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L'ESPRESSO
L'Espresso is one of Italy's leading weekly magazines, co-founded in Rome in 1955 by typewriter magnate Adriano Olivetti. It is noted for its investigative pieces, and is considered center-left politically.
A closed cafe in Florence, Italy during the countrywide lockdown
Geopolitics
Genevieve Mansfield

Florence Storefront Photographs: Sign Of Our COVID Times

Italian photographer Simone Donati captured his hometown of Florence soon after it went into lockdown last spring. As Italy opens up, it was time for him to return.

FLORENCE — In March 2020, Italy became the first country in the West to be hit by the coronavirus. During the worst month, the mortality rate in Italy doubled, and today the country still mourns the more than 126,000 people killed by the pandemic, the sixth highest death count in the world.

Beyond the immediate health impact, Italy was also the first country in Europe to impose a strict nationwide lockdown to counter the spread of the virus. The quarantine forced schools, businesses and shops to close their doors.

About a month after restrictions were imposed, Italian photographer Simone Donati ventured outside to begin documenting his home city of Florence. Long known as a center of commerce, including the receipts from some 16 million tourists per year, Florence was virtually deserted. After a few days of shooting, Donati began to focus on simple images of closed storefronts — the series eventually was featured on the cover of Italian weekly magazine, L'Espresso.

One year later, as Florence and Italy slowly return to normal, Donati went back to the same shops he'd photographed shuttered down to see what he would find ...

Florence Storefront Photos: A Sign Of Our COVID Times

Restaurants and bars reopen in Yellow Zones in Italy. Milan, Italy on May 2, 2021.
Geopolitics
Alessio Perrone

Post-Lockdown Milan: All Booked And On The Verge Of Bankruptcy

Bars and restaurants are finally able to receive customers, at least for outdoor service. It's a welcome shift for a weary population that is still, nevertheless, wary about the lingering pandemic.

MILAN — Hanging from the wall opposite the main entrance of Red Red Wine, a blackboard reads: "Tasting of indigenous grapes of Southern Italy. Reservation required."

The words are scribbled in colored chalk and advertise an event that took place more than a year ago — on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. The board is a time capsule, in that sense, like a broken clock that stopped ticking, from one day to the next, right around the moment when everything in Italy came to a halt, when time suddenly stood still.

As long as the pandemic raged out there, the blackboard remained. ​

Red Red Wine is my go-to place for aperitivo in Milan, the city where I was born but had been away from for a few years. When I returned, at the end of 2019, I came here to get reacquainted with the life I had before leaving: The wine bar is close to my parents' place, serves Italian wines, and is owned by a former schoolmate.

I'd only been frequenting the place for a few months when, in March 2020, it closed. That was when the pandemic first flared up in Italy, when the government imposed the West's first lockdown and forced all wine bars and nightlife venues to shut their doors.

The owner, Marco, made a conscious choice to keep that last event on the blackboard, a sign of the arrested life inside the venue.

Even as I visited last summer, when restrictions were briefly relaxed, the board became a powerful symbol of how the virus remained among us, preventing us from carrying on with our lives — or doing stuff that once seemed so simple, like having a glass of wine. As long as the pandemic raged out there, the blackboard remained there to remind us that no, we had not gone back to normal.

bars_Italy_reopening

People are impatient to savor their social lives again. — Photo: Alessandro Serrano/Avalon/ZUMA

Countless bars, restaurants and shop owners across Italy suffered similarly. But in the past two weeks, the country has now finally begun reopening, allowing proprietors to once again start serving outdoor tables. In the next month, if new infections keep dropping, the country will reopen outdoor swimming pools, beach resorts, and indoor bars and restaurants will also get the green light.

A new energy has taken over Italian cities; people are impatient to savor their social lives again. Pictures of life reappearing in the streets of Milan and Rome have made the rounds on social media, showing locals sit down for a cappuccino or a glass of wine. Restaurants book out days ahead of the weekends: Customers have begun to make weekend reservations on Mondays and Tuesdays.

This Italian reopening is also accompanied by a lingering state of anxiety.

Cities are still less vital than they used to be, but they seem certainly eager to recover their past form and finally put the pandemic behind them — and it's a joy to watch. But this Italian reopening is also accompanied by a lingering state of anxiety. After all, venues briefly reopened last summer too, only for the first wave to give way to the second, then the third.

The newsweekly L'Espressoreports thatmost of Italy's bars and restaurants are already "on the edge of the abyss," that "one misstep and they'll end up bankrupt." Will this reopening last past the summer? Will vaccines rid us of the virus for good? Will our lives go back to normal, and what happens if not — one more year of restrictions?

