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Italy’s ‘boys’ club’ politics shuts women out of coronavirus debate

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MILAN — Women are overwhelmingly on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, in Italy, when it comes to engineering an exit from lockdown, they’ve had a hard time getting heard.

Women make up two-thirds of Italy’s health workers, 80 percent of cashiers in supermarkets, 90 percent of home care workers and nearly 82 percent of teachers. But very few have a seat at the table where key decisions are being made about the policies to navigate the country’s reopening.

Italy is still in the hands of a “boys’ club,” Emma Bonino, one of 16 senators who filed a motion calling for the government to increase female representation in its working groups, told POLITICO. “Men pass power from hand to hand in a closed circle.”

Following a month of protests and public outcry — including the social media campaign “Dateci Voce” (Give us voice) — Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appeared to take the criticism to heart and pushed for more women to be appointed to the expert groups advising the government.

Five new women will join the Vittorio Colao task force charged with designing Italy’s roadmap out of the crisis. The previously all-male scientific committee managing the emergency response will see six female experts join its ranks.

Is it too little, too late? As Italy comes out from under lockdown, POLITICO asked women from across sectors what they would do differently if they were involved in designing the government’s deconfinement strategy.

* * *

Orna Serio, middle school teacher, Milan

Before February 23, Orna Serio had never heard of Zoom. When Italy’s schools closed, she had to reinvent how she did her job — one she’s done for 30 years.

To her, a major blind spot of the current recovery plan is the uncertainty surrounding kids’ futures. Despite teachers’ best efforts, their education has been seriously interrupted.

Serio, who is a mother of three, knows how difficult it can be to keep up with kids’ school work. She sees the effort that her students’ families are putting in from behind the screen, but worries that it’s not a long-term solution.

Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are at particular risk of getting lost in the system, according to Serio, and the government should be looking at how to get them the proper tools.

“It takes even more funding to provide families in need with computers and tablets to follow lessons online,” she said. “Despite initial aid, many students have been left out.”

The government also needs to more clearly understand the link between the reopening of schools for kids and the ability of their parents to get back to work, according to Serio.

Italy’s education minister has suggested schools could reopen again in September, with a mix of in-person classes and online learning. But the lack of clarity on what the new arrangement will look like has left many parents wondering how they will go back to work if their kids aren’t in school all day.

In many families, deprived by the coronavirus of being able to rely on grandparents, the burden of child care will fall to women, who are still most often the primary caregivers in Italy, exacerbating existing inequalities.

“I understand the difficulties of having to manage a historical moment like this, but it seems like we are being driven with one eye shut, with no long-term project in sight,” Serio said. “At some point you have to choose a path.”

Giovanna Iannantuoni, dean of Università Bicocca, Milan

Giovanna Iannantuoni, one of only five female university deans in Italy, knows exactly what she would have said, had she been asked to contribute to the debate.

“I would have recommended using the university laboratories to do mass swab testing and make serological kits for the population, because testing is essential,” she said. “Our laboratories were never called on.”

Now that tests are more widely available, Università Bicocca is the first university in Italy to test all of its employees — more than 2,000 people.

“I went out of my way to start ‘Phase Two’ by making those who work with me safe,” said Iannantuoni. “A woman’s approach? Well, I’m proud of it. It’s a way of taking care of our community and [protecting] others from unnecessary risks.”

“We need to rethink the social model in which we live” — Giovanna Iannantuoni

Excluding women from discussions on how to move the country out of lockdown — and what life will look like on the other side — makes no sense, said Iannantuoni, who said she hopes politicians will put the well-being of citizens at the center of the debate.

“Starting at my university, I would like to build workplaces with flexible policies, capable of reconciling working life with private life,” she said.

“We need to rethink the social model in which we live,” she added. “It takes courage to unhinge cultural assumptions, and courage is often a woman’s virtue.”

Emanuela Girardi, founder of the nonprofit Pop AI, Turin

Emanuela Girardi became one of the main promoters of the “Dateci Voce” initiative when she realized the government would not notice the absence of women’s perspectives unless it was confronted with its own biases.

