The Case of Italy

The Societal Impact of COVID-19 in a Fragmented Society

in The International Journal of Social Quality
Author:
Jan Martin RossiResearcher, Institute for Political, Economic and Social Studies, Rome, Italy martin_rossi@icloud.com

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Abstract

The present article makes use of aspects of social quality theory and the social quality approach to assess the impact of the Italian government's efforts to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government has a critical role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic; however, the scope and efficacy of its interventions depend on the interplay of processes in four main dimensions: (1) sociopolitical and legal; (2) socioeconomic and financial; (3) sociocultural and welfare; and (4) socioenvironmental and ecological. By analyzing relevant processes in these four dimensions, I aim to understand whether the social quality in Italy has increased or decreased due to the pandemic. The fragmentation in the labor market, in healthcare governance, as well as in societal protection have strongly constrained the government interventions, leaving intact and crystallizing existing societal inequalities.

Italy was among the first countries in the European Union (EU) where the presence of COVID-19 became apparent. On 9 March, the Italian government became the first in Europe to announce an unprecedented national lockdown, effectively paralyzing the country. The workplace has become a possible source of contagion, which has led to the halt of production activities, which has in turn aggravated the conditions of those who were already in a fragile economic situation, and therefore even adversely affected sectors that were considered relatively safe.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic often poses an insurmountable burden for those hardest hit, especially when protective policy measures do not provide a sufficient remedy (Wolf and Jonker 2020). I argue here that this is the case in Italy, where the crisis has put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the state's welfare system and forced the government to adopt extraordinary measures. However, the fragmentation and unevenness of societal protection instruments have unfortunately led to the reproduction of preexisting disparities, thereby worsening the social quality of the country.

In this article, I define the term “social quality” in the same way as Laurent van der Maesen and Alan Walker: “Social quality is the extent to which people are able to participate in soci(et)al relationships under conditions which enhance their well-being, capacities and potential” (2012: 28). Hence, I use social quality as a metric to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 emergency and to analyze the Italian government's subsequent interventions. Moreover, the social quality approach (SQA) provides a framework with which to analyze the wider societal context within which the current pandemic crisis has unfolded (IASQ 2019), and in turn sheds light on the ways in which the government and the welfare system can be associated with the “quality of the social” in the current crisis (Novakova 2017).

This article is organized as follows. In the second section, I will present my research question and my theoretical approach, which involves my epistemic strategy and the data that I have used. The remainder of the article is divided into the four dimensions identified by the SQA (IASQ 2019; Novakova 2017). The first dimension is the socioenvironmental and ecological, and this refers to the outcomes of human and societal influences on nature. This dimension will be covered in the third section (epidemiologic context); however, I will instead look at things in reverse and describe how nature influences society by describing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Italy. In this same section, I will also briefly introduce the main interventions that were launched to counter the spread of the virus.

The second dimension is the sociopolitical and legal, which refers to the overarching regulatory framework and the politics of its contestation. This dimension will be analyzed in the fourth section, where I will describe the Italian government's strategy and main efforts to economically support the socioeconomic fabric of the country.

The third dimension is sociocultural and welfare, which refers to welfare provision and access, and culture as a dynamic of shared identities, norms, and trust. This dimension will be analyzed in the fifth section, which presents the evolution of the Italian labor market reforms and of healthcare governance.

The fourth dimension is socioeconomic and financial, which refers to the societal relations of production and distribution. This last dimension will be analyzed in the sixth section, where I will focus on the characteristics of the Italian labor market and on how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. Then I will conclude by outlining some final considerations on the issue of COVID-19 and social quality in Italy.

Theoretical and Methodological Approach

We still know little about the diffusion drivers of the SARS-CoV-2; in fact, environment-to-human transmission is a complex subject and requires specific global interdisciplinary approaches (Bontempi et al. 2020). In Italy, the available data on seroprevalence shows that the virus spread more or less evenly among all demographic groups and socioeconomic classes (Istat and Ministero della Salute 2020), suggesting across-the-board diffusion. However, the health emergency quickly turned into a societal emergency with differing consequences for members of different social groups. Therefore, in the present article I seek to investigate how the societal disparities have evolved during the COVID-19 emergency, and to determine which factors contributed to the disease's evolution in the Italian context.

Indeed, the epidemic has put enormous pressure on the healthcare system, and it has forced the government to impose a strict lockdown to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed. The closure of nonvital economic activities and the strong limitation imposed upon societal interactions have generated economic repercussions forcing many people to rely on state-provided welfare payments and relief packages.

Accordingly, during this emergency the sociopolitical and legal dimension has emerged as being the most prominent dimension because of the Italian government's unprecedented and extraordinary interventions, and this is why the present article focuses on the role of government in countering the pandemic. However, the scope of action and effectiveness of the government's actions have mostly related to the sociocultural and welfare dimension. The financial and service needs of many people in society have shaped the government's overall mitigation strategy and the nature of its interventions, and these interventions have generated different outcomes for different groups according to the respective level of protection they are granted by the state.

Indeed, we can depict the virus as an independent shock that triggered the government to intervene and the sociocultural and welfare dimension as the filter that mitigated and determined the outcome of the state's interventions. On the one hand, the sociocultural and welfare dimension—through the healthcare system—worked as an ex-ante filter because it anticipated the government by mediating between the epidemic spread and the lockdown measures through the reduction of the need and scope of these measures. On the other hand, the welfare system worked as an ex-post filter because it buffered the negative repercussions of the forced closures by mediating between the relief packages and the receivers through the design of the economic support measures.

These elements—the trigger, the interventions, and the filters—were all part of the emergency, and they contributed to the quality of “the social” in a highly interconnected way. Therefore, in order to have a more comprehensive view of how the pandemic unfolded and effected Italian society, we need to analyze the elements in conjunction. As mentioned above, I will make use here of the SQA (IASQ 2019), which goes beyond deep-rooted disciplinary fragmentation to provide a multidisciplinary approach to the COVID-19 emergency. The SQA is concerned with “the social,” which is an outcome of the dialectic tension between processes of the self-realization of human beings and the formation of collective identities. The design of this study follows the four dimensions of the SQA outlined above to understand the factors that contribute to the production of disparities during the crisis and just how these disparities undermined social quality. In fact, reasoning and analysis following the four dimensions functions as a backbone to create systematic and coherent way which to comprehend societal complexities. The dimensions though are thoroughly interwoven, so that each of them (e.g., political approaches) is closely connected to the elements of the others (e.g., economic measures).

