Provide strict safety precautions while there is still time. This phrase summarizes advice to Greece from Marco De Ponte, the secretary general of ActionAid Italy. In an interview with Kathimerini, officials of a non-governmental organization pointed out the reasons why fatal fatalities in Italy from the novel coronavirus.
What’s wrong in Italy? Can you give us the main reason for the current tragedy?
I don’t think anything is wrong in Italy; a virus is a virus. The only thing is that most people in Italy are not tested unless they go to the hospital. That’s actually a mistake because in hospitals people are infected with each other. Not that this virus is very deadly here. The number of people who are seriously ill is more or less like in other countries, but we test fewer people. People are advised to stay home and locking occurs very early. The ratio of people who seem positive and die is shocking. Apparently, 8 percent of people tested were seriously ill; but the reality is that more people may be positive, but they are not confirmed cases because they live at home and maybe some are even asymptomatic. The number of deaths is related to the fact that we were the first country in Europe to face such a situation and people were still in contact with each other for 15 days before we closed it all down. In other countries, the difference is that you can assume people are infected before the number of sick people begins to rise.
Do you see political responsibility in handling the crisis?
Political responsibility has always been something we are looking for in Mediterranean countries. I think the right way to see what is happening in Italy is that we were the first western country to get infected with the virus, so we were not ready. We are not looking for another country. However, we all need to realize that there are plans and pandemic preparations. Italy has what seems to be 14 years old, so there is some improvisation. The second thing is that Italy is not a federally organized country and health management is delegated to the region, so regions such as Lombardy or Veneto are affected have systems, resources and levels of privatization that are different from public spending on health care. They also decide different things. In the initial stages, the government must include the diversity of responses. Now that more than three weeks have passed and we face strict restrictions, perhaps the government has not been so bad at regulating homogeneous detention measures. The real challenge is the capacity of intensive care units and the greatest threat still relates to areas in the south, where the capacity of the health system is much smaller. We are not looking for anyone to blame. There is a bit of fragmentation, yes, a little less experience in communication, yes, and there are many things that can be done better, but are we looking for a responsible political party? I think not. Politics in general is not always driven by science and pandemic plans have not been used or updated. That is the duty of the state rather than one political party.
Can you describe your devastating and happy experiences in Italy in the last days?
Yes, there are many devastating experiences. The fact that many people have been dying in solitude and cannot be attended by loved ones is unprecedented. I personally know people close to me who can’t say goodbye to their dying relatives. This is something that should not have happened in the 21st century. On the bright side, people react with an increased sense of unity. I know this can be ruined, that is easy to say for the first few weeks but may not be the same in a prolonged crisis. Greece has been in a prolonged economic crisis and we know that trends, not overall levels of security and wealth, are important. If we remain in a state of emergency for a long time, solidarity might also be destroyed. But there are efforts beyond the efforts of medical personnel, but also in the economic sector. The productive sector is trying to find solutions for their own businesses and their own communities, and of course NGOs such as ActionAid are redoubling efforts to policy advice and reorganize projects, and there is a sense of “less obstacles, more flexibility” willingness to find solutions rather than very problems refreshing.
Why is it that every time we think of smoothing the curve has begun, we see the record of the dead in Italy the next day?
That is the question everyone is asking. It may be true that the number of deaths may be close to official figures, although there may be many unrecorded deaths from coronavirus. So the curve might be debatable. As I said before, the number of people tested and the number of people who died did not correlate. There is a difference in the ratio between people who are tested and those who are dying in Italy. That depends on the person being tested too. I think the peak might be just around the corner. We know that many people ask for support from hospitals in the last two or three days so in theory it must be followed by a decrease in the number of people who die. Also, we see more infected people who are now recovering and being declared negative.
There is a risk that when people see the situation becoming less dramatic, they will want to get out and get on with their normal lives. “That would be a mistake, though” I’m not an epidemiologist. We must follow the instructions of the scientists. Even though we are all aware that the lock is spending a lot of money and state spending has increased, creating debt that we must pay. The welfare state will have problems on the line, so yes, it is in everyone’s interest to “get the job done” as soon as possible. But we must be wise, because there is also a risk that it will start all over again. Reaching the peak and seeing a flat curve will be a relief, but we must continue the steps for a few weeks afterwards.
Do you see a lack of European solidarity with Italy, with China and Russia stepping up to fill the gap?
European solidarity versus global solidarity: that is a very interesting thing. I think it’s interesting that small countries that have close relations with Italy, like Albania or Somalia or even Cuba, want to send medical equipment. It’s more like a homework exercise if you like, but no one is forcing them to do it, so we thank them. China, of course, they have experience, and we all know that China uses support as a diplomatic tool too, so it is more political. In my opinion, I think that Europe must carefully monitor what China and Russia are doing because you know a divided Europe might be in the interests of both. Now solidarity at the European level, that’s a different matter. This is not about sending medical equipment or things like that; it’s about economic assistance that will come later. Socializing losses is probably something that countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany or Finland are not prepared to do. I think they will approach a more reasonable position soon, because even when I sit talking to coworkers, they still don’t feel a threat. So maybe the next week they will understand. We have seen everyone beaten and made decisions like we did, first Spain and then France, Britain and the United States of course. So maybe the northern countries will also realize what all this means. One thing that is clear to me is that no one can save themselves with their own devices no matter if it’s a big country like Germany or as small as the Netherlands. My question is what will be the economic prospects of a country that will save money by refusing to socialize some of the losses, when the economy throughout Europe is desert. With whom will the Netherlands trade if Italy, Spain and France for example – the three largest economies besides Germany in the European Union – have contracted 10 percent?
