In December 2019, I met up with Maria Sole Campinoti at a small pastry shop in Italy. We caught each other up on our lives as I enjoyed the charms of Florence, her hometown. For as long as I have known Sole, she has possessed this “sparkle” about her; an exuberance towards life mixed with a realist attitude towards the world’s ugly truths. She can talk to anyone, disarm them with her charm, and make a swift political point in the same breath. While her insights on the world have grown since we first met at 16, she never lost this radiance about herself—in fact, I would say it has grown.
Our conversation is a critique on Italy’s handling of COVID-19, which, in Sole’s opinion, was poorly-managed and, quite possibly, detrimental for Italy’s future. Within Sole’s remarks, there lies a warning for all citizens of the world.
We speak about the fear and totalitarian power grabs occurred during the onset of COVID-19, the conversation underlines the paradoxical issue between the pandemic and the government: the need for immediate control and the repercussions of said control measures.
The governments that acted swiftly and harshly were the best at containing the virus. However, the power that government officials were able to accumulate—and at such a startling rate— are leading to some unintended consequences. These consequences will be felt for future years to come.
This interview is not particularly focused on “beauty” in-and-of-itself, instead we focus on the uglier details of modern life. However, the uncomfortable truths of today must be confronted in order to build a more beautiful, idealistic world for tomorrow.
Life As Normal
Sole calls me as she is leaving the beach. “Things are starting to go back to normal,” she remarks when I ask her about post-quarantine life in Italy, “Beaches and bars are open, but if I go inside, I must wear a mask….And, at some point, life has to go on, you know. [Here, in Italy] life is still a bit strange, but I think things are going back to normal at a much quicker rate than we thought they would.
“We are still kissing on the cheek for example– we shouldn’t [do this] but everyone does. It is not a tradition that is dying out. For us Italians, we kiss everybody. It is something you underestimate, but [for us], it is weird to say ‘Hi’ with just the hand, like an American. In the beginning, we were all super serious and respectful of the rules. But it’s been two months now, and our customs and the behaviors are starting to return to normal.”
While this transition back to the ‘normal’ is generally positive for Sole, she alludes to the darker aspect of human habits. “Humans have been the same for thousands of years. I think it is a bit delusion to think that something like this [quarantine] would make people change. Wars didn’t change us, so what can a three-month lockdown do? Yes, it was a disaster, but it was not the worst thing ever. Many people still die every day for other reasons, so this is not so different. Maybe it changes things temporarily, but I do not think people will become kinder or more aware [because of the pandemic].”
This is, perhaps, a darker truth about human nature that I naively wish could be different. There is a pause, then a slew of Italian words. “Sorry, I am at the gas station.” I try to make out Sole’s words. “What did you order?” “Gum and water.” That was not my guess– my Italian may need some work.
“I think individual people changed during the quarantine,” Sole continues, “We each had more time to think about our own lives; and we had no distractions from our problems. This happened to me and several people I know. But for humanity as a whole, nothing changed.”
For Sole, this lack-of-change is obtusely obvious within Italy’s government—a bureaucracy infamous for its corruption and snails-pace. During COVID-19, the latter problem was solved by a motion that allowed Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to have complete control in Italy for 60 days. This enabled the Prime Minister to enact Italy’s militant quarantine, among with other abrupt, and sometimes harsh, policies intended to control COVID-19. During these 60 days, Conte had more power within the country than any leader since Mussolini.
“During the lockdown, everyone loved Conte, the prime minister,” but not Sole, who was not and is not a fan of Giuseppe Conte. “He could sign papers and pass rules without any parliament discussion. He could do whatever he wanted. For example, Conte created a task force of 500 people—which cost $50 million Euros—to deal with the coronavirus. This task force has decided, right now, that all the beaches and clubs and restaurants can be open, but schools cannot be opened.” This motion, for Sole, is not just idiotic and short-sided, it will have terrible repercussions on the lives of Italy’s children and women.
