MILAN – The coronavirus pandemic has not resulted in Elena Simone’s first budget hardship. The 49-year-old single mother was knocked out of the job market when the 2008 global financial crisis hit Italy and never fully returned, but she created a patchwork of little jobs to support herself and the youngest of her three children.
It all changes with ItalyFirst COVID-19 lockdown in spring.
With schools closed, so did Simone’s canteen work. The cleaning show also dried up. While the others returned to work when the lockdown ended, Simone remained silent.
“ There was a time when I only ate carrots, ” she recalls from her kitchen, which was decorated with colorful, luxurious characters shaped like vegetables.
For the first time in her life, Simone needs help preparing food. At the urging of a friend, she signed up for access to a delicacy shop operated by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas. Her eligibility covers her through January, and she hopes to be off the charity list by then “to make room for those who need it more.”
The charity serving more than 5 million people in the Archdiocese of Milan, Caritas Ambrosiana, said the pandemic for the first time exposed the depth of economic insecurity in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, which generates 20% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Simone, who has two grown children and a 10-year-old son at home, is a typical new poor person in Italy. These are the people who survived the 2008 financial crisis, evading the radar of the Italian welfare system by relying on informal gray market jobs and the help of friends and family.
But between Italy’s nearly total spring lockdown, the introduction of a partial lockdown as the virus spiked again in the fall and the continuing toll the pandemic has wrought on the Italian economy, the thin thread that allows people to work together has been cut.
Nowhere in Italy is more real than in Lombardy, where COVID-19 first exploded in Europe. Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti estimates that the virus has created 300,000 new poor people, based on a survey of dozens of charity groups operating in the region.
Caritas Ambrosiana provided assistance to 9,000 people during the spring closure, 20% of whom reported that their financial situation “drastically” worsened during the 10-week closure. In October, nearly 700 families asked for food assistance for the first time.
Nationally, a third of all people who sought help from Caritas during the pandemic were first-time recipients, and contrary to the usual trend, most were Italians and not foreign residents.
More than 40 organizations provide meals every day in Milan, Italy’s financial capital. One of the largest, Pane Quotidiano, serves about 3,500 meals a day. Many of those in need have worked in restaurants and hotels, which have been specifically punished by coronavirus restrictions, or as domestic helpers.
“It’s even broader than we know, especially for a rich city like Milan,” said Caritas Ambrosiana spokesman Francesco Chiavarini. “This precarious work is gone. And we don’t know when or if it will be restored. “
Researchers at Milan’s Bocconi University said in a working paper for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that blue-collar workers without college degrees are paying the heaviest price for Italy’s virus curbs. Half reported a reduction in their wages, compared with only 20% of those on high incomes, and many did not have the luxury of working remotely.
“What we’re seeing is a substantial increase in inequality,” said Bocconi University researcher Vincenzo Galasso.
Those without solid employment contracts have been most exposed to a pandemic that has killed more than 68,000 people in Italy, Europe’s highest death toll.
Simone learned too late that the cafeteria contract described her as an occasional worker, meaning she had no basis for asking for government support to make up for lost income. Her clean-up work was not logged at all, and she found only two of the dozen she was holding onto before the pandemic.
Even when workers qualify for Italy’s public-private short-term layoffs scheme, the money arrives too late and is generally insufficient to cover the basic costs of the family, Chiavarini said. Basic coverage is 400 euros ($ 490) a month, but monthly rent in a city like Milan starts at around 600 euros ($ 735).
Food security emerges as a major problem as the pandemic enters winter.
Progetto Arca, which runs shelters and provides other social services in Milan, started operating food trucks last month after noticing homeless people who had been filling their bellies with restaurants and bars going hungry during partial closures in the fall when many companies closed.
And it’s not just the homeless who come in food trucks. One recent evening, a well-dressed man in a layered jacket and trousers waited by the side until the line disappeared. He identified himself as a lawyer but declined to comment further and asked not to be photographed as he picked up two hot meals and two bags of food for the next day, one for his friend waiting at home.
So far, a government moratorium on the eviction and firing of contract workers has helped limit what charity workers see as an emerging poverty crisis.
“When this is lifted, we will see the real price we have to pay for this pandemic,” said Chiavarini. “We celebrate Milan as the capital of innovation, but beneath this skyscraper we are very proud of, there is a hidden world where people live in very precarious conditions. “
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