People line up in the rain outside a supermarket after the Italian island of Sicily closed them on Sunday, as it tightens…
FILE - People line up in the rain outside a supermarket after the Italian island of Sicily closed them, as it tightens measures to try and contain the spread of coronavirus disease, in Catania, Italy, March 23, 2020.

In the early days of Italy's strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown, public morale was high. Despite the shock of the pandemic, Italians appeared determined to keep their spirits up.

But as the crisis has prolonged, the bitter economic reality of the struggle to rein in the disease is taking its toll, corroding social cohesion and bringing fears of a breakdown in law and order.

Signs of social unrest are mounting — especially in the poorer south, which has recorded fewer infections compared to the viral hotspots of the north. However hard the north is being hit economically, it is even worse for the south, where the number of people living in poverty was around 10 percent even before the pandemic struck, double the rate of the north.

With many people out of work and unable to pay bills and to buy food, impatience and anger is rising — and so is crime. Police have redoubled guards at supermarkets in the southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, fearing that despair could trigger violence.

The lockdown is especially hard for more than three million people who work in the underground economy and are off the books and avoid paying taxes. For them it is difficult to get social benefits. Self-employed professionals and small-business owners are also feeling the pinch and struggling to get government support.

Online opponents

To help the self-employed, the government has announced a new 600-euro a month benefit payment but has had problems processing claims because the relevant agency's website has come under a series of attacks from hackers.

Civil protection volunteers prepare bags with food donated by residents in Rome's working-class Tufello neighborhood, April 2, 2020. Rome residents have donated food to help people who have lost even their low-income jobs due to the pandemic.

Organized crime gangs as well as far-right groups are exploiting the building anger, say officials. A Facebook group called National Revolution, which is thought to be linked to an organized crime gang, has been inciting people to loot food stores and pharmacies.

"We need to act fast, more than fast," the mayor of the Sicilian city of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, told La Stampa newspaper. "Distress could turn into violence," he added.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is drafting an additional stimulus package worth at least $33 billion to follow up on earlier massive financial intervention. And Conte is seeking to channel funds toward the restive Mezzogiorno, the underdeveloped southern part of Italy that's long trailed the country's wealthier north.

Rome is sending money from a national solidarity fund to southern municipalities to fund food coupons for the poor. But some local officials question whether the funding will be enough and whether the coupons and food can be distributed quickly enough to head off trouble.

FILE - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte speaks during a news conference due to coronavirus spread, in Rome, Italy, March 11, 2020.

Palermo's mayor Orlando says if it takes longer than two weeks, there will be a backlash. "The discomfort will turn into violence," he says. And he warns that the challenge of social unrest "will also arise in the North." Earlier this week in Palermo, angry residents refused to pay for their purchases at one supermarket. And there have been mounting reports of shoplifting, looting and burglaries in the south.

On Thursday, Conte warned in a television interview that he's unable to give a firm date for when the lockdown will end. "I can say we want to emerge as soon as possible from the most acute emergency phase. Already now we are planning a new phase of managing the emergency, in which we may ease certain measures and learn to live with the virus," he said.

Shortly before he spoke, Confindustria — an employer's trade group — said March saw a "devastating" drop of 16.6 percent in industrial production.

The Mafia moves in

Mafia groups have traditionally exploited poverty and despair in Italy's south to set themselves up as an alternative to the state.

Giuseppe Provenzano, a cabinet minister who has responsibility for the Mezzogiorno, has warned of the danger of the Mafia, saying there is a high risk of organized crime gangs seeking to supplant the state by offering cash handouts and "loans" to small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.

FILE - A street is almost empty in downtown Naples, southern Italy, March 11, 2020.

Provenzano has been urging Conte to agree to emergency benefits for those who work off the books in the illegal economy.

According to Orlando, "a den of Mafia jackals" are ready "to exploit the desperation of the new poor from coronavirus." He aded: "We cannot underestimate the risk of an alliance cemented by despair."

Investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, author of "Gomorra," a bestseller on the Naples-based Camorra mafia, agrees. In an article for La Repubblica newspaper last month, he warned, "The pandemic is the ideal place for mafias and the reason is simple: if you are hungry, you are looking for bread, it does not matter which oven it is baked from and who it is distributing it to."

He added: "Just look at the portfolio of the mafias, to see how much they can earn from this pandemic. Where have they invested the last few decades? Multi-service companies (canteens, cleaning, disinfection), waste recycling, transportation, funeral homes, oil and food distribution. That's how they'll make money. … And what will happen when food or gasoline starts to have a slower distribution? Who will be able to circumvent bans and bestow goods without interruption?" 
 

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