Let me begin my analysis by focusing on the trigger, that is, the epidemic spread. I use primary data from Our World in Data, from Italian Civil Protection, and from Istat, which is the national institute of statistics, to describe the evolution of the epidemiological scenario. I also use the main legislative acts that were issued to describe the main measures imposed by the government to counter the spread of the virus. I then move to analyze the government interventions using primary data from the Parliament Budget Office (Ufficio Parlamentare di Bilancio 2021) and secondary data to describe the strategy adopted by the Italian state. Then I look at the ex-ante filter and ex-post filter, that is, the healthcare response and the relief packages to support families and workers. In this vein, I use secondary data from the relevant literature to describe the complexity in the implementation of the support measures, and I review the Italian reforms that have come in succession and that have shaped the current welfare system. Lastly, I analyze the social results of the COVID-19 crisis through the lens of the labor market. I limit my analysis on the labor market because of data availability; however, the labor market provides important insights which can be used to understand the effects of the pandemic due to its relevance in ensuring the conditional factors that affect social quality through socioeconomic security and societal and economic participation. Moreover, most of the welfare instruments in Italy are related to employment status; thus, the labor market gives us the chance to better understand how the support measures unfolded during the crisis. I use primary data from Istat (2021) about the labor market to define the macroeconomic conditions and the resilience capacity of the Italian economy as well as to measure the effect of the emergency on the different worker categories.

The Epidemiological Context

In this section, I describe the epidemic spread scenario in Italy until 31 August 2021. I also describe the evolution of the daily and cumulative deaths caused by COVID-19, the congestion in the country's intensive healthcare facilities, and the state of the ongoing vaccine campaign.

On 23 February 2020, the Council of Ministers issued Decree-Law No. 6, which sanctioned the total closure of municipalities with active outbreaks and the suspension of events in the same municipalities; in the following days, the President of the Council of Ministers, Giuseppe Conte, issued a series of implementation decrees1 (DPCMs) in which the restriction measures became progressively stricter and gradually extended to the entire national territory. This period is commonly called “Phase 1.”

On 26 May 2020, the President of the Council of Ministers announced to the country the beginning of Phase 2. In this phase, many retail businesses resumed operations and some restrictions, such as societal isolation and regional displacement, were lifted. Following the upturn in the curve of contagions in the autumn of 2020, the Prime Minister2 renewed various restrictions, which were progressively introduced, focusing more on rules to regulate commercial and private activities than on restricting people's movement.

With the measures introduced on 3 November,3 the Italian regions were grouped into three different types of epidemiological scenarios. Each region adopted either more or less restrictive measures, depending on the scenario it found itself in. In December, further restrictions4 were imposed on travel between regions until 25 April 2021. Decree-Law No. 52 of 22 April 2021 saw the drawing up of a timetable for a gradual reopening of the country, and COVID-19 “green certification” was established for persons vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 or who had had a negative antigen swab.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the COVID-19 death5 trend was characterized by four periods. The first period, from the end of February to the end of May, corresponded to the first wave and was marked by a very rapid spread in deaths and by a strong territorial concentration in the north of the country. The second period, from June to September, was a time characterized by a slowdown in deaths due to the containment measures implemented on a national scale and adopted in the spring (lockdown). The third period, which began at the end of September 2020, was tied to the second epidemic wave and was characterized by a dramatic exacerbation of cases and by an increase in deaths throughout the country. The fourth phase started in May 2021 with a new drop in the number of deaths. However, this second drop has not endured as long as the previous one had, since at the end of August 2021 Italy was already witnessing an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Dailiy new confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

It is worth noticing that between the two epidemic waves, the epidemiological situation in Italy changed considerably both in terms of quantity and geographical distribution. Evidence published by the Italian National Institute of Health and the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat and Istituto Superiore di Sanità 2021) shows that the contribution of COVID-19 deaths to all-cause mortality was, in terms of the national average, 10.2%. However, the geographical distribution of the deaths in the first wave was highly concentrated: 80% of cases were reported in the northern regions.

The toll of the first phase of the epidemic, in terms of excess deaths, was particularly heavy for Lombardy (+111.8%); for all the other regions in the north of the country the increase in deaths in the period March–May 2020 was between 42% and 47%; only Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia had a relatively smaller increase in excess deaths (+19.4% and +9.0%, respectively). In the center of the country, only the case of Marche stands out (+27.7%). These figures are significant compared to the national average in the rest of the country, which experienced an increase of +8.1%.

In Figure 2 we can observe the evolution of the absolute cumulative COVID-19 death. During the first period of the epidemic there were more than 211,750 deaths (from March to May 2020), 50,957 more than the average of the same period during the years 2015–2019, of which more than 45,000 were in the north of the country. The total deaths from COVID-19 recorded by integrated surveillance for the same period amounted to 34,079 (or 67% of total excess deaths).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Cumulative confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

Then, during the summer, the number of new deaths dropped to nearly zero. However, it rose again in autumn, and it reached 1,000 again in December. The higher prevalence of infection in the northern regions was maintained although with lower percentages: 54% in the summer period (June–September), and 58% in the period October–December 2020. Nationally, the increase in deaths in the last quarter of 2020 was in line with that of the first wave (+32%), but the national average figure is the result of a profoundly different geographical distribution. While it is true that the north of the country saw the highest percentage increase (+40%), it is important to note that, at the same time, the central regions (24% more deaths) and the southern regions (26%) saw more significant increases than before. Therefore, there was a greater increase in the prevalence of infection in the central and southern regions beginning in the summer.

