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How Covid-19 Has Shaken Italian Unity: The Case of the Region of Calabria

Interview with Antonino Spirlì, interim president of Calabria: “From time to time some feel the need to find a scapegoat that is distant from other parts of Italy"

by Gerardo Papalia

Antonino Spirlì during the interview

"Negative news about Calabria comes from those who hate Calabria or because of envy, because all it takes is for people to come here to understand how much dignity there is and how many noble initiatives have taken hold in recent years...We are wonderful bastards…We are one of the most intimately cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic peoples in the world."

Antonino Spirlì, interim president of Calabria’s regional government since the death of the president, Jole Santelli, has accused Italy’s national government of wrecking his region’s health care system, leaving it unprepared for the Covid-19 crisis.

He was responding to calls by some members of the governing coalition and the national media to appoint a new commissioner to govern Calabria’s health care system. The previous one, retired Carabiniere (military police) general Saverio Cecchinelli, had been forced to resign for failing to prepare for the pandemic. Since 2009 the national government has been appointing commissioners to run the regional health care system, in place of the elected regional governments, because of fears of infiltration by organized crime and ongoing corruption investigations.

Some members of the national government, parts of the mainstream media and the left- leaning flash-mob style movement called ‘The Sardines’, proposed Gino Strada as the new commissioner. Strada is the founder of the non-profit humanitarian organization ‘Emergency’, which assists civilian victims of war and poverty. They argued that the more fragile and underdeveloped state of this region’s health care system would mean a Covid provoked collapse was imminent. In reality, Calabria’s levels of contagion and deaths have consistently been among the lowest in Italy.

Spirlì was infuriated by the proposal of Strada saying: “… we are one of Italy’s regions and we do not want to be treated like a country at war, as a third and fourth world country… Calabrians have the sacrosanct right to manage their own health care system.” He went on to blame the national government control for the inadequacies of Calabria’s health care system.

Spirlì’s strong criticisms were backed by his party and their allies, who are currently in opposition in the country’s parliament. Together they are forcing the national government to field a succession of candidates for the position of commissioner. These either declined or were forced to withdraw until ex-police chief Guido Longo accepted on November 27. In the meantime, Emergency set up a field hospital in the city of Crotone. It has not escaped attention that the previous commissioner has been replaced by another ex-police chief, implicitly confirming the ‘emergency’ logic which Italy’s national government has consistently used to govern the south at least since the early 1990s.

Spirlì is a member of the Lega (League) Party that is governing Calabria in coalition with other right-wing parties. He came to politics after a successful career as an actor, theater director, as well as a TV scriptwriter for Berlusconi’s Mediaset media company and Italy’s national broadcast network RAI. Spirlì has also worked as a journalist and has a regular column in the center-right newspaper Il Giornale. In 2011 he published his first novel, Diario di una vecchia checca (Diary of an old Queer).

Spirlì’s interventions reflect a broader revival of local pride: Calabrians of all political persuasions are increasingly resentful of having been typecast in the rest of the country as belonging to a ‘failed’ region, besieged by the organized crime syndicate known by the name ‘Ndrangheta, and chronically afflicted by the twin evils of poverty and emigration. Spirlì’s position represents quite a departure from the origins of the League Party, once called the Northern League, which based its mainly northern Italian consensus on anti-southern prejudices when it was founded in 1991. Nevertheless, Spirlì’s regional government has been able to tap into latent local resentment by casting itself as the standard bearer of a regional resurgence against prejudice in other parts of Italy.

I recently had a chance to talk to Mr. Spirlì about the Covid-19 pandemic, Calabria’s situation and his vision of its future.

What is your view of the national government’s decision to continue with its practice of appointing commissioners to run Calabria’s health care system?

“These appointments have worsened the situation because they are informed by a preconception that began 11 years ago based on the false premise that all of Calabria’s politics have been tainted by organized crime. Since then, these commissioners have dug a giant budget hole and have been totally oblivious to the health needs of the population. Not only have they not opened any new hospitals, but they closed existing ones, including newly built ones with recently purchased and unused equipment. This has been a tragic waste of money. Moreover, as health personnel such as doctors, nurses, technicians retire, they are not being replaced. Therein lies another tragedy: restrictions have been placed on enrollments in university medical faculties, further limiting numbers of specialist doctors and leading to a healthcare desert that has truly afflicted this region.”

Italy, with Calabria in the foreground seen from a satellite (NASA)

How has Calabria responded to the Covid-19 epidemic?

