Italy was the first European nation to encounter the coronavirus and it still is one of the worst hit nations in Europe. The country has been battling with an economic decline and rising unemployment for a few years now. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the country was like rubbing salt in Italy’s wounds.
The strict lockdown imposed by the government in Italy has had an adverse effect on a lot of people particularly the small scale and the medium scale business owners. Thus, a lot of people in Italy have resorted to desperate measures. The Italian mafia have made merry of the situation by providing these people with the much-needed aid they have been looking for.
Even as the country struggles to pull itself together, the mafia have made inroads in acquiring influence over the locals by distributing food packets to poor families with no source of income. There have been videos surfacing from the southern regions which suggest that the mafia have been actively involved in delivering essential items to the people.
In Palermo, a mafia gang member, who has been distributing food to the poor, says "People ring me and they cry over the phone,". He further tells, "They say their children can't eat. A young woman has been calling me every single day. She has five kids and doesn't know how to feed them."
However, the Italian mafia has been employing the tactics of exploiting vulnerability of the locals in the face of economic crisis for a long time. The COVID-19 pandemic was yet another opportune moment for them to capitalise.
"The mafia has never done anything out of generosity. That concept doesn't exist for them," says Enza Rando who works for an anti-mafia organisation. "All they know is I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."
A report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), based on virtual round table discussion between top anti mafia officials and activists suggests that the healthcare sector as well as the manual laborers and service staff who work mostly cash jobs are the most vulnerable to the mafia influence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As per the national anti-corruption authority ANAC the mafia corruption has been a big setback to the COVID-hit Italian economy. "They are taking advantage of the emergency situations like the current one, with devastating effects on the economic system and on healthy businesses, already hard hit by the crisis," said ANAC President Francesco Merlon.
Sergio Nazzaro, a journalist, writer and adviser to the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission says, ”The people who are jobless don’t care about the mafia, corruption or anything, but they see the state only talking, and from the mafia (they see) money, and I fear that at the end of all this we are going to see how much the mafia managed to buy while we were in crisis.” He stresses that the state will have to provide economic stability to the people if it hopes to eliminate the mafia influence.
Father Luigi Ciotti, an Italian priest and well-known anti-mafia activist pointed out three key areas that need to be monitored for mafia activity during the pandemic. The first is the increase in drug trafficking. The second one is new products like face masks, disinfectants etc which are suddenly in demand and provide heavy profits and third the predatory money lending.
It is quite clear that the Italian government needs to come up with strong economic reforms that ensure stability and security for its people if it hopes to counter the mafia influence. Otherwise, the mafia will always be there to trap vulnerable people by proving to be their benefactors in the short run only to exploit at a later stage.