Stories from Naples
Naples saw many crises, diseases and food shortages in the last century. The liberation of the city from German Nazi occupation by its inhabitants during September 1943 made the city a symbol of resistance against oppression and of hope and resilience during periods of hardship. How is the city dealing with the situation right now? Gerardo, who just finished his Economics laurea in Naples, reports.
“People here in Napoli spent two months in quarantine. I spent most of my days just working out, spending time with my family, watching series. I also cooked sometimes. It is a really boring time. I did some video chats with my grandmother who lives alone. Especially for her and other old people it was really hard. But we are really lucky compared to others. My mother was still allowed to go to her office, because her company was considered ‘essential’.
And we are also lucky that the worst is already behind us here in Italy and that the lockdown is over. But at the same time it is still hard to comprehend all the grief. I have some many friends who lost their parents to the virus in Napoli. Without having a funeral, without even being able to visit them in the hospital before. Everyone died alone.”
“However, luckily everyone I know who contracted the virus had the chance to be treated in a hospital so unlike in the North of Italy, there was no shortage of intensive care units. Hospitals were really prepared. The Cotugno hospital in particular received international attention because it is the only hospital where no medical staff member has contracted the virus. (Probably because they are ensuring better safety measures and take better care that there is enough protective gear for their health workers). The director of this hospital, Prof. Paolo Ascerto has also introduced a potential drug against the virus, a parmaceutical used against rheumatoid arthritis. They are conducting tests to see whether this could provide any cure.”
“The government is very slow in responding to the collapse of the economic system of the city. Many workers have not received their wages for the two months under lockdown. In other parts of Italy like Lombardy etc., the cassa integrazione (a short-term government subsidy to pay a certain amount of wages for companies threatened by the crisis, similar to the Kurzarbeit concept in Germany) may have prevented the worst from happening. But here, the bureaucracy is unable to provide that. Another problem is that many people in Naples work without having any contract, cash-in-hand (lavorare a nero). Obviously, if these jobs are done without paying taxes, then there is absolutely no way that the state would help these workers in a crisis like this. So there is a huge difference between those who have a formal job and those who don’t. Not even the employers of those workers would be able to help them, since production and business activity has completely stopped and is still not fully happening. Plus, even who was categorised as “essential” and had to work again had to face high costs for protection. There was a time when the price of face masks in Italy was close to 10 Euros. Now the government has limited the retail costs of such masks to 50 Cents. But fortunately contrary to what happened in the North of Italy, there were not many people who were forced to work during the pandemic. Maybe that is also why Campania was one of the first regions in Italy with zero new cases for a longer period.”
“These differences already start between those who are fortunate enough who receive university education and between those who do other forms of training. Our university courses were all just simply shifted online, so there was hardly any trouble for us. We got all the software and infrastructure to continue, but this is not the case for so many others in Napoli.”
Many people in working class neighbourhoods are still depending on solidarity kitchens organised by social centres and the church.
“There were so many people who could not afford to go to the supermarket anymore. Without any help from the state, it was mostly people themselves who came up with support initiatives. One of the most successful was the application of the caffè sospeso idea (where you leave one or two Euros more for your coffee to pay for the next person who might come into the coffee bar) to the supermarkets. So in most of the supermarkets in the city centre – Forcella, Quartieri Spagnoli, Centro Storico – people started buying groceries for others and leaving them at the cashier so that anyone in need for food could collect them.”
“There are also many social centres in Centro Storico which opened up kitchens for people to receive a warm meal there. In that area, the churches were also the most active in providing meals.”
Even after the lockdown was lifted on May 4th, it is unlikely that there will be a fast recovery for people living in working class neighbourhoods. Without contracts or any form of social security, many fear that they will not get back the job where they had been initially working. “Tourism is one of the main providers of employment in the region. But during the last two months, there were zero tourists in Naples. All the ports are closed, you cannot even go to the islands of Capri, Ischia, Procida anymore. You were only allowed to board the ferries in emergency situations. But tourism is absolutely forbidden. So we don’t know what will happen in summer. The problem is that on these islands, there are absolutely no healthcare facilities to treat potential patients so they will have to be very careful with removing the restrictions.”
One glimpse of hope: The Neapolitan cuisine and restaurant scene. As soon as food delivery was allowed again, eating outlets opened their doors again. Attempts are also made to provide sweets and pizza free of costs for those who cannot afford it. “Food delivery was closed until a week ago. It was reopened on April 30th so we immediately ordered pizza. Twice I tried to make pizza at home but it was not as good as the ones you get at shops. Imagine Neapolitans not having pizza for two months – it’s crazy.”
Pictures were taken from January to May 2019, exactly one year before the pandemic. That was the time when I was in the city to attend PhD seminars in Naples, so a phase that was similarly characterised by involuntary distance from social activities. While it may be difficult to compare the academic gaze into loneliness and uncertainty with existential threats of people who lost everything in the crisis, this is an attempt to understand the pandemic from a safe distance.