“Our strong sense of solidarity has allowed us to come out of this crisis almost unscathed, I would dare to say, with very low numbers. Fortunately, strong family values still exist here, and it is difficult to find elderly people that have been abandoned to themselves. Our Covid-19 infection rates have always been among the lowest of all the regions of Italy. This is due to the care and the solidarity and timely consideration of others shown by neighbors in small villages and even in cities, which have overcome loneliness and isolation. Through their swift actions, people infected with Covid have been treated in time and saved.”

What can you tell us about health care in Calabria?

“Despite the many real shortcomings of Calabria’s health care system, many have overly emphasized them. I can assure you that we have some excellent hospitals such as the Mater Domini of Catanzaro, which is the second most important hospital in all of Italy, not only for its high number of cardiac surgery operations, but because it attracts so many patients from other regions.

The distribution of Covid-19 cases in Italy as of January 4, 2021 in a map diffused by the Italian Civil Protection

The major metropolitan hospital of Reggio Calabria has adopted a non-invasive aerosol therapy for Covid, which has cured 19 out of 20 patients without need for intubation. This is today being used and tested in the United States where there are large numbers of Covid patients, and it will soon become one of the best therapies against Covid. Then there is the Sant’Anna hospital at Catanzaro that has saved thousands of lives, including in the fields of cardiac and emergency surgery. All are top level hospitals and there are many other like them. We are leaders in ophthalmology as well. Our general healthcare is excellent despite some shortcomings in the smaller hospitals, a characteristic that we unfortunately share with many other regions both inside and outside Italy.”

Organized crime, a problem only in Calabria?

“Over the last few years and more recently, Calabria has sought to rid itself of an image that derives from the actions of a very small part of the population, the most deplorable part, who are part of the criminal underworld. However, we share this with the rest of the world, just as we as we all suffer from Covid, because there is no country in the world where there is no crime. I say that when a word can be translated into all the world’s languages, it is because it exists everywhere. It may have a different name, but it still concerns everyone. Wickedness and hatred can be translated into all languages of the world just like the words we use for organized crime. Out of convenience, or for some other reason, the word Mafia, which originated in Sicily, has spread to the rest of the world, and so has the word ‘Ndrangheta. But we know that Japanese, Chinese, Jewish, Russian and American underworlds also exist. These do not have a single mother or a single father, but emerge from society. After all, the children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel. One was good and the other was bad.”

Families of victims of the Mafia, marching in Locri (Photo by Gigi Romano)

Is there a preconceived bias against Calabria?

“From time to time some feel the need to find a scapegoat that is distant from other parts of Italy. Calabria has always been considered, unjustly, the last of Italy’s regions. Negative news about Calabria comes from those who hate Calabria or because of envy, because all it takes is for people to come here to understand how much dignity there is and how many noble initiatives have taken hold in recent years. I see beautiful businesses, I see beautiful people, I see beautiful houses, and I see beautiful and studious youth. Of course, there is globalization, which unfortunately also includes negative things. But even though I am quite shocked by some of these things, I cannot consider them part of the identity of this territory alone. Our kids experience McDonald’s just like kids in Cambodia or Russia, but at the same time they also love their grandmother’s donuts, so they experience both.”

What is your government doing for Calabria today?

“Our administration has provided incentives to many businesses. Even in this dramatic situation of Covid-19, our regional administration has acted before the national government. We have assisted businesses large and small. We have supported agriculture with special funding because our horticulture is truly international in scope. Many of our products, food and wine as well as dairy products, derive from local traditions which we are very keen to maintain.”

Before becoming the interim president, you were the minister for culture and cultural heritage. What initiatives has your government taken on a cultural level?

“From a cultural point of view, I tell you that under the previous President Santelli we provided assistance through our local Film Commission, to theater companies and for theatrical distribution because the Calabrian film industry has often hosted film productions from outside but produced little of its own. Today Calabria has some beautiful production facilities in theater and some beautiful film companies that are currently forced to work more outside Calabria than inside Calabria itself.

Our idea is to incentivize production, as well as hosting productions from outside. This is an absolutely important project. Our mandate will end in a few months, unfortunately, after the tragedy that befell Jole Santelli. *

Jole Santelli, President of the Calabria region for 8 months from February 15 to October 15, 2020, day on which she died

But I am working now and have been over recent weeks to complete at least the first stage of the project which is to define the guidelines for the establishment of a school of the Arts, including acting, dance, and above all, training for professions associated with theater and cinema production. The latter include technical professions such as directing, editing, camerawork, costuming, sets. We are resuming a tradition that was well organized in Calabria until a few decades ago under the Academy of Dramatic Art. This spawned a beautiful generation, indeed two beautiful generations of actors, who now work in the field, not only nationally, but also internationally. They are now appreciated and well known and we see very often see them on the big screen and on television through Cinetelevision. We have taken these initiatives in the hope that future governments will continue them, whether led by us or by others. Whoever comes after our administration will find the guidelines already drawn up so that young people will no longer have to do what I did 40 years ago, when I had to move to Rome to train as an actor.

