As Italy buckles under the coronavirus pandemic, small food producers try to carry on

by Giulia Simula, PASTRES PhD researcher

It is the third week of quarantine, or maybe it’s the third month, I have lost track. Since the 9th of March, Italy has been in complete lockdown.

Everything occurred very quickly. The first cases of COVID-19 in Lombardy, then Veneto, then the closing of schools since the 22 of February, and the ban on gathering. Positive cases rose at full speed in the region that became a ‘red zone’.

Just before the lockdown of the region, hundreds of people fled, either to reunite with their families or to find a place they deemed more secure. It feels like a chapter from Manzoni’s The Betrothed: all left Milan to go to their country houses.

Together with the people, the virus travelled to Southern Italy, eventually leading to the complete lockdown of the whole country. Shops, bars, restaurants, offices closed. Empty cities and ‘smart working’ (for those privileged enough to be able to work from home and keep their jobs). It is difficult to write or even think about the current situation. The overload of information and memes about COVID-19 in the last two months has been overwhelming. So much so, that sitting down to think about it becomes hard. 

Uncertainty is everywhere. Fear, nationalism, war, gratitude, solidarity, hope.

Fear

At first it was fear of the Chinese. This quickly turned into discrimination towards Chinese communities in Italy. Not long ago, parents were asking schools to leave Chinese kids at home for safety reasons. Chinese restaurants were avoided.

The regional president of Veneto argued that all Chinese people had to be tested for COVID-19, even those who hadn’t travelled to China for months. Some were insulted, spat on and attacked. Fear and uncertainty were promptly used by the Northern League secretary Matteo Salvini, who asked for all borders and ports to be closed, and for immigration to be stopped.

Then the virus became fully Italian, and despite the economic implications, everything but the essential has stopped. The national hashtag is #Iorestoacasa (I stay home). Now the war is against runners, and all those who leave their house without a government-approved reason. So much so that the current debate is to mobilise the army to tighten control and surveillance.

The fear is now that our hospitals cannot cope with the rising numbers, and that our hospital staff are falling ill because they are inadequately protected. This fear remains, even though the national health system has proved its value and capability. Pastoralists keep doing their work, milk is collected, cooperatives and industries are transforming milk, but the fear that the situation will get worse is very high.

Nationalism

Every moment of crisis and fear is an opportune moment for those who wish to fuel nationalism. The message quickly shifted to ‘Italians first’. The Italian government nominated an extraordinary commissioner responsible for arranging the purchase and distribution of Personal Protective Equipment, drugs and machinery. 50 million Euros were allocated for Italian companies to reconvert or start the production of PPE. In the words of the commissioner: “We are at war and I must find the ammunition to fight it. Wars are won with your armies and your allies. France gave us a million masks, Germany a few dozen fans. In these hours, doctors and other material will arrive from Russia…”

The commissioner also stopped certain exports, essentially reorganizing part of the national economy and reinvesting in public service to tackle shortages: an action that goes against decades of free market fundamentalism.

Something different happened in the field of pastoralism and food. While supermarkets remained open, farmers’ markets have been shut down, creating a huge obstacle for some pastoralists to reach the local population. Pastoralists are now at the peak months of production, and sales for artisanal producers are dropping dramatically. Mobility is crucial for short chains and artisanal producers. This is also true for all the pastoralists that rely on informal sales as a livelihood strategy.

Cheese being stored on shelves in a darkened room
Cheese storage in Sardinia

The long industrial chains continue to produce because they are linked to large-scale retail and export. But small producers, who rely on direct sales on the farm, or to farmers’ markets, or even to restaurants/specialized shops etc., are struggling: their sales channels are blocked or slowed down, and reorganizing a home sale is very difficult and not everyone can afford it. The closure of local markets, without providing alternatives for sellers, has cut off the legs of small artisan producers, while supermarket sales rise. To overcome this, pastoralists on social media have been inviting everyone to buy Sardinian products directly from the producers in order to support small entrepreneurs.

War

War-time analogies are everywhere. President Conte reassures everyone that Italy will make it. Whatever it takes, Italy will come out as the winner. The national anthem is often on television and on the radio. For a week at least, you just needed to go out of the balcony to hear the neighbours sing it together. Aeroplanes trail smoke in the form of the tricolour flag, as they do on Liberation Day.

As happens during war time, extraordinary measures will be taken. But who is the enemy? As of now, the enemy is everyone who doesn’t comply with the rules: everyone who leaves the house. The population is now asking for tighter controls, current debates talk about mobilising the army to impose more control, and to take any measure possible to reduce the number of people in the streets. There’s even talk of monitoring how many times you go to do your food shopping. What will governments be allowed to do in this state of emergency? Potential economic hardships for people who cannot put their work online and increased surveillance are sometimes more worrying than the virus emergency itself.

