On Sunday, the president of the Sicilian regional government, Nello Musumeci, issued a new emergency law, declaring that all migrant centers must be evacuated within twenty-four hours. In this sweeping diktat, he included both the “hot spots” to which new arrivals are taken — such as the infamous, perennially overcrowded center in Lampedusa — and the outsourced, underfunded hostels for asylum seekers spread across the island.
With a Trumpian flourish of knowing arrogance and rhetorical falsification, the declaration went well beyond the Sicilian president’s legal powers — throwing down the gauntlet to the national government in Rome. The technocratic interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, quickly retorted that the decree is “worth nothing,” and indeed, the twenty-four-hour deadline soon became meaningless.
But President Musumeci — in his youth, a representative for a neofascist party — is playing a dangerous rhetorical game. Indeed, his two-faced appeal extended to the most spectacular version of “I’m not a racist but . . .” claiming that the forced transfer of thousands of migrants from the island will be necessary “so that Sicilians, the most welcoming people in the world, don’t become racist.”
His apparent reasoning for this unprecedented attempt at ridding Sicily of asylum seekers? The threat posed to the island’s indigenous population by coronavirus — a contagion alleged to be carried by migrants arriving from North Africa. Refashioning an old series of racist stereotypes — and ignoring all scientific fact — the Sicilian government’s proposal represents a new peak in the Right’s racialization of the COVID-19 emergency in Italy. Much as was the case with anti-terror legislation in the early 2000s, here we see a harsh racist politics being covered over by new anti-virus laws.
To understand the speed, danger, and stupidity of this transformation, let us go back to the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. This March, Italy found itself in the unenviable position of being the first European country to be seriously hit by the pandemic. Whether it was due to the returning Chinese population of Lombardy, the logistics hub around Bologna, or the density and pollution of Milan, one way or another, Italy’s Northern regions were struck down with a plague of terrifying dimensions. So far, more than 35,000 people have died, almost all of them in these same areas.
Faced with this crisis, Italy’s now long-standing “emergency” style of government — with over a decade of turmoil regulated by presidential edicts, desperate financial measures, and, more recently, supposedly urgent reforms to stifle immigration — again swung into action, with a swath of decrees to combat the contagion. Midnight presidential press conferences became the norm as the country tumbled into one form of lockdown after another. And unlike many other countries, the new rules have been enforced by draconian policing initiatives, from mandatory transit papers and on-the-spot fines to military roadblocks and police spy drones.
Despite the strict measures taken, the virus continued to spread across the country, especially across the North, which happens to be the heartland of the Lega (formerly the “Northern League”). This is the party of right-populist Matteo Salvini, whose stint as interior minister (and head of government in all but name) in 2018–19 has had a dire effect on Italian politics as a whole, normalizing a white supremacist rhetoric and distracting all attention away from the real needs of proletarians. It’s a tactic that continues to work wonders, given that the Lega is still consistently polling around 25 percent, way ahead of any other party.
In the spring, when the pandemic was at the gates, Salvini and his supporters were caught off guard. They wavered between denial, conspiracy theory, and rhetorical potshots at the current centrist alliance that replaced his own government a year ago. But over the summer, with the pandemic now fully past the gates — and settling into every corner of their fortress — the Lega and its right-wing allies like the Sicilian president have needed to reinvent an old enemy for these new times.
Whether due to geographic luck or popular conscientiousness, Sicily itself has been spared any real wave of COVID-19 infections, with only 5,000 cases and 250 deaths over the whole period, among a population of 5 million. But everyone is entirely aware that the creaking hospitals of Italy’s dilapidated South could hardly bear even the slightest increase in intensive care admittances — and despite the looming crisis, the Sicilian regional government seems unable to improve health care infrastructure. The €85 million recently promised to boost hospitals across the island is but a fraction of that promised in other regions. This seems even more ridiculous given the tangle of bribes so closely tied to the Sicilian government, symbolized this May by the arrest of a coven of businessmen and public health managers on corruption charges. The arrestees included no less than the head of Sicily’s COVID-19 commission.
Indeed, it is clear that the right wing as a whole has little response to the health emergency. The only decent proposals possible would involve investment in public health service and the closure of overcrowded nursing homes on the one hand, and assistance for the unemployed and job security for workers on the other. But the Right has consistently opposed such measures, opting instead to push people back into work and supporting subsidies for businesses.
The Lega-dominated right-wing bloc has historically never promoted a program of welfare, but only austerity combined with tax cuts for the middle class. Faced with this void of policy and a total mismanagement of the pandemic itself, all they have left to cling to is scapegoats, resurrecting old colonial phantoms of the infected outsider only months after Italians themselves had to experience the very same stereotyping.
Both tellingly and surreally, one of the few active policies of the Sicilian government over this plague summer has been the promotion of tourism. A kitsch rebranding exercise was launched — “Sicily: Your Happy Island” — and European tourists have been given free reign, without checks at the airport or ports. There have been predictable consequences, with dozens of contagions on the island being traced back to vacationers coming from Malta, Greece, and Spain. The Sicilian government’s business-crazed reaction to this was exemplary: Sicilian residents returning from these destinations would have to undergo quarantine, but European tourists coming in have practically no health checks or sanitary obligations whatsoever — including tourists from these very same countries.
At the same time, all immigrants arriving from Libya and Tunisia by sea have been confined for two weeks on “quarantine ships” or in the hot spots, and then tested for the virus, meaning that — in a complete reversal of President Musumeci’s claims — migrants are currently the most tested, safest category of people in Sicily, as far as the virus is concerned.
But when the racist ordinance for evacuating the migrant centers was issued on Sunday, the largest quarantine ship of 600 people was disembarked — and instead of providing the newly arrived migrants with a home and a chance to legalize their situation, they have been dumped on the streets of Sicily with a negative test result in one hand and an expulsion paper in the other. This is an apt demonstration of both the fiction of the “dirty outsider” and how little the police authorities care for the lives and futures of migrants arriving here.
In the meantime, the murderous catastrophe of Europe’s racist borders continues. Over the past month, nearly 4,000 people have arrived in Italy across the Mediterranean, risking their lives when a simple expansion of visa entry could put an end to the entire circuit of trafficking, exploitation, and border deaths. Hundreds have died in shipwrecks, many at the hands of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, directly funded by the EU to keep the watery border closed. As the post-COVID recession hits Tunisia and imperial interests in Libya are only on the rise, there is little doubt that people will continue to attempt the crossing. Activist and NGO missions such as the Sea-Watch and Mediterranea rescue ships and the Moonbird observation plane are more necessary than ever, to shine a light on state-sponsored violence at sea.
The right-wing war of racist distraction offers no solutions: the island needs investment in infrastructure and a functioning welfare state for everyone — whether they are residing here or simply passing through. Time and tides will tell if the new politics of health care can be directed into adequate housing and income support for all, or whether the extreme right can continue their fascistic drive into a crude race war and the bolstering of national police powers on the back of the global health emergency.