Care Labour and Isolation in Italy: New Ethical Challenges Part One


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve decided to make a report on the effects of isolation politics on care labour in Italy, starting from the way the new scenario was reshaping my ethnographic research on elder care in Emilia-Romagna. Emilia-Romagna is one of the northern regions most affected by contagion and diseases from coronavirus. From the end of February, the regional authorities had imposed a limit on family visits in residential and semi-residential structures, and then closed the ʼAlzheimer’s Caféʻ and the mutual help groups for the carers whom I’ve been frequenting since last year. The restrictions were part of a larger regional decree that shut down kindergartens, schools, universities, museums, and cinemas. At that time, there was little hope among social workers and psychologists that the situation would have changed soon, and citizens normally go out in the evening to attend bars and restaurants. In the previous weeks, it seemed that the virus was affecting only a few locked towns in Lombardy and Veneto. Politicians from all parties and some scientists had been repeating that everyone should avoid panic and alarmism because the virus was only dangerous for the elderly and people who were already sick. The only advice was to wash hands often and carefully, keep a safe distance of one meter from other people and avoid large gatherings of people.     

Without having received any official ban, I alone decided to interrupt my visits to my fieldsite and suspend the scheduled interviews as a precaution because I was afraid for the many elderly people that I had come to know during the research. The ʻAlzheimer’s Caféʼ psychologist expressed to me all her frustration for not being always able to keep a safe distance from her colleagues. Later on the same day, she wrote a post on Facebook where she manifested all her anger with some people who used to sneeze in their immunocompromised relatives’ faces after having washed and sanitized their hands with care. In that period, many of the home care-workers I know still worked in the house of elderly people and received their salary, even if they tried to adopt more rigorous hygienic parties and impose a limit on their social life. One of these care workers, Laura, limited herself to buying groceries and medicines for her clients and leave it on the landing of their house without entering. 

But on 9th March 2020, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed the national lockdown, which shut down adult day-care centres and forbade family visits to residential structures for elderly people. Later, the decree caused many home care-workers to interrupt their jobs, and the government financial aid relief for the COVID-19 emergence have excluded those workers so far, excluding the possibility for them to receive unemployment benefits.

The national association of domestic workers (Acli-Colf) has recently condemned the situation and expressed serious concerns over the consequences that the crisis would have on this sector of the labour market. Despite the ambiguous national and regional attempts for regularization, many domestic workers still work without a regular employment contract and now are afraid of being charged by the police officers responsible for the lockdown period. The situation is worse for those who have not a regular stay permit. Even the people who are regularly employed can benefit from a few social protection schemes, and now they don’t know if they will receive a salary for this month nor the next one. Worried about the risk of contagion and with more free time, a lot of people have tried to assist their relatives without the help of home care-workers. In a Country where home care-workers have been the main providers of care for older people in need for the last thirty years, their absence, together with the closure of adult day-care centres, could have dramatic consequences. It is necessary to mention that it seems that even the Italian national health service (NHS) is reducing the home-based care services, and activists all over Italy have been condemning the way the State has handled the situation of family carers who look after a disabled person.

In Italy, home care-workers have recently been seeking social recognition, presenting themselves as ʼskilled health professionalsʻ with rigorous professional ethics, and many workers have decided to interrupt their jobs for the safety of the people they cared for. An experienced worker, Maria, explained to me that it is impossible to keep the appropriate distance when you need to wash, feed, and dress someone, but, like many others, sometimes she buys groceries and medicines for elderly people who can’t go outside. She does not receive her salary for this work. Maria has said that she spends a great deal of time answering the telephone to reassuring and give advice to the older people she knows.

Last week I received a call from Margherita, a family carer who had been frequently visiting the ‘Alzheimer’s Café’ with her mum:

                 “Do you know that the adult daily living center is closed now? Alessandro has told me that he can’t rely on the domestic workers anymore, and he is stuck with his wife at home, and it is the same for all the others. And the problem is also that he is not able to cook and all the restaurants are closed now, so maybe it is a good opportunity to learn! [laughing.] I miss him and Raimondo so much, our jokes and jibes at the Cafè”.

Margherita told me the story of Adriano whose wife had been affected by dementia, he used to visit his wife every day in the nursing home where she has been living since her condition dramatically worsened one year ago. “But since they stopped the visits”, Margherita told me, “he is worried that his wife won’t be able to recognize him in the future. He confessed to me that sometimes he is not able to get out of  bed in the morning”.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems that new ethical challenges have emerged surrounding elderly care in Italy. The main issue is now how to balance the risk of contagion with the rights of care workers and the demands of care and assistance that concern not only sick elderly people but also their ʻfamily carersʼ. The hope is that these actors will not share the same fate, that is, to become the main subjects of health, social, and political-economic vulnerability again.


Francesco Diodati is a PhD student in Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Milano-Bicocca. His research project is entitled “The recognition of the fatigue of caring. Aging, Caregiver, and prendersi cura in Emilia-Romagna, Northern Italy”.

(Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Upsplash)

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