Thanks to this project that I am implementing, and that Jole wanted, which is precisely to create a cinema industry in Calabria, we will be able to keep these talents in our territory, maybe to induce them to stay here, and to work well.”

*(Note: Antonino Spirlì became the interim president of the region of Calabria following the death of the president Jole Santelli on 15 October 2020. New regional elections to renew the regional government will take place in April 2021).

An image of Tropea, in Calabria (Photo Rutha Copley/

What can you tell us about Calabria’s natural and cultural heritage?

“Our natural environment is fantastic, ready to be discovered, and well organized for visitors. We have three national parks located in our mountains: the Pollino, Sila and Aspromonte. Moreover, these mountains are both Apenninic and Alpine because they are also dolomitic in parts, offering visitors a rich and unique experience. Then there is the regional park of the Serre of Catanzaro. All of these parks contain exceptional flora and fauna. For instance, on Aspromonte still grow some of the world’s most ancient ferns, dating back to prehistory. Calabria is also an exceptional crossing and stopover point for migratory birds such as the gray heron. There are peregrine falcon and eagles. We are truly rich in plants and animals, like perhaps no other region.

In terms of the human presence, our archaeological and cultural-artistic heritage is vast. We are the region that possesses at least 60% of all the historical artistic heritage of Southern Italy. Considering that the south of Italy holds 70% of the national heritage on its own, and considering that Italy is the richest country in the world for its cultural and archaeological heritage, we can say that Calabria is a veritable treasure store for the whole world.

Antonino Spirlì during the interview

On this wealth the history of our identity is inscribed. Calabria is a land of many religions that have met and left their mark. One of Italy’s earliest synagogues, whose beautiful ruins include some unique mosaics, is located in Bova Marina. This is the first trace of Israelite settlements in Calabria and we have dozens of historic Giudeccas or Jewish quarters, including some that are being restored. We have significant links with the Jewish religion because Rabbis from all over the world come every year to choose the best citrons for the Sukkot festival. We have Byzantine Orthodox churches, where Papas and Popes still exercise their ministries, both Greek and Russian. We have our Christian Catholic Churches, we have the Greek Church for the Albanian Calabrians whose ministers are Catholic but practice the Greek rite. There are other religions: the Waldensians, who hail from Occitane France, that settled in the Calabrian town of Guardia Piemontese. There is so much cultural wealth. And then we have our villages which are the little paradises of the Greek speaking and the Arbereshe-Albanian world, many located in the interior. These are wonderful places because they are mountain villages where you can look out of the window and see both the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian seas on either side. I believe that you can come to relax, if you wish, or if you want to do business you can do this too. This land is really a sort of Eden for visitors and business people.”

What is happening today in Calabria?

“The commercial and industrial activities that have emerged in Calabria in recent years are amazing and we have unique advantages over the other regions. But our entrepreneurs had to work hard. Calabrian wines and olive oil are now winning awards all over the world. Calabrian licorice is unique, Calabrian bergamot is unique. In addition, we have food and wine and other products, including manufactured items that are now truly within the reach of many and are exported all over the world. And people know that they are Calabrian. This means that Calabria in recent times, has experienced a rebirth of pride that is lifting it not only to the level of other regions, but in many instances taking it beyond them.” 

An image of l’Università della Calabria (Salvatore Migliari/Wikipedia)

Are you optimistic about the future?

“Calabria’s identity is a braid made from many different strands. In every drop of Calabrian blood there are at least a dozen others from many different peoples: Jews, Greeks, Ottomans, North Africans, Goths from Eastern Europe, Latins, the Angevin French, the Spanish, the Norman-Swabians well as the ancient Brutian and Italic peoples that originated in our territory. So you can see that we are wonderful bastards that have brought out the best from all of them, and sometimes some of the worst. We are one of the most intimately cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic peoples in the world.

The solution to Calabria’s problems lies in us having more opportunities to fend for ourselves without being forced to operate under commissioners. The Calabrian people must rediscover that wonderful pugnacity, that ability to fight and to set the agenda, gracefully, with courtesy, as always. Our peasants may have once been illiterate, but they have always been polite, courteous and kind. I believe in our beautiful pugnacity. In the past this quality enabled us to plow the hardest and steepest terrains. Today we must draw on our pugnacity in waging a contest through the mass media to lift the pall that others have wanted to cast over our land.”

If you were to write a book about Calabria in the future what title would you give it?

“I would give it a title with a hashtag because social media today dominates communication. I would call it: #Calabria, everlasting beauty.”


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