Commentary. Because it is not true that the pandemic affects everyone in the same way. And because neither is it true that ‘containment’ measures affect everyone in the same way.

COVID-19 targets the poor and the elderly – we knew and let it happen

The thousands of newly poor Italians and non-Italians who are standing in line like their grandparents did not only “have no wine” (as in the water-into-wine story in the Gospels) but have no bread either. Back in the time of their grandparents, there was war, destruction and death. Today, there is a health crisis that has been raging for more than a year—a pandemic that is not a war, but against which we seem to be unable to “take measures” except to limit contacts, disrupting social life in a chaotic manner.

It is a pandemic whose increasing toll includes not only the sad accounting of the dead, but also the more prosaic one of the economy.

Italy is winging it, in a top spot regarding the number of contagions (number seven in the world), and, above all, in that of deaths (sixth in the world for the total number). We have more deaths per 100,000 inhabitants than any other country in the world (183.3), after the Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium and Bulgaria, on a par with the UK (among countries with more than 5 million inhabitants). And we are in the middle of a new “wave,” without having learned and changed anything.

A year ago, we were the first, and it was clear. The others pitied us. Then, so many did better, like Trump’s U.S., Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Boris Johnson’s Great Britain. Of course, we “got away with it” the first time: “contact tracing is required,” they said. Nothing came of that. We came up with color-coded regions, closures here and there, but since after the summer we have continued to work (more or less), with closures so granular that they ended up seeming arbitrary (schools open, then closed again; here yes, there no). But since September, nothing has changed: from the Minister of Health on down, all shrugged their shoulders, because “the night has to pass somehow.”

God willing, the vaccines have arrived. But instead of providing large scale funding for their production (which they did in the U.S., but not in Europe) or, at least, for their distribution, we went to the “vaccine supermarket” like any consumer and, when we found the aisle empty, we complained about bad luck and “multinationals.”

The extent of Europe’s failure with vaccines goes even beyond the blindness shown in the case of the financial crisis of 2008, when instead of responding with more support, it was deemed good to require “more austerity.” This inability of the “EU machine” to understand how the world is going and how to respond should be investigated by scholars and observers, a deadly combination of bureaucratism and political short-sightedness, making any historical analogy pale in comparison.

What is painful to note today—and the yellow-reddish-green color of this government only accentuates the discomfort—is that not only has the pandemic been poorly managed, from the point of view of health and organization (with beautiful praise for the “resilience” of our hospital system), but the consequences of the measures taken were thoroughly foreseeable, and therefore preventing them was possible. Because it is not true that the pandemic affects everyone in the same way. And because neither is it true that “containment” measures affect everyone in the same way.

Ninety-five percent of the dead from COVID-19 are elderly, over 70 years old, with pre-existing conditions. The reports of the Health Observatory have been telling us for years that it is mainly the poorest, the least educated and the most disadvantaged who are getting ill. One day, a survey might reveal to us what was the social profile of those dead from COVID, but we have no difficulty imagining what it is (there are already studies, and they are alarming).

ISTAT notes that there were one million more absolute poor in Italy in 2020 than one year before (for a total of 5.7 million). When we’ll have the full numbers, we will also know how many people are at risk of poverty: they were already more than a fifth of the Italian population in 2019 (and a third of them were in conditions of material deprivation). The bread lines tell the awful story that there should be many more now. Let’s not accept, though, to be told that the pandemic was a “great leveler”—only certain historians can talk in that way about the great pandemics, with a superficial perspective.

This so-called “leveler” only knocks on someone’s door after it chooses the neighborhood and asks about income and status. Magnanimous subsidies are dutifully handing out much-welcome cash, but they don’t make a dent in the upstream disparities. Museums, cinemas and theaters are closing—it’s a performer’s life—but churches remain open.

Wounds have been opened that will leave a mark—one that even a wise Reconstruction (and resilience?) Plan will not be able to heal if envisioned only as restoring an unbalanced economic system, accompanied by social policies under the banner of the market and “meritocracy” (and military spending).

It should be an opportunity to reconstitute communities, ideas and perspectives, putting vocations and initiatives back into play, eliminating privileges. Which, as history teaches us, have always found ways to perpetuate themselves, knowing that “death doesn’t care how you look,” because it looks at the size of your wallet first.

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