In Italy, coronavirus crisis threatens the state itself

In coronavirus-crushed Italy, it's not just European Union flags being burned now, the situation is now degenerating into at least a threat of riots.

Police have been deployed on the streets of Sicily's capital, Palermo, amid reports gangs are using social media to plot attacks on stores. A bankrupt ferry company halted service to the island, including vital supplies of food and medicines. As the state creaks under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, officials worry the mafia may be preparing to step in.

Preventing unrest in the so-called Mezzogiorno, the underdeveloped southern region that's long lagged behind the wealthy north, has become the government's top priority, according to Italian officials who asked not to be named discussing the administration's strategy.

With the European Union's most dangerously indebted state already fighting the Germans over the terms of the financial aid it needs, the fallout may reach far beyond Rome if Conte fails.

Proud of yourselves, European Union?  Turns out it's not just Italy's European Union membership that's burning in Italy; it's the state itself.

Not only is Europe's refusal to help Italy in a disastrous pandemic that has left more than 10,000 dead is making Italians wonder what its E.U. membership is good for; it's making some, at the fringes, at least, wonder what the state is good for.  The state has failed to protect the people, and now the state is on the line, and there's a major threat of riots and disorder making the country a powder keg.

Here's additional affirmation of a crumbling state, according to the Wall Street Journal:

At a time when aid from Italy's allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union was nowhere to be seen, Mr. Putin dispatched nine Iluyshin-76 aircraft laden with medical supplies and military personnel — planes that landed at the Pratica di Mare military airfield near Rome within 24 hours of his March 21 conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

"The Russians have taken advantage of the situation in a very agile way," said retired Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, the former chief of staff of Italian armed forces. "Yet, it's very unpleasant that our tragedy is being exploited for propaganda purposes."

Russians to the rescue?  In a NATO country?  It's insane.  But it's certainly possible in a place where the state is helpless, which this highlights.  Apparently, the Russians invited themselves in, bearing banners in Russian, Italian, and English (to make sure we can read it): "From Russia with love."  We all know what Russia-love is like.

Meanwhile, the threat of a mafia takeover is positively surreal — and yet in Italy, it's also perfectly possible.  The Italian government thinks as much.  Italy's mafia originally arose out of the failure of the state to act as a state, leaving people in the hinterlands to fend for themselves, the dynamic being that of peasants taking matters in their own hands and surviving by family-based crime and thievery.  Italy's government must know well that when it fails, the mafia is right there, organized and ready to step into the void.  Poor and despairing people will often gravitate to whatever seems to offer protection.  It happened in Colombia with Pablo Escobar's narco-state, and shockingly in the 21st century, it looks as if it's on track to happen in modern Italy.

The horrors the country has endured, and its abandonment by the international community, have to have left a sense of despair in the country — at minimum, the feeling of being "a broken civilization" like post-Aztec Mexico.  Oh, and there's not much religion to turn to; socialism has left empty pews in Italy, and the current pope isn't much help.  Yet what could be more horrible in family-oriented Italy, where large numbers of people still live with their parents and grandparents, than to lose all the Italian nonnos and nonnas?  That personal social disintegration leaves a lot of people feeling uprooted and lost and looking for some kind of strong hand.  This is dry tinder for riots and unrest.

Some kind of shakeout is coming to Italy in light of this disaster.  It's hard to say what, but it underlines that it's important for Italy's allies to embrace it in its distress.  The WSJ article notes that the Russian show of aid has at least prompted allies, including the U.S., to send aid.  The pandemic, it seems, has the capacity to remake states.  It might not just be China and Iran that get a reckoning from this; it's also Italy.  It's also worth heeding the lessons seen there here.

Image credit: PxFuel, public domain.

If you experience technical problems, please write to