“It all started in a chat with some girlfriends,” said Girardi, an artificial intelligence expert who is also a mother of three. “After the announcement of the task force dedicated to rethinking the future of Italy, for the umpteenth time in this emergency it was clear to us that our politicians do not consider women.”

A major issue that has been ignored, she said, is the fact that Italy has one of the lowest rates of female employment in Europe — 50 percent. That means that, under the government’s new measures, 72 percent of the approximately 4 million people returning to work in this next phase of lockdown are men.

“They can go back to work because at home they have a wife, a partner, that takes care of the children,” said Girardi.

Italy needs to be making it possible for women to work outside the home, she said. Those in power have to understand that “gender equality makes sense, it increases the GDP of the country and contributes to the development of the economy.”

To advance that goal, the government should also introduce legislation to ensure gender balance in institutions and expert groups that design legislation, said Girardi, who is a member of the ministry of economic development’s expert group on artificial intelligence.

Although she has “always been against ‘pink quotas,’” Girardi said she now thinks they may be the only way to make tangible progress in a “male system” and make sure women are heard.

Paola Pedrini, general practitioner, Bergamo

Although Paola Pedrini represents family doctors in the region of Lombardy — the most severely affected by the outbreak — the government didn’t seem particularly interested in her insight on the situation, she said.

“Nobody ever called me from the government to ask me for information, only the mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, did once,” said Pedrini, the Italian Federation of General Practitioners’ sole female regional director among 19 men.

She said she would have pushed the issue of lacking personal protective equipment in hospitals, advised against clogging emergency rooms and emphasized the need for more “at home” diagnostic tools. Having a team of people equipped to carry out tests outside hospitals and advise people on self-isolating would undoubtedly have saved lives, she added.

Instead of listening to doctors, the government “listened to the entrepreneurs,” who resisted turning cities like Bergamo into “red zones,” she said.

A female doctor delivers orders in a Bergamo hospital | Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

If she was involved in current discussions, she would advise against moving into the next phase of lockdown at all.

“We are not able to immediately isolate a suspected case and that person’s close contacts, because testing is only done at the hospital,” she said. “General practitioners also still lack protective equipment, which as of now is still being procured by donations.”

Pedrini also said she wished the government understood the importance of giving people clear information.

When the number of hospital cases appeared to have decreased, the government called it good news, ignoring the fact that the numbers had fallen because hospitals were full and they no longer took in patients — meaning COVID-19 sufferers were left at home, sometimes in critical condition.

“Even now, the situation that is communicated is not realistic. Those who have mild symptoms and stay at home are not calculated in the numbers, so we do not yet have a reliable figure,” she cautioned. “I would have advised that letting people know how things really are was important to earn people’s trust.”

Stefania, cashier, Milan

Since the emergency began, Stefania, who works at the checkout of a supermarket in Milan, has hardly taken off her blue uniform.

“It’s better now, but in the beginning it was hell,” she said. “We were without masks or visors. People were storming supermarkets, and no one sanitized the spaces.”

She wants the government to pay greater attention to essential workers like her and her husband, who also works in a supermarket. Essential workers, she said, should be given the right protective equipment and be systematically tested if they’re expected to keep working while others self-isolate.

The government’s failure to do so puts people like Stefania “in a risky position, both for ourselves and our families,” she said.

Stefania, who asked to remain anonymous because she is afraid of losing her job, also stressed the need for more support for families like hers who are struggling to find child care solutions while they work.

The government’s “babysitter bonus” — a monthly €600 check given to each family — is helpful, but not nearly enough, she said. On days when she and her husband had to work long shifts, they had to pay a neighbor to look after their 7-year-old son for 12 hours.

She also wishes she could spend more time with her son, and help him with his homework, without sacrificing the income they need. “I feel guilty, but we need the €1,000 I earn a month, otherwise we would not be able to pay the rent, the expenses, and everything else.”

Her family is only getting by thanks to the help of the people around her, she said. “I, as a woman and a mother, feel abandoned by the state.”

