Italy, democracy and COVID-19



The crisis triggered by COVID-19 is challenging the very meaning of coexistence and cohabitation and redesigning the boundaries of public space in an absolutely unprecedented way, with unpredictable results.


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Measures to contain free movement and prohibitions on assembly have led to the temporary limitation, if not suspension, of some fundamental rights, such as the right to mobility, to meet, to demonstrate, to family life.

Over four billion people are now suffering under varying degrees of restriction of civil rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, this crisis is occurring in a global context where democracy and the civic space were already under attack, and this element needs to be duly factored in when analyzing the human rights implication of the crisis and possible remedial actions.

The CIVICUS monitor report “People power under attack” (December 2019) registered a backsliding of fundamental rights and freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression worldwide (40% of the world’s population now live in repressed countries, compared to 19% in 2018). The report concluded that civil society is now under attack in most countries, and just 3% of the world’s population are living in countries where fundamental rights are in general protected and respected.

In this context, COVID-19 is in fact representing a major challenge for human rights and the role of the state. Restrictions, such as social distancing, deemed crucial to preventing the spread of the virus pit the fundamental right to health against other fundamental rights and freedoms – albeit temporarily – and challenge the fundamental concept of indivisibility of rights. It is also bringing to light the extensive weakening of the state’s obligation to ensure key social and economic rights, such as the right to health, by means of a robust public health sector, or to a decent job. Millions of people, mostly the most vulnerable, migrant workers, precarious workers are losing their source of income and will be in dire conditions after the medical emergency is over.

As far as the impacts of COVID-19 on fundamental rights and on the quality of democracy are concerned, two situations can be identified. In states where restrictions and violations were rampant before the COVID-19 emergency is being used to strengthen the grip and increase repression and antidemocratic features. These are states where exception is the rule. In states where democracy still exists, albeit with the limitations described in the CIVICUS report, the COVID-19 emergency risks paving the way for dangerous restrictions that might persist also when the “emergency” is supposedly over. These are states, where the rule might become the exception. These two distinctions are key also to understand what the different challenges for international solidarity and social movements are. In both cases the space of initiative – current and future – would be jeopardized or at least affected. Social distancing is in fact hindering the possibility of organizing in traditional terms, (assembly, demonstrations, meetings, advocacy and solidarity delegations, international civil society monitors). To various degrees, countries in the so-called Global North also, where NGOs or social movements operate or are located, were already starting to suffer from a restriction of civic space (see for instance criminalization of solidarity, or restrictions and violation of privacy for antiterrorism purposes). The difference is that now the restrictions, of freedom of circulation and movement and the right to assembly in particular, are applied to entire populations.

It will therefore be essential that all measures undertaken to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and its consequences, respect fundamental rights and comply with a rights-based approach. News from various countries does not warrant optimism. From Colombia, for instance, where rural and indigenous communities already under attack before the pandemic are now even more under fire from paramilitary forces: in the last ten days at least six leaders have been murdered. Or in Hungary where Viktor Orban's recent moves have allowed him to have full powers to manage the crisis. Or the Philippines, or Egypt or Turkey. It comes as no surprise then that in various recent statements the UN has called upon states to ensure the respect of fundamental rights, to protect the most vulnerable and to ensure that the COVID-19 emergency is not used to trample on peoples’ rights, and to justify further repression.

A brief analysis of the situation in Italy

Italy was one of the countries where COVID-19 spread with dramatic and tragic intensity. Some regions in the North, (Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna) are ranking first in terms of contagion, hospitalized patients and death toll. The spread of the pandemic in the country has been accompanied by unprecedented restrictive measures that have triggered an interesting debate on legality, democratic legitimacy, and states of exception and emergency and a growing number of initiatives by social movements, civil society, and ordinary citizens.

First and foremost, we must consider the extent to which the management of the COVID-19 emergency risks opening or deepening existing fault-lines in the democratic basis of the country and its governance structure. For instance, we are witnessing a risky overlap of competences and fragmentation of the polity. On the one hand the government, a coalition between the Democratic Party and the 5Star movement plus other minor parties, on the other the governors of the hardest-hit regions, Lombardy and Veneto (run by the right-wing League), on the other the pervasive presence of the “experts”, the Civil Protection Service (Protezione Civile) and the National Institute for Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità). The latter are those that are instructing the political decisions: the “political” government is being substituted by some sort of medical governance and crisis/disaster management approach. Hence, any initiative that is being undertaken is hard to challenge politically, since it is motivated by scientific and technical assumptions and by the alleged goal of ensuring the containment of the virus and, by doing so, fulfilling the obligation to respect the constitutional right to public health.

