Davide Vampa




Italy was the first European country to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic at the end of February 2020. A local cluster was detected on 21 February in Lombardy (northern Italy) and soon the virus spread to neighbouring regions and to the whole country, although not in a homogeneous way. Initially the government adopted a cautious approach and restrictive measures to contain the outbreak were imposed to a circumscribed area. Yet, when it became evident that the pandemic was out of control, the government extended lockdown measures to the whole country (9 March). This was an unprecedented move, which would be replicated across most European countries in a matter of days.


Together with Spain, Italy had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Yet, despite this, the number of infections soared very quickly and in mid-March Italy surpassed China in COVID-related deaths. The peak of the outbreak was reached in early April. Italy would then be surpassed by the US, the UK and Brazil, where the pandemic has had an even more serious impact. From late February to late June 2020, Italy had around 240,000 officially reported infections and almost 35,000 deaths. If population size is taken into account, Italy has been in a worse situation than France and, particularly, Germany but seems to have suffered less than Belgium, Spain and the UK in Western Europe.


However, aggregate figures hide a much more complex picture. One peculiarity of the Italian case is that it has been characterised by more territorial variation in the impact of COVID-19 than other European countries of comparable size. More than one third of total infections and almost half of total deaths have occurred in just one Italian region, Lombardy. More generally, a line going through central Italy has divided the country into a North displaying the most devastating effects of the crisis and a South being almost completely spared by the pandemic. Indeed, regions north of Rome, inhabited by 55% of the Italian population, have had 88% of the country’s reported cases of infection and 92% of total deaths. Therefore, although the whole nation was in strict lockdown until early May, perceptions of the emergency were far from territorially homogenous.


This geographical discrepancy has also reignited political tensions – never completely disappeared – between northern and southern Italian regions. This time, however, the ‘poor’ South, which is usually blamed for being inefficient and lacking economic dynamism, has accused the ‘rich’ North of being ineffective in addressing the crisis. The political debate has also centred on the management of health services, which are a core policy responsibility of Italian regions. Lombardy always prided itself in its first-class health system, which is based on a strong involvement of the private sector in service provision. This model came under fire when it proved ineffective in dealing with the emergency. Some observers compared Lombardy to Veneto, a neighbouring region, governed by the same party but relying on a different health governance structure. At the end of June, while Lombardy recorded 166 official deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, Veneto ‘only’ had 40 per 100,000 inhabitants. This despite the fact that early cases appeared in both regions almost simultaneously.


Overall, the Italian case shows that there is an important territorial dimension that emerged during the crisis. We see a similar phenomenon in other countries, including the UK, where, however, the impact of the virus has not been as unequally distributed as in Italy (Spain is more similar to Italy in this respect). Future research should look at how multi-level institutional mechanisms facilitate or hinder coordination between local, regional and national governments responding to an external shock. Perhaps Germany could offer a better example of such coordination. For sure, Italy has been characterised by more competitive territorial relations. This was also evident in the re-opening phase after the peak had passed. Starting from 18 May most businesses could reopen (although schools are still closed), and free movement was granted to all citizens within their region. Movement across regions was delayed until 3 June due to the strong territorial differences outlined above. Some southern regions were worried that allowing Italian citizens from the North to move freely would cause a second wave of infections.


Of course, COVID-19 also impacted on national Italian politics. The crisis seems to have strengthened the central government, which in early February was on the verge of losing its parliamentary majority. The popularity of the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who leads a coalition including the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the populist Five Star movement, has benefitted hugely from the COVID-19 crisis. In March 2020 the Prime Minister’s approval rating jumped from 52% to 71% of the respondents. He remains the most popular Italian politician in June (65% approval rating). Of course, we can observe a similar phenomenon in most democratic countries. With few exceptions, prime ministers and head of states have seen their popularity increase, at least in the first phases of the crisis. It remains to be seen if this is just a temporary bump – for instance, in the UK Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have already plummeted after an initial boost.


At the same time, we can observe a decline in support for the far right League and its leader Matteo Salvini. Since February 2020, when the party still enjoyed a comfortable lead in opinion polls, the League has lost ground. More recent polls suggest that it is only four percentage points ahead of the centre-left PD. This decline may be linked to the problems experienced by the League-led regional government in Lombardy during the crisis (although also Veneto, a successful case, is government by Salvini’s party). Another, more general, explanation is that populists, right-wing ones in particular, tend to focus on ‘socio-cultural’ issues, such as immigration and minority rights, and seem less effective in providing alternative (and credible) solutions to the current health and economic emergencies. 


Thus, at least in the short term, they may not constitute a real threat to mainstream parties. Yet we should not underestimate the resilience of these political forces. We have seen that in the years that followed the Great Recession, right-wing populists managed to subsume politically salient economic issues under a cultural dimension, which had great electoral appeal. They might try to do the same, and succeed once again, in the post-COVID-19 phase. It should also be highlighted that in Italy Salvini’s decline has be accompanied by the rise of another far right leader, Giorgia Meloni and her party Brothers of Italy, which, according to polls, has more than doubled its support since last year (from 6.5% to around 14% in June 2020). So there is no clear evidence of an electoral shift towards the political ‘mainstream’. In fact, there just seems to be a shift from one populist right-wing party to another one. Developments in the post-emergency phase and, crucially, ongoing debates on the establishment of a Europe-wide recovery fund are likely to shape the future of Italian politics and affect populists’ chances of success.


Author biography

Davide Vampa is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, Birmingham and a member of the PSA's Italian Politics Specialist Group. Follow @DavideVampa and @PSA_IPSG. Image credit: Sarah-Rose/Flickr.