Laura Boldrini, senator, Rome

For Laura Boldrini, the epidemic has highlighted an unbearable situation: Fifty-one percent of the population is still excluded from the political debate.

In the midst of an epidemic, that means that discussions over how to handle the emergency and what comes next are inevitably skewed according to what men consider important, making these plans less effective than they could be.

Boldrini, who is one of the senators to have called for more female involvement in lockdown discussions, is tired of hearing stories of women who have been forced to give up their jobs or whose partners don’t help with child care, she said.

Italian Senator Laura Boldrini | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

She is worried that failing to address the specific challenges women are facing during the pandemic will exacerbate current inequalities. “We must stem the damage so it does not become an accepted construct,” she said.

She wants politicians involved in the current discussions to consider this an opportunity to build “a more contemporary and just society” — one where child care can be shared equally between women and men and families are supported by generous welfare programs that free both parents up to work.

“These are structural changes that start from politics,” she said. With only men at the top, though, there’s a real possibility that the government’s new measures set society back, she added. “We cannot miss this opportunity.”

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Edited By Harry Miller

Politics

Liberals' ability to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny plays into system of 'image politics,' critics say – National Post

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OTTAWA — The Liberal government has avoided months of parliamentary scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead using televised daily briefings with the prime minister to further its system of “image politics,” an expert in democratic process says.

The Liberals and New Democratic Party agreed earlier this week to suspend parliamentary proceedings until September 21, equipping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a “tremendous amount of power over the summer,” said Kathy Brock, professor at Queen’s University.

The decision comes after Trudeau has for months appeared in the House of Commons on a limited basis, instead using his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage to announce major new spending measures and take questions from the media.

He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model

“This government is very focused on messaging and image politics and that meant that it wanted to respond to the needs of Canadians when the pandemic came up,” said Brock, who has served in various advisory roles to all three major political parties over the last 30 years.

“But when they started to face criticism for not acting as quickly as possible, the prime minister turned to the easiest tool, which is having briefings with the media outside Rideau Cottage,” she said.

The approach has been met with criticism by opposition parties and parliamentary experts, who say politicians have not had adequate time to press the Trudeau government on some of its largest spending measures, which now top an estimated $150 billion. They also say the government overreached in an earlier attempt to equip itself with the authority to tax, spend and loan money with almost no parliamentary oversight for nearly two years, well beyond the expected timeframe of the pandemic.

Other observers point out that Parliament would typically rise for the summer months regardless, and that “hybrid” forms of Question Period, which include virtual questions and answer sessions, have continued for the past few months.

“The cut-off in June is not an aberration,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University. However, she questioned “why there’s such a desire” to close off access to other forms of scrutiny, like private members bills or written questions to Parliament.

Turnbull, like others, has been surprised by the Liberals’ ability to secure the support of opposition parties to restrict in-person sittings of Commons.

“Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government,” she said, “It’s incredible what this government has done. We usually see more push and pull between the opposition and the government.”

The NDP has faced criticism for making an agreement with the Liberal party to suspend Parliament because it allows for the government to sidestep proper scrutiny.

NDP House leader Peter Julian pushed back against those claims in an interview Thursday, saying the deal secured four sitting days in the House of Commons during the summer — a provision that other parties were not pushing for.

“There’s been a lot of exaggeration,” Julian said.

Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government

The NDP opposed a Conservative proposal that would have had regular in-person sittings in the Commons well into June, in which a select group of roughly 50 people would attend in order to maintain social distancing measures. The proposal would have allowed Parliament to exert its full powers before summer break, but Julian argued it would have needlessly excluded the majority of MPs in Canada.

“I think it’s a very Ottawa-centric interpretation,” he said.

A spokesperson for Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez reiterated that all parties agreed to the March 13 motion to suspend Parliament until April 20. The agreement with the NDP allows for the continuation of a special COVID-19 committee that meets several times a week, but is not afforded the regular powers of the House.

“We believe it is a responsible plan that ensures accountability and transparency, and respects public health advice,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.

Candice Bergen, Conservative House leader, said there has been a push for months by the Liberal government to avoid regular parliamentary sittings. MPs in recent weeks had been sitting in-person on a limited basis once a week.