The emergency is somehow “depoliticizing” the public debate. To add to this, the political turf battle between the government and those regions led by representatives of the main opposition party have led to the adoption of a multitude of decrees and ordnances that somehow form a patchwork of regulations and prohibitions, that make it harder to ensure proportionality and accountability and leave broad discretion to public officials. The use of the military in policing “social-distancing” measures is a case in point. It should be stressed that the deployment of the military for public security purposes is not a novelty in the country. Troops have been deployed to ensure protection of sensitive targets against hypothetical terror attacks, but their rules of engagement never included the enforcement of public order as the case could be now. Some “regional governors” in fact urged the deployment of troops in the streets to ensure compliance with “social-distancing” orders.

Secondly, the de-legitimation of Parliament and of the so-called “political caste” has reactivated speculation on the need for a “strong-man” or of the centralization of executive power. This de-legitimation was already severe before the outbreak and needs to be read in conjunction with the fact that, before the COVID-19, two key political deadlines were approaching, notably administrative elections and the referendum for the reduction of the number of members of Parliament. In fact for the first time ever the President of the Council of Ministers, currently Giuseppe Conte, has been issuing so-called Decrees of the President (DPCM), a brand new category of acts , since decrees are usually issued by the government as a whole. These were made executive without parliamentary debate and without their transformation into law, and hence without a sort of public scrutiny as the Constitution mandates.

In fact, the Italian Constitution does not contain any norm related to the state of emergency, while Parliament’s activity has been reduced to a minimum because of the spread of the virus among Members of Parliament and only after a few weeks from the declaration of the state of emergency was there a parliamentary debate on the COVID-19 and related government measures. More worryingly, Italy has no independent human rights institution that would monitor compliance of government’s activities and restrictions of fundamental rights and freedoms to international human rights standards and obligations as mandated by international covenants to which Italy is part, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights.

Third, beyond exposing these gaps and fault-lines, COVID-19 is also bringing to light the systemic imbalances, injustices and lack of full achievement and even denial of key social and economic rights in the country. As many as 2.7 million people are at risk of hunger because they have lost any source of revenue or income due to the lockdown, and at least 20 million people are now living on subsidies and other forms of emergency income introduced by the government. These figures account for a the broad informal economy and precarious or free-lance work. Also, the dramatic rush to step up intensive care units and to increase the number of health care personnel, point to the impact of budget cuts on the public health care system carried out in the past, with all the consequences it carries in terms of ensuring equitable access to public health care for all. The current inhumane conditions for detainees, due to overcrowding, also came to public attention after a series of prison riols triggered by fear of infection.

Lastly, other estimates point to the risk of a substantial shortage of fruit and produce in the markets, since at least one quarter of annual production is guaranteed by 260,000 seasonal migrant workers who now cannot travel due to the restrictions. Many of them have been working in the past in semi-illegal or extreme conditions. or have ended up involved in organized crime. Concerns have already been voiced about the potential of the Mafia to exploit this situation by offering support and access to credit to those who lost their jobs and hence cannot ensure their basic subsistence.

Parallel to the official narrative, that hinged on a mixture of cheap patriotism, restrictive measures, and scientific governance of social processes, other practices developed, that represent an important social and political capital for the future: online assemblies; a flourishing theoretical debate on COVID-19 and its implications at all levels; a growing number of initiatives by social movements; a proposal for an Ecofeminist Green New Deal; campaigns for better conditions in jails and for amnesty; for a so-called “Quarantine minimum income”; a recently published platform of civil society organizations and social movements working on trade, economic justice and against extractivism, and in parallel a growing number of solidarity initiatives are clear signs of another Italy that does not accept resignation or helplessness. An Italy that does not accept the idea that in order to tackle the virus and its implications people have to solely comply with orders aimed at limiting, repressing or imposing “do-nothing” behavior. Support services for the elderly, the most vulnerable, those that live alone in their homes, food banks, psychological support and assistance, purchasing and home delivery of drugs are among the most recurrent self-organized initiatives, that express an attempt to turn the feminist concept and practice of “care” into political practice. Civil society somehow transforms itself into a “commune”, and its members into commoners, that collectively organize to foster the respect and pursuit of common goods and rights, such as the right to food, care, solidarity. The challenge will be that of nurturing that mix of theoretical analysis, mobilizing and mutual aid and support from below after the most immediate “medical” emergency will slowly leaving the space to the economic and social one.

Further challenges will be that of linking up those processes with the global level, with similar and parallel processes elsewhere, adopting a “decolonized” approach that would always consider power imbalances locally and globally. COVID-19 will not bring the automatic transformation of our societies or the collapse of capitalism, or a revolution by proxy. Rather, the way and intensity of activation of social movements’ response “at present” will also be key to determine how these, and new and innovative modalities of conflict, proposal and self-organization can forge our future.

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