Italy: the welfare state in the coronavirus emergency: #StayAtHome and #DealWithIt

The social distancing measures necessary to fight against the spread of the coronavirus that we have been subjected to for several weeks have been promoted through media campaigns that highlight the advantages of staying at home. “Finally we can dedicate ourselves to all those things we don’t normally have time for in the hustle and bustle of daily life”: reading, yoga, watching a nice film, the more hobbies the better… But the reality is very different. 

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This rhetoric conceals the fact that being shut at home, being quarantined, being isolated, whatever you want to call it, has meant for millions of working families one main thing: the disappearance of whatever (already insufficient) scraps of the welfare state they could rely on – nursery schools, schools, care services for the elderly and the disabled.

The government has launched a package of measures, the “Cure Italy” decree, which, when compared to the extent of people’s needs that remain unmet, sounds like a sick joke.

Schools and nursery schools

In Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, schools and nurseries have been closed since 24 February, in the rest of Italy since 2 March, and they will in the best (but unlikely) case stay shut until 3 April, much more likely for several more weeks. If our calculations are correct, we are talking about at least a month with children at home: taking away Saturdays and Sundays, that is 20 working days. Faced with this, what is the government offering in order to support families? Just 15 days’ parental leave, paid at 50 percent of wages for the months of March and April (thus implying that these will have to suffice even in the event, almost certain at the time of writing, of school closures continuing into April). For March, this includes three days already provided for by the 104 Law, but not for April, which gets three more days. Due to people misinterpreting the decree (can we blame them, with all these bureaucratic intricacies?), the office of the Prime Minister has been forced to clarify explicitly that workers will only get 18 days off over the two months of March and April, and with half-wages at that. 

Alternatively, parents can claim a €600 voucher to pay for a baby-sitter. In this case, they will be forced to penny-pinch again. Although baby-sitters are underpaid, with an estimated average of €8/hour and 8-hour working days, the voucher will not be enough to cover 10 working days. These measures are clearly nothing compared to the real needs of millions of working parents who are facing the perspective of having their children at home for months.

For those who can, there is smart working, which has been repeated as the magic word that solves all problems: you stay at home but without interrupting your work activity… But how are you meant to do this, if you simultaneously have to take care of your children?Italy Coronavirus closed image pixabaySchools and nurseries are closed, putting huge pressure on working parents / Image: pixabay

All this, without even mentioning the workers who are part of essential services, most importantly healthcare (where they cannot even dream of taking parental leave), but also food distribution and transport. These workers have been referred to as angels, heroes, fighting in the trenches, but the crucial question of how they are supposed to reconcile having their children at home with the exhausting work shifts they are being subjected to in this period, has not been posed. While it is true that for healthcare workers (and for law enforcement?!) the baby-sitting voucher is €1000, there have also been cases where couples of doctors have not been able to find baby-sitters due to fear of contagion. And we cannot even put this down to paranoia, if we consider the high rates of contagion amongst healthcare staff due to the lack of personal protection equipment, precisely where the risk is the highest!

We demand that workers in sectors that are non-essential to the management of the healthcare crisis be sent home with full wages (click here for our appeal), and we demand a plan of long-term hiring in healthcare. This would be a clean break with the cuts imposed over the last few decades, and will allow for guaranteed parental leave in situations where both parents are employed in essential services during this emergency.

The elderly and the disabled

As well as those with children under 12, the extension of parental leave also applies to those who care for people with severe disabilities. In these cases, the inadequacy of the provision is even more tragic: with the closure of care centres for the disabled in order to contain the virus, families that need specialised and qualified support have found themselves left to their own devices. According to the decree, local healthcare agencies should work with disabled care centres to address “non-deferrable” cases, but they do not specify who would qualify for this urgent type of care. Most importantly, there are no measures in place to support day-to-day disabled care, which is already in a particularly difficult situation.

For the disabled and the elderly, the most vulnerable in this emergency, the decree calls on public administration to provide services in the form of individual home visits, “availing themselves of the available staff already employed in these services, or employed by private actors that are affiliated, concessionary or contracted”. Thus, a highly different situation will develop in the different regions of the country. The central government is washing its hands of this responsibility and placing all the burden on the shoulders of workers whose working conditions are at the discretion of private actors that win government contracts on the basis of maximising exploitation and being able to subject their employees to the worst conditions.

If already before the beginning of the coronavirus emergency the social function of childcare, elderly and disabled care had been relegated to the private sphere of the home by the continuous cuts to public education and healthcare, today the situation has gone beyond the limit of unsustainability and the price will mostly be paid by women.

Domestic violence

Many women will risk their live due to this situation of abandonment, considering that the majority of cases of violence against women happen in the same homes where they are currently confined. It is not a coincidence that a decrease in the reporting of abuse cases has been registered. According to a public prosecutor in Milan, who represents vulnerable members of society, this decrease can be attributed to the fact that “forced cohabitation with partners, husbands and children, in this period, discourages women from phoning or going in person to law enforcement.”

We are not all in the same boat

The wife of a famous TV presenter wrote on her Instagram profile: “I want to see people who live in 50m2 with three children and no nanny being able to say ‘I’m staying home’, not people like me who have two-storey houses or villas with swimming pools being self-righteous. Thank you.” We won’t say thanks for this false, nauseating and unsolicited solidarity, but we do welcome the reminder that there are very different personal conditions behind the much-promoted hashtag “I’m staying home”.

The government’s propaganda is asking everyone to make sacrifices, but the truth is that it is always the same people who make them: the workers who are asked to keep working, risking illness in the name of their bosses’ profits; the workers, and especially the women workers, who will have to take on the functions of the welfare state that the healthcare emergency has suspended.

Conte boasted that “Cura Italia” is a “model” to be followed by the other European countries, a “protective dam” because you cannot “fight a flood with rags and buckets.” But actually, Cura Italia is just that: measures that are light years away from the real conditions and real needs of millions of people whose lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus epidemic, and most importantly by the government’s inability to manage the crisis in a rational and efficient manner.

As if all this weren’t enough, the overrunning of the state budget that the EU is now being forced to concede in order to allow even just these breadcrumbs will be financed by public debt and will therefore fall onto the shoulders of the workers, with the austerity measures that this new crisis of capitalism will render necessary. But it is precisely the workers who have already begun to show us the way out, with their spontaneous strikes that, in Italy and internationally, have put the class struggle back onto the agenda. Today they are striking to guarantee their health and safety in this coronavirus emergency, but we should have the perspective that from this first step will emerge the consciousness that we must do away with capitalism, which is in the final analysis responsible for the catastrophe we are living through.