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Coronavirus Pandemic Leaves Italy With More Poverty, Spiraling Debt


Italy is coming out from under one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. But Italians are opening their doors onto a changed landscape, one of poverty and spiraling debt. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: It's noon outside the Church of Sant'Eustachio in central Rome. A large crowd watches while volunteers carry big bins of groceries for the soup kitchen.

DON PIETRO SIGURANI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: The key person here is Don Pietro Sigurani, the spry, 85-year-old parish priest. It doesn't take an economist, he says, to understand the pandemic's impact.

SIGURANI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Many of these people worked in the underground economy," says Don Pietro. "The lockdown wiped out their jobs overnight." It's obvious poverty has soared. The Catholic charity Caritas says that in April alone, the number of people who sought its help doubled from before the epidemic. Italy's main association of agriculture workers estimates the number of new poor at more than 1 million.

SIGURANI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: The priest, Don Pietro, says, in the past, mostly homeless men came for meals at noon. But with economic activity frozen, there's been a big increase - not just single men, also many couples. They sit quietly in the pews while volunteers prepare individual lunch bags. Today's menu is fettuccine, hamburger, carrots and a banana. Everything, Don Pietro says, paid through charitable donations.

SIGURANI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "The church provides charity," says the priest. "It's up to the state to provide social welfare. The church cannot replace the state." But many Italians are impatient with the slow pace of state aid - grants, loans and tax relief.

ANTONIO TADDEI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Speaking through a loudspeaker, Antonio Taddei (ph) demands speedier government assistance. He's one of some 300 businessmen staging a flash mob on Rome's famous Spanish Steps. Taddei runs a menswear shop on nearby Via Del Corso - the heart of Rome's luxury shopping district - where monthly rents can reach $55,000. After a two-month shutdown, he tells NPR that he and the other businessmen are desperate to renegotiate their rental contracts.

TADDEI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "And without concrete government aid," says Taddei, "I doubt I can reopen my shop on this street." Ariel Di Cori (ph) is a real estate agent who handles 90% of shop rentals on Via Del Corso. He predicts 10 to 15% of shops in Rome's historic center will never reopen, further swelling the ranks of the jobless.

ARIEL DI CORI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "This part of Rome lives solely on tourism," says Di Cori. If airlines, hotels, restaurants, retail shops don't pick up, the historic center is dead. It's devastating. Tourism provides 13% of Italy's GDP. But given the pandemic's global reach, there's little hope it will revive soon. The government has set mandatory safety protocols and social distancing for all enterprises. But some restaurant owners wonder whether the extra costs and reduced seating capacity make reopening worthwhile. With some flagships of its world-renowned high fashion and cuisine in jeopardy, the economy will take a blow. And Italy also risks losing something of its identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKALPEL'S "SIMPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.