Gratitude

Like in every war, there are enemies to defeat, and there are heroes to be grateful to. Like doctors, nurses and all those working for the emergency services. Lacking in basic tools to protect themselves like protective face masks, they are risking their lives and have been among the first to be infected and die.

But the list of those to thank includes many more. These days, I saw a meme circulating with a list of all those to thank: supermarket workers, teachers who keep teaching and organise their classes remotely, warehouse and delivery workers, scientists, those assisting the elderly etc. But where are food producers? Where are peasants and pastoralists? Since the outbreak of crisis, the fundamental work that food producers do by feeding us has been hardly acknowledged. It shows how much this work is taken for granted, and these heroes remain invisible again.

Solidarity

Solidarity is spreading faster than fear. Through the coordinated action of civil protection, the population is trying to support those who are more in need. From the production of face masks, to delivering food for those who cannot go out to buy it, everyone offers their skills in these uncertain times.

Some pastoralist groups are donating lambs to small local businesses who had to interrupt their activities. Others are organising to buy a respirator for the local hospital. There are several fundraising initiatives towards hospitals for the purchase of respirators and other medical tools. While these initiatives are certainly worthy, they also highlight a failure of the State to provide for hospitals and insure a good public service. While citizens are taking on responsibilities that belonged to the state, the most vulnerable will bear the burden of this crisis, and no fundraising will support them.

As a first response, pastoralists are reacting in different ways. Those who are part of an industrial chain continue with production as part of the essential activities that need to remain open. Moreover, according to the ministerial decree ‘Cure Italy’, the government covers for the debts of export companies to avoid indebtedness or bankruptcy. However, the decree overlooks those food producers and pastoralists that cover local distribution but don’t export their food. Those who produce or process food on their farms and sell it via short supply chains are struggling the most to ensure the supply of locally-produced food.

Some are organising to provide local food deliveries, but not everyone can do this, as it takes time and costs more. In some cases, this would mean hiring an extra person, and the costs are unaffordable. Right now, the civil protection authorities are in the process of organising a list of local producers that are available for home delivery with the help of volunteers.

Hope

‘We will make it.’ ‘Everything will be fine.’ These are the messages of hope that hang out of the balconies and that are transmitted on national TV and radio. Kids all over Italy drew rainbows and messages of hope.

Meanwhile, pastoralists share pictures of their everyday life. With all the uncertainty and all the difficulties of this moment, pastoralists are worried, but at the same time they are happy to be still working, unlike other sectors: 

“I had never seen a situation like this, and I am worried about that. Because you are working and you don’t know how this is going to end. But at the same time, I am happy because we are still standing and we are still working, we don’t know how and why but we are still working. So, this means that we are an important sector. Maybe in Sardinia this is one of the most important sectors. And nobody ever valued this. In this moment maybe people are understanding how valuable this sector is.”

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that changes in policy and habits can happen, and they can happen fast in times of uncertainty. For this reason, this crisis represents both a risk and an opportunity to rethink and transform our food system. Pastoralists, local and small-scale producers face high risks, but they also provide a response to the current crisis. They must be empowered now more than ever.

3 thoughts

  1. Beautifully written. Lovely reflection on COVID and Sardinian pastoral producers. Wish I could order some cheese now!

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  2. An excellent piece that sets me thinking as follows and posing a question for you at the end.

    It’s long been said that “need unites everything,” and if that is true, then this connectivity between all of us is greatest in disaster where need is greatest. Or not to put too fine point on the Covid-19 disaster: We’ve never been as connected as we are now isolated from each other.

    This seems counterintuitive, but it means being on the look-out for what’s being missed by those who think isolation is enemy of high interconnectivity.

    For example, Janet Flanner, the journalist, reported from war-torn Paris in 1945: “Everything here is a substitute for everything else.” Think: Cigarettes could be traded for food, food could be traded for clothes, clothes could be traded furniture, and so on. Most everything was fungible—which is, if you think about it, one consequence of everything being connected to everything when disaster and need accelerate.

    Which brings me to my question. One thing I would like to know about the pastoralist response in Sardinia follows from this disaster-related interconnectivity and fungibility. Basically, are pastoralist livestock/services now being traded for other things than cash? Theory predicts they are and the unique skills, practices and processes for doing just that also **need** close attention.

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  3. Mongolian pastoralists also in solidarity with all, who are in these difficult days in Italy. We should send or donate our sheep or goats or donate pure milks, cheers , etc, however its a distance, so any way in these spring days of animal reproduction time Mongolian herders of the great steppe , at the rangelands of the Central Asia, as small food producers, are with you all the ways. When covid-19 time in China, Mongolian President donate 3000 white sheep to China , as its just over border area with our herders. After that also many Mongolian herders privately donate some animals, as workers in the city with one/few days salary, etc. As we are all in the world, at the journey by one cruise. Therefore Mongolian government proposing to declare by UN the year of 2026, as an International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists.

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