I've tried to go back to Red Red Wine twice to celebrate the fleeting joy of reopening. I haven't managed to get an outdoor table yet. But when I do, and I'm finally able to sit down for that sweet, long-anticipated first sip, I'll make sure to glance inside. I wonder if my glass of wine will be a sign we're finally inching back to normal, or if the blackboard will remind me that it's another mirage.

Pope Francis presiding over mass in the Vatican on May 1
Italy
Michela Murgia

Pope In Therapy: Why Italy Won't Face COVID's Mental Health Toll

Italy is once again murmuring about how Pope Francis was in therapy while serving as a priest in Argentina. It's just another sign of Italians' tendency to live in denial about hard questions around mental health.

-Essay-

ROME — Pope Francis was once in therapy, and in the last few days, this was considered important news in the Italian media. It really isn't. Four years have passed since the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, first revealed that he needed mental health while serving as a cleric in his native Argentina, where the use of therapy and psychologists is much more culturally accepted than in Italy. The trauma of the 1970s and 1980s, when the military dictatorship and the trail of 30,000 forcibly disappeared people created deep personal and collective wounds. In the following years, nobody thought they could face them alone, not even a Provincial Superior of the Jesuits, as Bergoglio was when he began therapy.

What is striking, however, is that the question of the pope's mental health is coming back to the fore just now in Italy, at a time in which mental health promises to be one of the most catastrophic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic — and, unfortunately, one of the most neglected ones. The government's emergency measures completely ignored the mental health toll of the pandemic, especially among the younger generations, unlike what has happened in other European countries.

In France, where the number of people resorting to therapy has increased by 40% in 2020, Emmanuel Macron announced that, as long as the state of emergency lasts, the health system will guarantee free access to 10 hours of mental health support for everyone between the ages of 3 and 17. Here, the alarm sounded by Italian psychiatrists has remained unheard. They denounced the invisible iceberg of the mental health toll of the pandemic, saying that in the next few months they expect at least 800,000 new cases of depression among the infected and their relatives, which means that it could happen to anyone. Amid the refrain that "everything will be fine," ubiquitous in Italy during the pandemic, we set out to deny our traumas from the very beginning.

In 2011, Daniele Giglioli wrote a book titled Senza trauma ("Without Trauma"), in which he analyzed a generation of writers who, because they hadn't experienced any real trauma to draw from in their narratives, were willing to invent it and even consider the absence of trauma as ... traumatic. Today trauma — understood as an event that breaks the hinges of normality in a lightning-fast manner — undoubtedly exists. It is a consequence of the revelation of an unknown and invisible enemy, of the fear of dying and seeing someone die, of the failure to manage mourning in a context in which the ritual has been suspended. And above all, it is a fear of the imposed, and in many cases, radical change of daily life habits, study and relationships.

In Catholic countries, therapists and priests compete with each other.

But there is more. Wars begin and end, natural disasters have reconstruction as their epilogue and bloody events are exceptional by definition, but as days go by, the change caused by the pandemic looks more and more like a new normal. How long will "trauma" be enough to define what we're going through, and to define us?

In the search for this answer, remembering that even the pope 50 years ago sought help from a specialist takes on the weight of a symbolic event, full of collective and in many ways revolutionary meanings. For a long time, in Catholic countries like Italy, therapists next to the couch and the priests in confessionals were competing with each other, from antithetical presuppositions. Should we deal with God or with the ego? Do we examine our conscience or the unconscious? Do we preserve our sense of guilt as a precious sign of alarm, or focus on behaviors with a view to transformation?

Italy, Catholic in every sense of the term, is a land specialized in collective denial, not in raising awareness, and the exhortation to forgive personal sins has often been paired with the convenient omission of community sins. COVID-19, as a trigger for a new normal, has the potential to break the pathological mechanism of denial and oblivion, offering us a precious opportunity to move from the game of assigning blame to the taking of responsibility.

Destroyed in 1993, Mostar's bridge was rebuilt in the early 2000s
Geopolitics
Alessio Perrone

Balkan Scars And A Secret Plan To Redraw The Borders Of Bosnia

The colored tattoo of a fortified bridge towering high over troubled waters takes up almost all of my friend Ivan's shoulder. In his early 30s, Ivan has a footballer's build and flawless cockney accent. He's been a British citizen almost all his life, but was born in Mostar, in present-day Bosnia, in the late 1980s — a bad time to be born in Bosnia..

He says he remembers the din of the bombs falling on his town when he was a kid and the Yugoslav Wars broke out, in 1992. Ethno-nationalist groups seceded from Yugoslavia and turned on each other. They fought prolonged, bloody conflicts that killed at least 140,000, and committed genocide on at least one occasion. In Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995, pro-Serbian forces executed at least 8,000 Muslim Bosnian civilians. Ivan's family, ethnic Croatians, fled Mostar as refugees, resettling first in Germany, then in London.

