State of exception: balancing democratic freedoms with public safety, managing the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy

By Saipira Furstenberg, University of Exeter.

Italy, a country known for its convivial outdoor lifestyle, is today shuttered by the coronavirus. I am in Trieste, located in the northeast of Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia’s peak. The Italian port city, usually packed with tourists and local noisiness from Piazza dell’Unita, is today deserted. Its streets are empty, all shops and restaurants are closed except for newsagents, pharmacies and supermarkets.  There are few people on the streets, trying to avoid each other by staying one metre apart, as per the health authorities’ guidelines. The anxiety is palpable.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the government has introduced extraordinary measures to contain the epidemic and stop its further contamination. The government has effectively securitised the outbreak by imposing draconian measures such as banning public and social gatherings, closing schools and universities, and limiting travel nationwide which further restricts freedom of movement.

A house in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown. Source

For weeks, the entire population have remained at home and only permitted to go outside only for emergency reasons such as attending medical appointments or to purchase basic provisions. Police has been deployed on the streets to enforce the government’s measures. These are the largest limitations on freedom of movement in the country since the second world war.

Italy quickly registered the highest reported death toll and number of confirmed infected cases behind China. However, the problem is not in number of death or people tested positive for the virus, the real issue is in number of beds available in the intensive-care units. As the head of Lombardy’s intensive-care crisis unit, Antonio Pesenti reports: “some of the best hospitals in Europe are in Lombardy, yet they are  on the brink of collapse”, “ we have to set up beds for intensive care in hallways”. The situation in Italian hospitals in the North has been described as  ‘war like’ with doctors having to choose who to safe from death. The fear is that the epidemic will run out of control and will move towards other parts of the country.

The virus has disrupted travel and halted manufacturing in the country. To mitigate the consequences of the national quarantine, the government has offered aid package to help to families and businesses. Yet such measures might be insufficient to support the country’s already fragile economy.

If nothing else, the crisis has created a sense of unity in Italy and abroad. Across social media the hashtag #iorestoacasa (“I’m staying at home”) is trending. On the radio celebrities are encouraging the public to take the government measures seriously. 

The extraordinary measures introduced by the Italian government are a test for our democratic values balancing freedom with public safety. The lockdown has already led to instabilities in the country with riots breaking out in prisons, after visits were banned, as a part of broader government’s effort to curb the spread of the virus. Shortly after the release of the leaked draft limiting travel in Lombardy and regions in North of Italy, thousands panicked and rushed in train stations or jumped into their cars to flee South.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said that the country faces a ‘national emergency’. Such declarations in political science reflects broader theoretical patterns of state of exception. The idea of state of exception introduced by Carl Schmitt refers to a situation where a state is confronted with a moral threat or state of emergency which allows the state to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good, thus to violate its own sovereignty principles to save itself. As Agamben notes (1998, p. 174) it enables the ‘creation of a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended’. While the state interventionist measures might be justified exceptional can be also subject to abuse: who decides on the exception? Whose interests it serves? And how can we reverse to the normal situation once state of exception is over?

Both Agamben and Schmitt define the concept of sovereignty as the one who possess the power to initiate a state of exception. As their readings demonstrate, there are paradoxical nondemocratic features of sovereignty power. There is no doubt that state of exception in Italy extends democratic governing principles to authoritarian practices with the imposition of a police-state to ensure public safety. In the long term, prolonging the state of emergency might lead to damage the rule of law and civil liberties. Yet the state has also the responsibility to protect its citizens against threats that might affect their security, health and welfare. Additionally, the fact is that states are increasingly embedded in global web of interconnections, where the action of one state can inherently affect the domestic affairs of another state. As such, the respect and the integrity of sovereign nation might be compromised if it puts other nations and their population at risk. In the present context, the threat of coronavirus is stateless in origin, however it is transnational in scope. Therefore, the drastic measures adopted by the Italian government to contain the virus justify its exceptional interventions. What the current crisis demonstrates is that the decision to contain the virus lies on its people and their willingness to collaborate with the government. In times of crisis it is the government’s duty is to protect its people, it is now down to people to trust their government.

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