During the period October–December 2020, there were 213,226 deaths, some 52,000 more than the average for the same period in the years 2015–2019. The number of deaths from COVID-19 recorded by integrated surveillance for the same period was 39,927 (77% of the total number of excess deaths). At the end of August 2021, the cumulative number of COVID-19 deaths totaled 129,221, and, relative to the total Italian population, it translated to 2,140.57 deaths per million people; this cumulative figure was one of the highest such numbers in the world.

The case of Lombardy is unique: this region alone accounted for 51% of the people who had developed antibodies, which is an accurate measure of true contagiousness. Lombardy saw 49% of all deaths due to COVID-19 in Italy and 39% of those in the country who had been officially recognized as infected, despite the fact that only about 16% (or one-sixth) of the Italian population reside in this region. In some of its provinces, such as Bergamo and Cremona, the seroprevalence rate managed to reach peaks of 24% and 19%, respectively (Istat and Istituto Superiore di Sanità 2021).

From the study on seroprevalence in Italy (Istat and Ministero della Salute 2020), no significant differences emerged with regard to demographic characteristics. Men and women were affected to the same extent by SARS-CoV-2, as was also found in studies from other countries (Pollán et al. 2020). As far as age is concerned, seroprevalence remained substantially the same across the various age categories used in the sample design. Additionally, the employed were affected by SARS-CoV-2 similarly to the unemployed. Differences emerge only when it comes to sector of economic activity. In fact, healthcare has the highest seroprevalence with 5.3%, and the number even rises to 9.8% in the highest seroprevalence area in the north of Italy. Those employed in essential sectors and who were active during the pandemic did not have significantly higher values (2.8%) than those people belonging to the general population or compared with those employed in sectors that saw suspended economic activity (2.7%). The outlier in this regard was restaurant services, where seroprevalence was 4.2%.

By comparing the dates of the countermeasures and the four phases in the COVID-19 death trend, one can see how the latter, rather than anticipate the spread of the virus, always followed behind the spread of the virus in a passive and slow manner. Indeed, the lockdown measures served to contain the spread of the virus, but they were triggered at the moment when the healthcare system was at risk of collapse, that is, when there were no more available beds in the intensive care units. Measuring the number of inpatients compared to the number of beds available therefore becomes a more effective tool than the contagion to assess the gravity of the situation. In this regard, the Italian government set to 30%6 the safety percentage threshold beyond which a state of emergency was to be triggered. Figure 3 shows the daily congestion of the intensive care units in Italy during from 27 February to 27 August.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Daily congestion of intensive care in Italy.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

On 3 April, at the worst moment of the first wave, the healthcare system's capacity almost reached 75%, with 4,068 patients being treated. Lombardy alone had 1,381 admissions to intensive care, a department that effectively became saturated. The second most affected region was Piedmont, with 452 occupied beds, followed by Veneto and Emilia-Romagna with 355 and 360 occupied beds, respectively. The distribution was more uniform throughout the rest of Italy as the number of admitted patients was more balanced.

The government subsequently decided to increase the number of beds in the country's intensive care units in order to prevent the congestion of the first wave from happening again. The Rilancio Decree-Law set the goal of 14 beds for every 100,000 inhabitants. The data provided by the Presidency of the Council (Il Sole 24 Ore 2020a, 2020b) has allowed me to verify how bed availability has changed over the duration of the crisis.7 With the only positive exceptions of Veneto and Valle d'Aosta, which have set up more beds than required, and Friuli Venezia Giulia, which has reached the objective, the rest of the Italian regions are still struggling. The worst situation is in Umbria, where none of the 57 beds to be added have been installed. The best situation is in the already mentioned region of Veneto: there, the request was to add 211 beds in intensive care, and 331 have been installed. Among the other regions, some situations are more risky, with Campania currently having the most worrying situation (only 7.3 beds per 100,000 inhabitants), followed by Umbria (7.9) and Marche (8.3)—numbers that are half of Veneto (16.8), Valle d'Aosta (15.9), and Friuli (14.4). Lazio, Emilia, and Tuscany have better situations (12.7, 11.5, and 11.1), while Lombardy was able in a short time to add up to 1,800 beds as a result of being hard hit by the crisis.

The vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic started on 27 December in Italy, and its implementation depended not only on the timely delivery of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies, but also on the vaccination plan developed by the government with the Special Commissioner, who is responsible for logistics, procurement, storage, and transport.

However, the practical management of vaccination (with the hiring of staff for injections, the identification and calling of eligible individuals, the indication of locations, and the actual administration of the process) was given over to the regions, although they were to coordinate with the Ministry of Health and the overall plan outlined by the Special Commissioner. The identification of persons belonging to the priority categories, indicated from time to time by the federal government, was also the responsibility of the regions.

For this reason, the daily vaccine administration trend varies from region to region. From Figure 4, we can observe the daily trend of vaccines administered. The trend shows a steady increase in the daily provision of the vaccine starting from the last week of February, which allowed the campaign to administer 77.89 million doses at the end of August 2021. The number of people who received the vaccine amounted to 42.64 million or 71% of the population, and the fully vaccinated number 36.69 million or 60.8% of the population.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Share of people who received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

The Sociopolitical and Legal Dimension

In this section, I analyze processes in the sociopolitical and legal dimension that were implemented to deal with the pandemic in Italy, namely those concerning the government's response to the crisis.

In the last years, Italy has faced many natural disasters and crises, and the civil protection response has come to be more efficient and professional with time, but the relief and recovery mechanisms have not kept up with this positive development (Di Mascio et al. 2020). The standard response is the so-called “fast-track” approach: extraordinary powers and procedures, and temporary solutions. However, these solutions have become permanent and ineffective, and have led to red tape and corruption (Ozerdem and Ruffini 2013).

And the solutions enacted by the government to the COVID-19 emergency were no exception: Italy went into the pandemic underprepared (Capano 2020). A national plan against pandemics was issued in 2005, but it had not been updated since then. And to make matters worse, the specific instructions in the plan were not followed. The limit in the availability of intensive care unit beds and the scarcity of protective equipment for healthcare staff both testify to this unpreparedness (Capano 2020). For this reason, the Italian government aimed at trying to slow down the effects of the virus on the health system and mitigate the mortality rate with an incremental strategy. It adopted a “two-track” approach: a fast track implemented with exceptional procedures and a slow track that suspended the procedures not involved with the emergency (Di Mascio et al. 2020).

