Interview with Giuseppe Guerini

Mr Guerini, how are you coping at this very difficult time?

I am feeling tremendous pressure, both professionally and personally. I live in Bergamo, at the epicentre of the epidemic in Italy and we are being overwhelmed by the suffering here and the sheer number of dead, with worry and a feeling of powerlessness gnawing away at us all the time. We all have friends, colleagues or acquaintances who have either died or who are fighting for their lives in intensive care units.


As president of an association of cooperatives, how are you coping on the front line?

As president, I have to deal personally with the many crises that the cooperatives which I represent have been handling since 23 February when we realised that the virus was spreading and we had to make decisions, at a time when nothing was clear, regarding the line to be taken by the many services we manage. Our cooperatives in Bergamo employ over 9000 workers in social and healthcare services and manage care and home help services, residential and daycare centres for elderly and disabled people. In some cases we decided to close, but were then faced with threats from the local authorities insisting that the services remain operational. The tension was almost unbearable for hours. We then had days and weeks of constantly rising tension and anxiety: the terrible, desperate rush to secure protective gear for our workers, along with worry over having to ensure that certain care and home help services remained operational, despite limited resources and the fear that service providers and recipients might be infected. And unfortunately, that fear was only too justified, particularly in residential facilities for elderly people. 


So have the cooperatives continued to operate, or have some of them had to put a halt to their activities?

Well, alongside the difficulties I've just described, we have also had to cope with the fact that one business and activity after another has had to close: first it was schools and other educational establishments, then gradually other sectors. We now have over 180 cooperatives which have had to activate social shock absorbers for around 2500 people and which are now in danger of not being able to start up again. The crisis is having a devastating effect on the tourism and cultural sectors, as well as on agricultural processing and manufacturing cooperatives. As president of an association of cooperatives, I have to cope with a double-edged crisis: people who are overwhelmed because their workload in the sector of home help and essential services has exploded and who are at great risk of infection, and people who are afraid and anxious because they have lost their jobs.


What part of the response to the coronavirus crisis has worked?

What has worked, at least in our case, has been the incredible movement of solidarity and the response of the local communities, volunteer associations and social organisations which have achieved miracles when it comes to collecting donations and doing what has had to be done. Social and healthcare workers have worked selflessly. Doctors and nurses, but also many teachers and carers have kept on working at considerable risk to themselves. Society has also achieved truly impressive feats. In just ten days in Bergamo (and in other cities as well), field hospitals have been set up using fairground tents, with huge numbers of volunteers working night and day for no pay to get them ready. Doctors and nurses from various NGOs have taken on the task of managing many of them, while the costs were covered by donations. In Bergamo again, we set up three hotels with over 300 beds for patients sent out by the hospitals as soon as they are in stable condition so as to free up hospital beds. Our social cooperatives have taken on the duties of caring for patients in these hotels. It has involved a huge amount of work but is a vital service.


What hasn't worked?

The biggest problems are at institutional level: public authorities have been unable to make clear decisions in good time, or to adopt a common approach on planning or acting with regard to the crisis: the local, regional and national authorities have been issuing contradictory decisions. We've been seeing a bureaucracy overly concerned with shoring up its authority and passing the buck to operators. In fact, this has been a problem to varying extents not just in Italy and Bergamo, but in most western countries. 


What do you think is the reason for this behaviour on the part of the various tiers of administration?

I think that the situation in China was underestimated, as if people in the west felt that we were above such problems because we have an excellent healthcare system with very advanced technology and very modern hospitals. It's as if too many leaders, along with company directors and individuals were convinced that the western lifestyle and the supposition that we could rely on a high level of hospitals and healthcare facilities would protect us. In the first few days after the epidemic appeared in Lombardy, anyone expressing real concern was laughed at. This feeling of "superiority" is perhaps best expressed in a now infamous comment by an Italian regional president accusing the Chinese of neglecting personal hygiene and eating live mice; this comment reflected a view which was only too widespread in western public opinion. This attitude was still held by other political leaders in Europe and around the world in various ways until just a few days ago. Hospitals which can perform extraordinary and innovative healthcare procedures such as multiple organ transplants and highly advanced cancer therapy have proven to be very fragile, and are on the brink of collapse because of a viral epidemic which could have been contained much more effectively by keeping it as far from hospitals as possible. Here in Bergamo at least, hospitals have been, despite all their efforts, hotspots for spreading the epidemic. 


What is your opinion of the measures taken at European level?

I am with those who feel that at this time the European Union and its institutions have achieved a great deal, albeit with difficulty and inevitable contradictions: from complex decision-making mechanisms to a tendency for the Member States to look only to their own interests. It seems to me that in the course of a month, the European Commission and the European Parliament have taken important decisions and are implementing unprecedented economic measures. What is becoming clear is that however fundamental the economy may be and however important the role played by these economic measures both in dealing with the crisis and in striving to get things going again as soon as the crisis is under control, Europe still lacks the ability to intervene via tools, resources and powers in sectors other than regulating the market and the economy. 


So do we need a more united Europe?

It seems clear that we have even greater need of Europe. It's as if one day we woke up seriously ill and someone could only help us by giving us money and the freedom to run off to hospital, but was totally unable to take a direct role in caring for and protecting us. We all know that money is important for healthcare – but if someone gives you money and you're in the middle of a desert, money alone won't save you. I believe that the vast crisis caused by the epidemic is telling us that if we really want a European Union, we have to go much further with the single market and banking and monetary union to have a chance at a union of states which are able to deliver coordinated, unitary continental policies.

How can we all contribute and what sort of help is needed?

We can invest in building up the ideal of a united Europe by promoting the culture of solidarity and integration and trying to stand firm against self-interest and closed doors. It is becoming increasingly obvious that no one can save themselves acting alone and that the dramatic alternative to solidarity and reciprocal and mutual sharing in a community of humankind and Europe will be a degrading and despairing fall towards the hell of more wars. 

Have you seen any solidarity towards Italy?

We have experienced considerable solidarity from social networks such as social economy organisations, and friends and institutions from many countries have expressed great concern and support. I have also received precious messages of support from colleagues at the EESC. Regrettably, there have also been some disparaging remarks from European politicians who have lost no time criticising Italy and carrying forward egotistical and obtuse policies not least with regard to the potential role of the European Union. Unfortunately, this is no different from what many Italian politicians are doing, capable only of carping and using this crisis to make political capital and whip up support among a frightened and confused populace. So I would say that even in this situation we have Europe and people who want to help others and stand firm and build, and then we have jackals and opportunists trying to make a profit from crisis and war. (mp)