Women + Italy
“One day the Prime Minister announces, ‘Ah, I have figured out what the problem is [with the task force]. We [Italians] are all thinking, ‘Ah, for fuck’s sake, finally’. Conte says, ‘I realized we have no women in the task force. So I will hire 17 women in the task force. And this will bridge the gender gap.’”
Sole believes that there is a gender gap in Italy, and women do need support to make it to the top of leadership roles, but she does not believe that hiring 17 already-qualified, educated women will solve the systemic patriarchal issues at the heart of Italian society.
“What about all the women who are mothers with full-time jobs?” Women, in Italy and globally, have had to quit their jobs because of world-wide school closures. With schools remain closed, children will continue to need home-schooling, which is a job that invariably falls upon the women. All this either forces women to quit their jobs to care for their children, or attempt to balance the jobs of mother, teacher, and employee– which does not allow women to excel at any of particular roles.
“He talks about bridging the gender gap, but for normal women, he has done nothing.”
Italian Government + Leaders
The Italian government is controlling everything from education to family gatherings; even dictating which family members and friends an Italian citizen can visit. There is presently a limit of 15 attendees to a single funeral— a small number for an Italian family. This level of surveillance and control is too extreme for Maria Sole. Perhaps part of her distaste for Italian officials and their policies has to do with Italy’s top-level officials lacking valid credentials to make intelligent and sensible decisions. “The leader of Italy’s Government Communications, [the Prime Minister’s spokesmen], was on the Big Brother, you know, the reality TV show.”
This man is named Rocco Casalino, and Casalino was in charge, amoung other things, of announcing the Prime Minister’s country-wide broadcasts. He often posted COVID-19 related announces late at night on his Facebook page. He eliminated Q&A’s from the Prime Minister’s broadcast and generally failed to fulfill his primary role as the country’s lead communicator. Several policies that were announced, for example, lacked clarity, yet were implemented with an iron-first. Italians were fined for walking more than 200 meters away from their homes, or for visiting a relative who was not deemed ‘essential’.
For Sole, it was chaotic, it was extreme, and, above all, it was confusing. And it was because of the immense public fear that these policies were able to pass unchallenged.
The Rise of Mafia Activity
COVID-19 has also allowed the growth of Italian Mafias, which have benefited from the economic turmoil and rampant unemployment. In addition, the actions of Italy’s Minister of Justice and former ex-DJ, Alfonso Bonafede, have aided Mafia leadership. Bonafede was in charge of transferring 400 convicted Mafia bosses out of their current jail cells and into prisons with proper hospital equipment.
“If something happened [in the prisons during the pandemic], we were not going to let [these convicts] die.”
The Minister of Justice and his team had two months to organize and approve the move of these powerful, dangerous men. A few suspicious mistakes ensued; the Minister’s team sent out the approval for the move one day after the deadline, and then sent the plan to the wrong email address, therefore compromising the move. In the end, over 400 Mafia bosses and 6,000 inmates were sent home on house arrest. One of the newly-freed bosses was Franco Catalado, who, among other horrendous crimes, ordered acid to be thrown on a 13-year-old boy.
As Sole points out, these bosses will not leave house arrest peacefully to re-enter prison.
“It is like if you have Pablo Escobar, and you let him go home. If you think that you are going to go back, when all this is over, and tell Escobar to come back to jail, you must be crazy.”
Power has been up for grabs since COVID-19 hit in early 2020, and the actions that are being taken now will dictate who will possess power in the coming year and decades. The suspicious actions of the Italian government hint towards a looming rebirth of the ‘old-way-of-life’ in Italian society— a time when Mafia reigned supreme, women were trapped to the household, and power was possessed by the elite few.
Such corrupt actions are not confined to Italy, and I believe it is time we scrutinize the various government policies and actions that have been left unexamined. Furthermore, we must ask now (rather than later)—where has COVID-19 left our societies? And in what direction are these policies and power-grabs taking us?