A total of 642 acts have been issued to counter the advance of the coronavirus in Italy for an average of over 37 per month. The first months of 2020 were the most intense from the point of view of regulatory production: 67 COVID acts were published in February, 103 in March, and 65 in April. In 2021, 176 acts have already been published at the time of writing (Openpolis 2021).

Despite the limitations of Italy's institutional arrangements and their interaction with the political party system, in 2020 the Italian government and Parliament deployed unprecedented resources to address the COVID-19 emergency. With the Cura Italia, Liquidità, Rilancio, and Agosto Decree-Laws, far-reaching interventions were adopted on health, work, liquidity, taxation, families, and businesses. This action was continued with the subsequent Ristori Decree-Laws, which were aimed at helping the people most affected by the imposed restrictions.

Table 1 highlights the main relief packages and their amounts in billions of euros.

Table 1.

Decree-Laws against the COVID-19 Crisis in 2020: Effects on Public Finance Balances.

Decrees-Laws (DL) Date Net Balance to Be Financed Net Debt
DL 18/2020 (Cura Italia) 17 March −24.8 −20.0
DL 23/2020 (Liquidità) 8 April −0.1 −0.1
DL 34/2020 (Rilancio) 19 May −154.7 −55.3
DL 104/2020 (Agosto) 14 August −30.9 −24.9
DL 137/2020 (Ristori) 28 October 0.2 −3.3
DL 149/2020 (Ristori bis) 9 November 0.1 −1.6
DL 154/2020 (Ristori ter) 23 November 0.0 −0.4
DL 157/2020 (Ristori quater) 30 November −4.5 −8.0
Total effect of decrees −214.7 −113.6
Total savings 0.0 5.4
Net total effect from utilized savings −214.7 −108.2

Values in billions of euros. Source: Author's elaboration based on data from the Parliamentary Budget Office (Ufficio Parlamentare di Bilancio 2021).

According to the official estimates provided by the Parliamentary Budget Office (Ufficio Parlamentare di Bilancio 2021), the overall estimated impact on the net borrowing of the public administration in 2020, following the various decree-laws presented, is equal to €113.6 billion, a figure that is reduced to €108.2 billion when one considers the €5.4 billion in savings on variances authorized by Parliament. The pre-discounted expenditure amount was equal to 6% of Italian GDP in 2020.8

Classifying resources based on the main areas of intervention, it can be seen that around two-thirds of net resources (64.3%) were directed toward supporting the economy, with regard to both companies and workers, with an allocation of €39.8 billion (35%) and €33.3 billion (29.3%), respectively. Local authorities were allocated €12.6 billion, while a further €8.9 billion was allocated to the healthcare system and the security sector. Provisions with minor effects regarded schools, universities, and research institutions (1.9 billion), as well as family and disability (€1.3 billion) programs. Fiscal measures, on the other hand, absorbed €17.1 billion, mostly for the extension and rescheduling of tax and social security obligations (Ufficio Parlamentare di Bilancio 2021). This data is reported in Table 2, which shows the amounts allocated by the various decree-laws in the main areas of state intervention.

Table 2.

Net Impact of the 2020 Anti−Crisis Decrees by Main Area of Intervention.

Decrees-Laws (DL) Health Firms Workers Families Local Authorities Fiscal Measures Schools Other
DL18/2020 (Cura Italia) −2.938 −6.119 −9.098 −0.450 −0.347 −0.851 −0.144 −0.043
DL23/2020 (Liquidità) −0.012 0.001
DL34/2020 (Rilancio) −5.087 −21.303 −18.567 −0.704 −6.298 −1.584 −1.273 −0.474
DL104/2020 (Agosto) −0.679 −5.646 −6.380 −0.165 −5.515 −6.163 −0.432 0.102
DD.LL (Ristori) −0.149 −6.696 0.793 −0.405 −8.488 −0.088 1.629
Total −8.853 −39.764 −33.252 −1.319 −12.565 −17.098 −1.937 1.215

Values in billions of euros. Source: Author's elaboration based on data from the Parliamentary Budget Office (Ufficio Parlamentare di Bilancio 2021).

Starting with a relaxation of the fiscal rules under various EU treaties, the EU helped to lighten the burden on Italy's shoulders according to the criteria defined by the temporary framework on state aid approved by the European Commission (EC), the “European Temporary Framework.”9 Bond-buying by the European Central Bank, the EC's program known as SURE (Support to Mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency), and the access to the European Stability Mechanism were crucial instruments used to sooth the financial markets and help Italy to borrow the necessary resources to fight the COVID crisis (Rossi and Mingardi 2020).

However, these relief packages consisted of dozens of single procedures that have been bundled together, with benefits distributed to a plethora of recipients. On the one hand, this approach made it difficult to implement and oversee the various procedures and foresee their outcomes, and on the other it made it difficult for beneficiaries to decide among the different instruments they should apply for (Di Mascio et al. 2020). Therefore, the enormous resources made available were split up into a myriad of small aid packages aimed at an equally wide range of beneficiaries, losing both their effectiveness and fairness (Rossi and Mingardi 2020).

The Sociocultural and Welfare Dimension

In this section, I will analyze processes in the sociocultural and welfare dimension. This is a crucial dimension because it constitutes the backbone of the measures aiming at mitigating the negative consequences of the pandemic. As we saw in the previous section, the Italian government intervened with unprecedented economic measures. I will now analyze the ex-ante and ex-post filters of these interventions—that is, the governance of the healthcare system and the main interventions used to support workers and their families.

