Few major global economies are likely to fall as far or take longer to recover from the coronavirus pandemic as Italy because the seemingly endless nightmare reportedly has left millions without money for basics like food while plunging into a poverty epidemic.
Italy introduced some of the toughest curbs on daily life in the world in March as it struggled to contain a burgeoning coronavirus outbreak, shuttering schools and companies across the nation and telling people to stay home.
The eight-week shutdown has been gradually eased since May 4, but it has left an economy on its knees, with businesses laden with debt and tens of thousands of new unemployed. The European Commission expects Italy's economy to shrink by nearly 10% this year.
The health emergency has left hundreds of thousands of Italians unable to pay for their own food for the first time, the biggest jump in poverty since the aftermath of World War II, The Wall Street Journal reported.
So far, around 12 million workers have applied for relief payments, according to Italy’s pension agency, more than half the country’s overall workforce, the Journal reported.
Italy never fully recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis and the eurozone debt crisis that soon followed in 2010-12, and those events left Italy a poorer country and the government much more indebted today than it was then, the Journal explained.
“In 2008, Italian families were in a much more solid situation,” says Cristiano Gori, professor of political sociology at Trento University. “This crisis is hitting Italy after 10 years of constant decline,” he told the Journal.
"Since the financial crisis, the number of people living in absolute poverty has continued to increase, doubling to a record high five million in 2018, according to Italy’s statistics agency. That number is expected to rise much more rapidly now, with the Italian trade union UGL estimating it could soar above nine million people over the next few months," the Journal said.
The Italian economy is expected to contract by 9.5% this year, according to the European Commission, more than any country in the European Union except for Greece.
Meanwhile, the impact on the low-skilled and low-paid is a particular problem as many of them were merely getting by even before the crisis. They don’t have a big cushion of savings to get them through the lockdown, whether they’ve lost their job or just had a reduction in earnings, Bloomberg reported.
Across Europe, the rate of in-work poverty has risen since 2008 to close to 10%. In the U.K., half of the workers at risk of losing their jobs or facing reduced hours or pay are in occupations earning less than 10 pounds ($12.36) an hour -- below the target rate for the national minimum wage, according to McKinsey & Co.
And in a chilling warning, the official who oversees the U.K. national death statistics said a prolonged, sluggish economic recovery could lead to a “significant number of deaths as a result of people being pushed into poverty or into long-term unemployment.”
To be sure, Giovanni Bruno, head of Italy’s food bank network Banco Alimentare, told Bloomberg that he has never seen a crisis like the one sparked by the coronavirus: not only have requests for help surged by 40%, but the profile of those seeking help has changed.
Volunteers are seeing new faces among the overwhelming number of people who show up each day, unable to feed themselves. Many are workers and the self-employed who until the coronavirus lockdown had always been able to put a meal on the table.
“People tell us they are ashamed, they never needed to ask for food before,” he said. “Some call for their neighbors who don’t want to ask for help.”
Material from Bloomberg and Reuters has been used in this report.
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