups, with the worst violence erupting in Rome on the day the mandate took effect when far-right protesters stormed a hospital emergency department and the HQ of the country’s largest trade union. The mob had overplayed their hand, though, as everyone across the political spectrum immediately condemned the violence and the focus of concern quickly shifted from the merits or otherwise of the Green Pass to getting neo-fascist organisations banned. Indeed, the next day’s protest in Rome was not an anti-Green Pass event, but an anti-fascist rally called by the union whose offices had been attacked.

After the shocking events in Rome – attacks by fascists on trade unions arouse some very dark memories in Italy – the protest movement, though still active, seemed to lose momentum, with events in Bologna, Turin, Florence and Rome attracting fewer participants than originally predicted. There had also been predictions of widespread disruption at ports up and down the country, but in the end, while there was some disruption in Genoa and Ancona, it was only in Trieste that dock workers went ahead with a full-on strike and a sit-in, and this was swiftly broken up by police using water jets in a clear indication that Draghi remained unwilling to make concessions. And it seems that most are in favour of the government’s continued resolve. Indeed, even that veteran populist Silvio Berlusconi voiced his support by pithily pointing out that ‘a hero is someone who blocks a train to Auschwitz, not someone who blocks a port over the Green Pass’.

In a poll held at the start of the week, 65% of respondents were found to be in favour of the Green Pass and 24% against, while 63% were against offering free tests to those without the Green Pass (a proposed compromise position that was eventually rejected) and 30% in favour. More tellingly still, Draghi himself still enjoys a very high personal approval rating, with 58% having faith in him while 27% do not. And notwithstanding all the protests and unrest, the policy appears to be having its desired effect anyway. Not only are many more people are getting tested, meaning fewer undiagnosed cases are falling through cracks (thereby also helping to slow the virus’s spread) but the inoculation rate is also increasing as anticipated, thus speeding progress towards getting the economy fully back on its feet sooner rather than later too. It would seem that Super Mario has not lost his touch.

Image courtesy of http://www.ansa.it

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