In the third section, I emphasized the geographical differences in the availability of beds and in the capacity to set up new ones; to understand such differences we need to introduce into the analysis the governance of the Italian healthcare system. In 2021, Italy underwent a constitutional reform—which concerned Title V of the Constitution—that redefined the legislative power between the federal state and the regions. On many subjects, the reform stipulated there should be concurrent legislative powers, but various ambiguities were contained in the reform and a jurisdictional conflict between the state and the regions flared up (Capano 2020). Furthermore, based on the above-mentioned decentralized principle of the constitutional reform, the northern regions managed to obtain more autonomous powers, increasing the disparities between the north and the south of the country (Baldi 2019; Giovannini and Vampa 2019).

The healthcare system was involved in this reform and, as a result, became highly decentralized. On the one hand, the state has the task of determining the levels of assistance that must be guaranteed throughout the national territory and of supervising the actual provision of said assistance; on the other hand, the regions plan and manage healthcare in full autonomy (Fiorentini et al. 2008; Toth 2015). Thus, the actual implementation and organization of healthcare relies on the individual regions, and this led to the strong geographical differences we observed above, and emerged as a key dimension affecting the nature of the government's response to the COVID crisis (Capano 2020).

Further, as noted by Giliberto Capano (2020), the Italian regions operate according to their own presidential systems, while the national government operates according to a parliamentary system: this asymmetry favors the tendency of regional presidents to politicize many issues: they want to appeal directly to their own respective local electorates.

Hence, the decentralized structure of power and the various ambiguities in the concurrent legislative system has increased the difficulties of intergovernmental coordination and weakened the authority of the central government. Further, the creation of new entities like special commissions to be added to the already existing ones has meant that the management of the pandemic has passed through the hands of numerous institutions. The result has been a very complex procedural “flowchart,” wherein everyday important decisions are made by a variety of different actors, both legislative and administrative. And this procedural labyrinth, which predates the current pandemic, has been long recognized to be a major weakness of the Italian political system (Capano et al. 2016; Xun et al. 2018).

Moreover, the Italian arsenal of income support measures is not balanced: it does not cover all productive sectors equally and for all types of workers. Income protection treatments are multiple, ranging from ordinary interventions to measures of last resort. The type of intervention applicable to a given worker depends, in fact, on the sector in which the employer appears and on the type of contractual agreements in force. Only larger companies and those in the manufacturing sector are covered by ordinary income support instruments.

Table 3 provides a summary description of the main interventions from the government to support workers and families. The heterogeneity of the income support measures according to the contract, sector, and support type is summarized in Table 4.

Table 3.

Direct Disbursements by the State Treasury for Income Support to Workers and Families

Type of provision Number of provisions

(thousands)
Amount disbursed

(€ millions)
Income support measures for workers
   Employees 11,744 5,087.2
   Self-employed and professionals 8,941.7 5,991.1
   Total workers 20,685.7 11,078.3
Family income support measures
   Bonus baby-sitter 747.7 515.2
   Summer center bonus 304.3 92.1
   Emergency income 1,487.8 819.2
   Total households 2,539.8 1,426.5
Direct support to enterprises
   Nonrepayable grants Revenue Agency 3,093.6 9,362.6
   MIBACT funding 24.9 601.3
Total direct supports 3,118.5 9,963.9
Total support measures 26,344 22,468.7

Period: 1 April to 31 December. Benefits in thousands and amounts paid out in millions of euros. Source: Author's elaboration based on data from the State Treasury (Venditti and Salvati 2021).

Table 4.

Types of Ordinary and Emergency Treatment for Typical and Atypical Workers in the Various Sectors

Type of contract Type of support
Agriculture
   Permanent Ordinary treatment
   Fixed-term One-off allowance of 600 euros
   Others Derogation treatment
Industry and construction (also craftsmen)
   All Ordinary treatment
Service
   Employees <5 Derogation treatment
   5 < Employees <50 Ordinary cheque
   Employees >50 Ordinary treatment
   Seasonal in tourism One-off allowance of 600 euros
Craftsmanship
   All Ordinary check
Entertainment
   All One-off allowance of 600 euros
Self-employed and freelancers
   All One-off allowance of 600 euros

Source: Author's elaboration based on data from the International Labor Organization (ILO 2020).

In this scenario, the aim of the measures issued to deal with the emergency has been to extend the support to the maximum number or recipients and to protect all employees (regardless of the nature/duration of their employment contract), but the aim has also been, as far as possible, to support self-employed workers and professionals. To this end, the requisite procedures for access to ordinary measures were simplified and new measures were introduced for excluded sectors and workers. Derogations from overall duration limits and exemptions, including partial ones, from the payment of additional contributions were also introduced. The interventions have provided for the extension (in terms of both benefit duration and the number of possible beneficiaries) of the various existing income integration instruments and have also allowed for the extension of unemployment benefits and the institution of one-off benefits for various categories of workers. In particular, the Wages Guarantee Fund has been extended to all types of companies and self-employed workers, including categories previously excluded, such as domestic helpers and others in particularly fragile socioeconomic conditions.

Wage subsidies were envisaged to avoid redundancies. As it stands, under the above-mentioned Rilancio Decree-Law, and in accordance with the new European Temporary Framework, local authorities may adopt aid measures to support the economy to contribute to the wage costs of companies and self-employed workers to avoid redundancies during the pandemic.

In addition, the government temporarily placed a ban on layoffs for as long as companies are covered by the Wages Guarantee Fund. Suspensions did not apply in the case of dismissals motivated by the definitive cessation of the company's activities, but the launch of dismissal procedures for economic and/or organizational reasons were (and still are) precluded by this ban. Both collective dismissals (more than four people) and individual dismissals were also officially precluded, regardless of the number of employees in the company.

However, the sequential nature of emergency packages and the number of actors involved in providing support further increased the fragmentation of the welfare system, making it difficult to control the cumulative number of relief measures for each beneficiary (Di Mascio et al. 2020). In fact, part of the content of the most recent relief packages has been amended to counteract the unanticipated effects of previous such packages, but this has generated confusion for both the receivers and the implementers in addition to long administrative delays. These elements have been combined with existing rules and procedures, which have already been roundly criticized for incentivizing red tape and involving too many formal approval steps, which only serve to further delay the actual arrival of aid (Capano 2020).