So, this is a matter of solidarity, but also about being smart. It is time to show that the European project is alive, or will be destroyed as everyone says. But this is also a time to recognize that it is in everyone’s interest to act quickly.
Are you worried about coronavirus that is spreading to southern Italy?
Yes, the spread of the virus in southern Italy is a big, big threat, because the infrastructure there is not like in northern Italy, so there will be more people who cannot be treated. This is why, you know, every action is designed to avoid spreading in southern Italy. This has to do with what I said before that this is not a federal state and health management is allocated to the regions, so the capacity is very different. And because we are an international organization, you can compare what can happen in southern Italy with what might happen to some countries in the global south that might not be able to treat everyone and need to take stronger precautions or suffer severe damage.
What did ActionAid do in the battle against Covid-19? Are you active in other countries, besides Italy?
In Italy we basically do three things. At the broad policy level we look at economic emergency measures, especially trying to expand existing economic measures that address the needs of the poorest sections of the population. We have something called citizenship income and we are trying to expand it because we know the number of poor people will increase. So there will be fewer requirements. I am quite pleased to see that there has been a good increase in a number of very specific proposals which ActionAid formulated as part of the so-called Inequality Forum.
Second, together with other organizations, we look for steps that can be taken by the state to protect the economic sector – this is more of a kind of union work – such as delaying production lines, presenting accounts, relaxing the deadlines for accountability reports, applying to sector organizations third and provide the same assistance to companies owned by producers – for example to pay salaries to several countries which we must pay as well. We also try to estimate lost income so we can discuss this with the country.
Third, we continue the existing program, focusing on the problems we deal with normally. One of them is the attention of migrants. The migrant community in Italy is 700,000 people who have just left the system, such as temporary workers. These people are also ticking public health bombs, if you want, because they are not recognized by the state, they cannot go to the hospital. So what we say is they must be regulated. It’s time to do it. They have to do some kind of amnesty and make these people can access the health system, because if they don’t, they will keep the virus in their groups and it will continue to spread in the wider population. So this is a selfish reason for doing that. ActionAid, of course, does a lot of work with migrant populations in Italy for reasons of justice. We think they should have access to a welfare state, regardless of when they come and why they come because they contribute to production in that country. And they can contribute even if they regularly pay taxes. Also, Italy basically educates people who then migrate and import people to work in agriculture and low-paying jobs. These people can’t be in limbo. Now these people are even more risky. Portugal has arranged all these people and Spain plans to do that too.
In addition to working with migrants, we also continue and deepen our work with regard to women who are victims of violence. We have actually worked at the European level to support the so-called “anti-violence center” where women who are victims of violence can seek protection. Shelters cannot operate during quarantine, so we try to ensure that victims first go to an anti-violence center, that this structure has economic support to maintain their operations and we advise the government on how to care for these people so they can seek protection even in the current situation.
On top of this, we have prepared a platform called Covid-19Italia.help, where people can find verified information about state norms and actions and indications of how you should access certain facilitation and all that. Needs can be reported and offers of help can be recorded as well, so basically this is an online platform that tries to bridge the demand and supply of solidarity if you want to say it, to facilitate the interaction of various solidarity groups, even micro, who would otherwise know how to access the solidarity market, offering or receive help.
Globally, ActionAid calls on governments to ensure that social protection targets women, whose care assignments will double because they are at the forefront of caring for the sick, attending school at home, working in informal jobs and collecting water. The ActionAid Office also works hard to overcome the spread of misinformation about the disease, translate vital public health advice into local languages and ensure it reaches the most marginalized communities. In India, where 1.3 billion people have been told to stay home, ActionAid distributes food packages and hopes to reach more than 55,000 of the most vulnerable families, including informal workers, such as domestic workers and street vendors, who will not have ways to make a living during lockdown. In Liberia, ActionAid used lessons learned during the Ebola crisis to access hard-to-reach communities by using a network of local partners, including women’s rights organizations and rural women leaders, to distribute life-saving advice and health information. Social media and virtual gatherings will be used to mobilize the public and spread awareness messages. During the Ebola crisis there was a dramatic increase in violence against women and girls, because the police could not respond, support services were reduced and survivors were unable to access justice. In Kenya, ActionAid has supported the humanitarian response to the Covid-19 pandemic by distributing information and mythical leaflets to the public through a collective network of women and community groups. In Palestine, ActionAid uses a network of young activists to distribute food packages and hygiene kits for vulnerable families in quarantine homes in Bethlehem.
What is the main lesson from this crisis? Is there something Greek must avoid? Also, is there anything we can do to help the Italians?
They must avoid anything that will slow down the reaction. Greece is actually a smaller country, so it will take tougher steps faster if you can, as a country and as a citizen, not break the rules, no one will be smarter if they think they can get away with this. So, take it seriously. That is the responsibility of each citizen, whatever the state tells you to do.
In terms of what the Greek government can do, I think in the context of Europe it may have to push together with France, Spain and Italy to ensure that the EU’s shared resources can be mobilized, not including 3 cents there, 3 cents here, but it is true really allows countries that are more severely hit to react quickly because if the economy can be restarted, it will be in the interest of everyone in Europe. If it does not restart because it is a symmetrical crisis, it will bring down even those who are trying to save their money now. It’s not like what happened in Greece before, a country in crisis, where the whole world can expect to be left untouched, but this is a symmetrical crisis where we march together or fall together, no matter who spends the first money and who is most difficult in the short term. Because even if a country is not directly affected, it will be directly affected by the economy of all. So, we hope that Greece can place its weight on the EU in negotiations to convince other countries to share the burden.
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