My grandfather just died, alone, in the intensive care unit of the Bologna University Hospital, in Italy. He was eighty years old. The consequences of the COVID-19 virus were fatal. But the personal is always political.
My grandfather, Giuseppe (Baffo or “Moustache”, as some people called him) has just died, alone, in intensive care at the “Sant’Orsola” university-affiliated hospital in Bologna, in the North of Italy. He was eighty years old. The consequences of the COVID-19 virus were fatal.
He lived, like all my family, in Medicina, a small town on the eastern border of the province of Bologna, in the heart of the Po Valley. It was there that I grew up and lived until I was 22 years old. In these dark hours, the municipality of Medicina is a restricted “red zone” due to the cluster of cases and the many deaths. Currently my whole family is in isolation at home. My grandmother is in the hospital. My mother and aunt are at home and will not be able to go out for the next two weeks.
I would like to speak at length about my grandfather, how we worked “collaboratively” on crossword puzzles, our evenings as volunteers at the Festa dell’Unità (since at the time, we still believed a little in the “Party “!), of all our trips, the last one last May, in Apulia. We had plans to go together to Sicily, his native land, next June. In 1949, his entire family left Alcamo, in the western part of the island, to move to Emilia-Romagna. They were poor, already condemned to a marginal life of immigrants.
They were called maruchèn, “Moroccans”: it was the insult Northerners addressed to Sicilians as well as to other terroni, people from the South. My grandfather was a manual laborer and then a taxi driver in Bologna. It was part of what Engels calls the “working aristocracy”, a social stratum closely associated with the economic and cultural model set up by the Communist Party in this rich region based on solidarity.
The great lesson that the 1970s bequeathed to me is that “the personal is political”. Always. In this sad hour, I would like to transform my deep sadness and mourning into a more “political” feeling, a reflection on what is happening now in Italy and the rest of Europe.
For several decades, the northern regions of Italy, including mine, have advocated a gradual transformation of what was once a non-profit, public, national health system, into one which opened to the interests of the private, for profit, health sector. This is the case of Lombardy, Veneto as well as Emilia Romagna which, for several years, have chosen to set up “integrated” models between public and private systems.
But health has not only been commodified. The hospital in my small municipality was closed down at the beginning of the 1990s. And the same happened in several other areas in the region, in Lagosanto as in Borgo Val di Taro, in Novafeltria as in Porretta. All of these are outlying areas where due to the closure of local clinics and hospitals citizens have now restricted access to medical care. Policy makers have always underscored the need to make our system “more efficient” and build centralized “poles of excellence”. At the same time, what had been open admission to medical schools was restricted, to defend the interests of upper classes’ and corporations.
Before the COVID-19 crisis exploded, the three regions most affected by the spread of the virus, i.e., Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, were negotiating with the Italian government an expansion of autonomy in political and administrative decision-making, including public health. This would have resulted in the more privileged areas of the north cutting off the less wealthy regions, with dramatic consequences on the rest of the country, in particular on regions with already damaged health systems, such as Calabria or Sicily. This planned expansion of regional autonomy will probably be abandoned since the current health crisis has shown political decision makers that the presence and coordination of the State are absolutely necessary.
When COVID-19 had not yet spread to severe proportions, industrialists as well as neoliberal politicians like the secretary of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, or the head of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, were worried about the state of our economic and productive system. Luca Zaia, the Governor of the Veneto region, also declared that production could not be halted in his region. Some politicians made public appearances at happy hours, the fashionable early evening ‘aperitif’ time to encourage business as usual, “against fear” (sic!). Milan, a city ruled by a neoliberal elite, was not supposed to “stop” either. Because capitalism and exploitation can never stop.
We have to face the facts, we are ruled by assholes, as Frédéric Lordon writes in Le Monde diplomatique, of March 19, 2020, “Les connards qui nous gouverment.”
Now it is the workers, the nurses, personnel involved in logistics and transportation who are suffering the brunt of these political decisions. We are still told that the world cannot stop. That the factories must not close. That we must not stop producing. Tonight I think of my working class grandfather, but I can’t help thinking of those who are working in risky situations: the logistics workers who went on strike on March 16 at the Amazon distribution center in Castel San Giovanni; nurses and caregivers such as my step-mother Carolina or my friend Caterina; the cashiers of the supermarket in my Nantes district … and all the others.
Fortunately, we know the first and last names of those responsible.
These are the heads of Confindustria (the association of Heads of Industry) who do not wish to interrupt production in the factories. It was, of course, Mme. Christine Lagarde, her predecessors and many other opaque EU bureaucrats: inhuman austerity policy enforcers who brought our public health and that of our brothers and sisters in Greece to their knees.
It is also all the EU supporters who applauded these choices, within the Parliaments, the parties, the Economics and Political Sciences Departments at the universities.
It is the central government and the various Departments, Senators and Representatives in the Parliament, Senior officials. It is the leaders of the regional administration, regional and general advisers, mayors, such as that of Nantes. The project for the new University Hospitals proposed by the socialist, communist and environmentalist majority provides for 200 fewer beds. But this is just one example among many.
I also place responsibility for what happened on all the ideologues of neoliberalism as well as the new watchdogs who every night, on TV, continue to give them the floor. In 2015, Carlo Cottarelli, High Commissioner for Public Accounts for the Italian government, said that we could have cut “another 3 or 4 billion in the public health sector”. More recently, economists M. Alesina and M. Giavazzi, in several articles published in Il Corriere della Sera, have often proposed adopting an American-style health system in Italy.
This brings to mind the title of Maurizio Lazzarato’s book, which I just finished reading, “Capital hates everyone.”
I wish that when this period is over, everyone will start to hate capitalism. One can aspire to deep revolutionary processes to subvert a sick society. But even if our ambitions are along the more moderate lines of “social democracy”, we can still be happy to fiercely defend, all together, our public services.
When we get over our sadness, then will come the time of cherries* and that of struggle: I am sure of it.
For now: goodbye, Baffo!
*Le temps des cerises, a song written in France in 1866, with words by Jean Baptiste Clément, later strongly associated with the Paris Commune, meaning metaphorically what life will be like after the revolution. It was popularized by Yves Montand.- Ed.