Hence, the intricate and heterogeneous welfare system that now exists in Italy emerged as the main constraint to government intervention. This constraint is the result of a long history of labor reforms in which each reform overlapped with the previous one by modifying only select parts of it or in changing the institutions that were to be involved. In sum, instead of comprehensive labor reforms, Italy has been witness to an ever-growing patchwork of labor legislation. Figure 5 presents some insights into the paradigm that inspired these labor policies and the main legislative labor policy interventions.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Labor reforms in Italy since 1997.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

The recent history of labor policy in Italy can be traced back to 1997 with the so-called “Pacchetto Treu.”10 The Pacchetto Treu was the first attempt to modernize the country's labor legislation from a modern point of view by taking into account the various consequences of the Third Industrial Revolution and globalization. The new paradigm was based on the concept of flex security, which is a strategy that aims to jointly favor labor market flexibility and social security simultaneously. This was achieved by introducing new labor contracts and employment agencies. In 2001, a constitutional reform reorganized the competence between the federal government and the various regional governments.11 The constitutional reform stipulated concurrent legislative power between the state and the regions with regard to active policies. In 2003, the Riforma Biaggi continued the flex security approach by introducing new labor contracts and by redesigning the authorization procedure for employment agencies.12

In 2012, however, the Riforma Fornero changed the flex security paradigm and placed stability over flexibility.13 The new paradigm was achieved by introducing new limitations and higher costs to atypical and fixed-term contracts. In 2015, yet another reform called the “Job Act”14 was approved, which redefined the relationship between the federal government and the regions with regard to labor policy by assigning the general policy to the former and the actual management of such policy to the latter. The Job Act also introduced a new permanent contract based on an increasing protections scheme according to employees’ number of working years. The aim of the new protection scheme was to combine entrance flexibility with the protection of workers’ rights. Three years later in 2018, a new reform known as the “Decreto Dignita” was approved, continuing the Riforma Fornero's placement of stability over flexibility by penalizing fixed-term contracts.15 Lastly, in 2019 a guaranteed minimum income was introduced with the “Reddito minimo di cittadinanza” law, which covered employment reintegration and societal inclusion through adherence to a personalized support plan.16

Evolution of the Labor Reforms in Italy since 1997

Since 1997, there have been four different reorganizations in the governance of the country's labor policy and two main paradigms behind its labor legislation. With regard to governance, the state has been struggling to find an appropriate balance between the responsibilities of the federal government, the regional governments, and independent public bodies, one that would not slow down the implementation of labor legislation. In the first period, that is, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Italy witnessed the genesis of many flexible labor contracts but these contracts were not supported by adequate active policies, and this situation led to “flexibility” becoming synonymous with “precariousness.” Hence, to counter this contract–policy disconnect, politicians moved to the stability approach by abolishing and penalizing atypical and flexible contracts. However, the stability approach did not provide an adequate alternative to the necessity of the firm generating rigidities in the labor market, especially for young people, something I will discuss below.

Therefore, this continuous implementation of labor reforms generated the current fragmentation in the Italian welfare system, which has acted as a constraint not only on its effectiveness but also on its fairness and transparency.

The Socioeconomic and Financial Dimension

In this section, I will analyze the evolution of the Italian workforce from 2006 to 2019 in order to understand the conditions of the labor market when the COVID-19 outbreak began. I will focus on the impact of previous financial and sovereign debt crises and the subsequent recovery phases to evaluate the resilience of the labor market. Moreover, I will analyze the labor force according to age structure, gender, and geographical area to measure the structural inequalities of the market and their evolution over time.

In the long run, the Italian labor force has grown larger, with an increase of 602,000 employers from 2006 to 2019. Employment levels have thus returned to the levels seen prior to the 2007–2008 financial crisis and after the collapse caused by the sovereign debt crisis in 2013–2014. However, this employment recovery, as it were, has not been homogeneous—not all workers have seen the same changes.

From 2006 to 2019, the number of young workers (15–34 years old) fell by 2,000,000, a decrease in the “young” workforce that affected both genders: females decreased by 846,000 and males by 1,268,000. This led the percentage of young workers in Italy's overall workforce to fall from 32% in 2006 to 22% in 2019. The diminishing role of young people in the economy points to the increasing difficulties that these people have to face in the labor market, and it sheds light on the deterioration of the future economic opportunities for this population segment.

A measure of the inefficiency of the market is the unemployment rate, which expresses the percentage of job seekers in the corresponding labor force. Figure 6 shows the evolution of unemployment rate from 2006 to 2019 according to age and geographical distribution. For example, in the south of Italy, the unemployment rate for young people is quite high: in 2014, it exceeded 35%. One must keep in mind that the age gap was present in all regions of Italy, albeit with a smaller magnitude: in 2019, the age gap was 8.1 in the south, 9.5 in the center, and 6.2 in the north.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Unemployment rate in Italy, 2006–2019.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

The strong variation in the age gap started in 2007, when the financial crisis triggered the youth unemployment rate to rise but had no such effect on the adult unemployment rate. On the other hand, after 2014, the “young” unemployment rate decreased while the adult rate remained stable. Hence, the young are more reactive to economic shock than are adults and therefore their financial situations are more volatile. However, the post-2014 decrease was not able to offset the increase that occurred during the crisis period, which indicates the presence of hysteresis in the labor market. Young people in Italy, then, with regard to their employment, are more susceptible to negative economic events and take longer to recover from them.

By analyzing the labor force according to gender, one can see a distinguishable gap between males and females. The gap not only suggests discrimination in the labor market, but it also shows us that no significant change has been implemented to rectify the situation because the gap has remained substantial since 2007. In 2019, the gap between females and males was 19.29 percentage points in the south of Italy, albeit this was a slight decreasing from 2006, when it was 21.7 percentage points. The situation is better in the rest of Italy: in the center the difference is 8.8 percentage points and in the north it is 9.7 percentage points.

An alarming consequence of the decrease of the participation of young people in the labor market it is the swelling of the ranks of NEETs. NEETs are young people between the ages of 15 and 34 who are neither employed nor in the process of receiving any kind of education or training.17 Therefore, they are young people who are not economically independent and who are also not investing in education or in the improvement of their skills. Therefore, the NEETs represent the main failure of the labor market since are young people who have lost any hope of finding a job or in the possibility that an investment in education may improve this situation.