Conservative House leader Candice Bergen.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/File

“I was clear with Pablo that we felt Parliament needed to resume,” Bergen said. “But that was clearly not what the government wanted and they found a dance partner in the NDP.”

She said Trudeau has instead opted to convey the Liberals approach to COVID-19 through the televised briefings at his official residence, where media ask daily questions.

“He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model,” Bergen said, adding that media “is not a substitute for the official Opposition.”

Brock, at Queen’s University, said the Rideau Cottage meetings give Trudeau more time to craft his own message on a daily basis, unimpeded, while taking only a select number of questions from journalists.

“It certainly operates in the Liberals’ favour, because they’re receiving media attention and it seems very positive because they’re responding to a crisis,” she said. “But it means that they aren’t getting tough questions to the same extent on other, lesser known files.”

• Email: jsnyder@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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A Guide to the Economics and Politics of the Coronavirus Recovery – The New Yorker

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Photograph by Marco Bello / Reuters

Just a month ago, experts were predicting that the American economy would be slow to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment remains at record highs, but, as the country begins to reopen, federal policies that have bolstered small businesses and bailed out big ones seem to have helped avoid another Great Depression. John Cassidy joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss how good news about the economy complicates Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump.

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Keep Politics Out of Reopening Houses of Worship – The New York Times

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Credit…Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “Firing Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Wants Churches Open” (front page, May 23):

Last Friday was not the first time we have witnessed a politician attempting to ingratiate himself with faith communities. Through the years, leaders from both major political parties have sought the support of houses of worship in their electoral campaigns.

Certainly those of us who devote our lives to religious leadership would like to consider our work “essential.” And we eagerly await the day when we can welcome our congregants back to their spiritual homes. While we can pray to God anywhere at any time alone or with others, and while the internet has provided a viable and meaningful vehicle for gathering our members in this time of physical distancing, nothing could ever replace the power of in-person congregational worship.

But religious communities must not become political pawns for a president seeking to placate his evangelical base. In Judaism, the saving of life supersedes all other religious responsibilities. The decision whether or not to reopen houses of worship belongs in the hands of local authorities alone, guided by health concerns, not political ones.

Joshua M. Davidson
New York
The writer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.

To the Editor:

The cynicism of President Trump’s call to governors to open the churches is staggering. I am a Catholic who attends Mass every day. I have always loved the ritual of the Mass, and I rejoice and celebrate as I gather with friends old and new who enrich my life. I will return joyfully to my church when our governor deems it safe to do so, not when it is politically expedient for our president.

John T. Dillon
West Caldwell, N.J.

To the Editor:

President Trump asks all governors to immediately open up churches and allow in-person worship — without testing. Yet everyone who meets with Mr. Trump must first be tested.

So, what’s good for the gander ain’t good for the goose. If he truly believes that in-person worship is safe, let’s see him go to these churches (or restaurants or theaters) without testing — and let’s see him mingle with the folks not wearing masks.

Marc R. Stanley
Dallas

Credit…From left: Zack DeZon for The New York Times; Andrew Seng for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “The Star of the City Sells Itself,” by Michael Kimmelman (Critic’s Notebook, Arts pages, May 7):

OK, the Brooklyn Bridge is wholly in New York City and joins two of its boroughs. And it was something of an engineering achievement. Book after book has been written about it; it appears in a wealth of movies.

But the great bridge in the New York area is the George Washington.

When I sought to read a book on the George, I discovered that there were none. Participating in a symposium at Columbia University on American icons, and listening to others drone on about the Brooklyn, I asked “What about the George?” There was complete silence. Then one participant said, to almost universal laughter, “But look where it goes,” the suggestion being that since the George crosses to New Jersey, it couldn’t possibly be important.

The George is also the gateway to Interstate 80, on which one may travel in a straight line to San Francisco. New Yorkers think of themselves as sophisticated compared with New Jerseyans, but they can often be decidedly parochial.

Michael Aaron Rockland
Morristown, N.J.
The writer is the author of “The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel” and a professor of American studies at Rutgers.

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