In 2019, among the NEETs 18.02% have a minimum of a college or university degree. This data is worrisome because it shows that there is a serious problem in the labor market: it is tough even for qualified workers to get hired. This is especially worrisome because, in spite of the fact that these persons are highly qualified potential workers, they express bewilderment at and distrust in the future, are discouraged about the possibility of finding a job, and are pessimistic about the advantages of further investing in their education. The risk for these young people is not only material deprivation or economic dependence on their families, but also psychological depression and emotional distress. Not having a job and being subject to economic dependence affects one's self-image and self-esteem, and prevents one from planning for the future.

This was the situation the Italian labor market was in when the pandemic hit. Despite the strong interventions from the government, the COVID-19 pandemic strongly affected the labor market. The shutdown went into effect on 12 March 2020 with immediate deleterious social and economic effects. These effects are evident in the chart below (Figure 7) that compares the trends in the labor force between 2019 and 2020.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Comparison of labor market trends in Italy, 2019–2020.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

The analysis reveals that at the beginning of 2020 there was an improvement over the previous year, confirming the positive trend emphasized above: the declining number of unemployed persons, the stable situation of the inactive population, and the rising number employed persons. The situation changed drastically in March and April. The unemployed category lost 275,000 people, a positive change, though not an intuitive one, easily explained by observing the surge in young inactive people. In fact, there were 280,000 more inactive young persons in March and another 269,000 in April. Therefore, the decrease in the unemployed was caused by people becoming discouraged, which in turn led to many people giving up their search for a job. This analysis is confirmed by the trend of the employed, who suffered a drastic drop as early as March (131,000), followed by another severe drop in April (149,000). The situation of the employed continued to worsen until June, albeit with smaller drops. The situation improved during the summer months when economic activities were allowed to resume. The improvement, however, was only temporary: in October, with a new lockdown, a new negative trajectory began. Similarly, the unemployment figure improved after April, exceeding in July its level from the previous year, but it fell in October. The same was true for the inactive figure, which fell to 6,200,000 in the summer months, though it remained far from the summer 2019 figures.

The situation was particularly difficult for young people, who, as I explained above, generally have to face greater structural difficulties when it comes to entering the workforce. Moreover, young people (15–34 years old) are the workers who have suffered the most serious consequences of the closure policies that were needed to stem the progress of the pandemic. This fact is demonstrated below in Figure 8.

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

Labor market variation in Italy, 2019–2020.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010203

Young workers have lost 287,000 jobs compared with a decrease of 150,000 for adults. Therefore, even though young people represent only 22% of the total employed population, they lost almost twice as many jobs. This disproportionate loss of jobs has also been accompanied by a lack of confidence in the possibility of finding a job, the consequent abandonment of the workforce, and the swelling of the ranks of the inactive.

The main cause of the difference in how young people and adults have fared can be traced to the different forms of contracts between the two age groups. Adults, in general, are better protected by having permanent contracts, while young people work with fixed-term or atypical contracts, which need to be renewed when they expire. Indeed, the incidence of young people among fixed-term contracts exceeds 50%, while that among permanent contracts does not even reach 20%. With the closure of economic activities, those employed on permanent contracts have been protected by the freeze on dismissals, while those employed on fixed-term contracts have not seen their contracts renewed, generating the strong inequalities in the form of protections provided by the government.

The state's emergency response to the pandemic, then, has exacerbated the fragmentation and unevenness of the labor market. It has reinforced preexisting barriers and disparities in a market that has proven to be less than resilient with a strong hysteresis effect. It is clear, and has been for some time, that, even if the health emergency may finish soon, the socioeconomic one may yet endure for some time.

Conclusion

Italy was the first European country to be affected by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and had paid a tremendous cost in human life. Moreover, the health emergency quickly turned into a socioeconomic emergency: production activities and societal environments have become a source of risk for the spread of the virus, leading to the imposition of restrictions on the movement of citizens and the suspension of nonessential economic activities. This has changed the productive and reproductive relationships of people—that is, the social quality aspects of their life, and it has transformed the dialectical processes between the self-realization of people and the formation of collectivities, forcing people and businesses to change their habits and strategies to adapt to the new circumstances.

Arianna Giovannini and Lorenzo (2021) Mosca defined the COVID-19 crisis a critical juncture, a breaking point in the dynamics of the sociopolitical and legal, sociocultural and welfare, and socioeconomic and financial systems of a country. Indeed, by focusing on the government's actions we have witnessed the return of the sociopolitical and legal dimension as the main guide for societal transformation, a role that was almost forgotten and delegated to the socioeconomic and financial dimension. In this regard, this article examined the unprecedented lockdown measures, the dismissal ban, and the relief packages, which have been exceptional both for their economic scope and for the areas and subjects involved, recalling the importance of politics and how much it can influence Italian lives. A new equilibrium among the four dimensions seems to have emerged from this crisis, a new paradigm shared by the EU, which, with the European Temporary Framework and the Next Generation EU program,18 has and will give back to central states, not just the integrity of their labor markets but a prominent role in increasing the social quality of their citizens.

However, through the lens of the four dimensions identified by the social quality approach, I have examined how this critical juncture was constrained by preexisting fragmentations. Especially significant in this regard was the fragmentation of the institutional arrangements between the central government and the regions, and the fact that the societal protection system affected the efficacy of the sociocultural and welfare dimension when it came to filtering out and absorbing the negative effects of the crisis. On the one hand, the system limited the government's ability to coordinate its counter-measures and to manage the healthcare system, what I have called the “ex-ante filter,” because of its capacity to anticipate and mitigate the need for the contingency measures. On the other hand, the social insurance instruments were constrained by their fragmented architecture; the latter are what I have called the “ex-post filter” because of their capacity to buffer the economic repercussions of the state-mandated closures. I analyzed the overall outcome of the crisis as manifested in the labor market, where these fragmentations combined with the enduring labor inequalities of Italy with regard to gender, geography, and generation to form a longer-lasting crisis.

I pointed out that, owing to these fragmentations, the Italian response has not ensured protection for all of the country's citizens; this is especially true for temporary employees and self-employed individuals, who were already in a fragile economic condition. Therefore, the crisis has left intact and crystallized the differences in levels of welfare protection, reproducing the existing inequalities. Although I analyzed the motivation behind the different degrees of protection, the severity of the COVID-19 crisis calls for a reconsidering of the welfare system to avoid further disparities and remedy the ones currently in existence.

Hence, even if the government has regained its role as the ultimate bearer of major societal risks (Roberts 2020), reacting to the arrival of the virus with unprecedented measures, it has remained subject to its path dependency and the country's preexisting conditions, constraining its capability to change its course.

The inability of the state change course is a serious threat to the overall sustainability of the country because the crisis is likely to be prolonged and it may generate long-lasting negative effects that may exacerbate the current and persistent socioeconomic inequalities. The consequence of such a danger is that it will weaken the conditional factors—namely the opportunities and contingencies—that create social identities. This risk was increased by the application of an approach with a short-term vision too focused on the single and current ongoing emergency instead of one that pursued a legislative strategy to overcome the fragmentations and to prepare for the country's eventual exit from the crisis. Further, the incapacity to properly reach the most vulnerable people has also affected the constitutional factors that enable people's self-realization. Lastly, the fragmentations have also led to highly complex and opaque provision schemes that jeopardize the moral principles of fairness and the justice of the state's welfare system. Instead, normative factors, like social justice, solidarity, and human dignity, need to be deployed as leading principles in developing constitutional and conditional factors and hence in achieving the “quality of the social.”

Notes

1

DPCMs of 25 February; 1, 4, 8, 11, and 22 March, and 1, 10, and 26 April 2020.

2

Decree-Law No. 125 of 7 October and the DCPMs of 13, 18, and 24 October.

3

DCPMs of 3 November 2020, 3 December 2020, and 14 January 2021.

4

Decree-Laws No. 158 of 2 December; No. 172 of 18 December; and No. 1 of 5 January 2021.

5

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a COVID-19 death as a death resulting from a clinically compatible disease in a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID-19 disease (e.g., trauma, accident). There also does not have to be a period of complete recovery between illness and death to speak of death from COVID-19.

6

Decree of the Minister of Health of 30 April 2020.

7

Decree-Law No. 34 of 19 May 2020.

8

The data on GDP has been collected from Istat.

9

The temporary framework for state aid measures to support the economy in the current COVID-19 outbreak enables member states to be flexible in addressing the crisis. Together with many other support measures that can be used by member states under the existing state aid rules, the European Temporary Framework enables member states to ensure that sufficient liquidity remains available to businesses of all types and to preserve the continuity of economic activity during and after the COVID-19 outbreak. European Commission, “Temporary Framework for State Aid Measures to Support the Economy in the Current COVID-19 Outbreak.” 19 March, 2020. Brussels: European Commission. C(2020) 1863. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri = CELEX:52020XC0320(03)&from = EN.

10

Decree-Laws No. 196 of 24 June 1997; No. 280 of 7 August; and No. 468 of 1 December.

11

Constitutional Law No. 3 of 18 October 2001.

12

Decree-Law No. 276 of 10 September 2003.

13

Law No. 92 of 28 June.

14

Laws No. 78 of 16 May 2014 and No. 183 of 10 December 2014; and Decree-Laws No. 22 of 4 March 2015; No. 23 of 4 March 2015; No. 80 of 15 June 2015; No. 81 of 15 June 2015; No. 148 of 14 September 2015; No. 149 of 14 September 2015; No. 159 of 14 September 2015; No. 151 of 14 September 2015; and No. 185 of 8 October 2016.

15

Decree-Law No. 87 of 12 July 2018.

16

Decree-Law No. 4 of 28 January.

17

NEET = Not in Education, Employment, or Training.

18

For more on the Next Generation EU program, see https://eucalls.net/blog/next-generation-eu.

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Contributor Notes

Jan Martin Rossi is a researcher at EURISPES—Institute for Political, Economic and Social Studies in Rome. He has a background in economics and econometrics. In 2020, he received his doctorate in economic geography from Sapienza University of Rome with a dissertation titled “Essays on Measuring the International Business Cycle.” He is currently working on composite indices for measuring the exposure of various territories to organized crime, and he is conducting a comparison of the sustainable assessment models of multilateral development banks. Email: martin_rossi@icloud.com

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  • Baldi, B. 2019. “Autonomismo o federalismo? Modelli di sviluppo per il regionalismo italiano” [Autonomism or federalism? Development models for Italian regionalism]. Economia e Società Regionale 37 (3): 2233. doi:10.3280/ES2019-003003.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bontempi, E., Vergalli, S., and Squazzoni, F. 2020. “Understanding COVID-19 Diffusion Requires an Interdisciplinary, Multi-Dimensional Approach.” Environmental Research 188: 109814. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.109814.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Capano, G. 2020. “Policy Design and State Capacity in the COVID-19 Emergency in Italy: If You Are Not Prepared for the (Un)expected, You Can Be Only What You Already Are.” Policy and Society 39 (3): 326344. doi:10.1080/14494035.2020.1783790.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Capano, G., M. Regini, and M. Turri. 2016. “The Transformation of Systemic and Institutional Governance.” In Changing Governance in Universities Italian Higher Education in Comparative Perspective, ed. G. Capano, M. Regini, and M. Turri, 141162. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Di Mascio, F., A. Natalini, and F. Cacciatore. 2020. “Public Administration and Creeping Crises: Insights From COVID-19 Pandemic in Italy.” American Review of Public Administration 50 (6–7): 621627. doi:10.1177/0275074020941735.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fiorentini, G., M. Lippi Bruni, and C. Ugolini. 2008. “Health Systems and Health Reforms in Europe: The Case of Italy.” Intereconomics 43 (4): 205212. doi:10.1007/s10272-008-0253-z.

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