His closest Croatian relatives live elsewhere in the Balkans, but Ivan chose to put Mostar's towering Old Bridge on his shoulder. Not much is known about the bridge's construction by the Ottoman empire in 1566. What is clear is that it came to symbolize the city's multiculturalism: It united Mostar's blend of Croats, Serbs and Muslims living on both banks of the river.

Heavy shelling by Croat paramilitary forces destroyed the bridge in 1993, and the river gobbled the crumbled blocks of limestone. It was rebuilt in the early 2000s, when engineers coordinated the lifting of the old blocks from the river and used some of them in the reconstruction, a powerful image of the scars bore by the very fabric of Bosnia.

Now, it seems, some are setting their eyes on those scars again. In the last couple of weeks, an explosive memo has emerged in which Slovenian authorities suggest the redrawing of Bosnia's borders along ethnic lines. Serbia would gobble up the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia's two regions with a large ethnic Serb population. The Croatian-majority cantons would join Croatia, while Albania would annex Kosovo and swathes of present-day Northern Macedonia.

The plan would push the region back into the nightmares it went through 25 years ago.

The design resembles closely that of the massacres of the 1990s, when military forces attempted to create ethnically homogenous countries. The document even suggests it merely seeks to continue where the Yugoslav wars stopped.

There is much that we don't know about the document. It's an unofficial memo or "non-paper," as it's called in European diplomacy — a way for officials to share ideas confidentially. It's unsigned, so it's difficult to understand who wrote it, although journalists spotted the fingerprints of Slovenian government officials on the original document. But so far, one of the only people to confirm its existence is Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, according to Euronews.

Slovenia's PM Janez Jansa, widely believed to have drafted and leaked the document to destabilize both the Balkans and the EU, has declined to confirm nor deny any rumors, as have EU officials.

As the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso says, the plan would push the region back into the nightmares it went through 25 years ago. "There would be only one consequence: war," the publication writes. And although this kind of behind-closed-doors partition of Bosnia may seem impossible, the article does on say, "impossible things often become true in the former Yugoslavia, where ghosts, once they are evoked, take shape quickly."

Many Europeans might be too young to remember the bloodshed of those wars or too far removed from them, but the continent — like the Mostar bridge and my friend Ivan — still bears the scars on their skin.

Seizing smuggled masks in Incheon, South Korea, on Feb. 13
Economy
Floriana Bulfon

How Crime Is Mutating To Cash In On The Pandemic

Across the globe, mafia syndicates, white-collar criminals, hackers and scammers are finding novel ways to profit from the ongoing health crisis.

Nothing will be the same as before. For everyone, the pandemic is disrupting lives. But for a few, it also offers an opportunity for profit.

This new criminal market has sprung up to siphon earnings off the virus, and it is spreading just as quickly as COVID-19. With the urgent necessities of this health emergency, mob bosses and entrepreneurs have teamed up, leading to a mutation of our idea of "criminal association" that knows no boundaries.

China, South Africa, the Emirates, Russia, the Americas and Europe are intertwined in a network in which the only thing that matters is the ability to quickly solve problems. Indeed, since March 2020, mafia families with decades of experience in import-export processes on their CVs, together with unscrupulous white-collar workers, have converted their businesses and explored new opportunities.

In the end, it's all a question of logistics — finding what's missing and getting it where it's needed, no matter the cost. It's the same workflow in any criminal market, including drug trafficking, except this time the products are different.

In the first wave, it was masks, gowns, test tubes, gloves, disinfectants, respirators and oxygen cylinders. And the prices soared — by 1,000% in the span of just two weeks. Then, as the crisis continued, new speculations emerged.

Since the lockdown forced the use of the internet for nearly everything, computer frauds became commonplace from daily shopping to the public registry's office. There were also scams on financial relief allocated families and companies in difficulty. Now, the big money maker is the vaccine. Pure liquid gold. So precious, in fact, that "warehouses and shipments are at risk of (armed) robbery," warns Interpol chief Juergen Stock.

This is not just another one of Italy's flaws, but a worldwide trend: The race for profits in the underworld is the same from Germany to Brazil. The first comprehensive analysis of the criminal atlas in the pandemic was carried out by the Financial Action Task Force, the leading body for fighting money laundering.

Fraud, swindling of supplies, and false certificates of conformity have generated staggering amounts of money.

Overwhelmed health systems have triggered a race to find treatments, drugs, protective clothing — by any means necessary. That left the door wide open for illegal activity, even at the very outset. Back in January 2020, the world had not yet realized the danger of COVID-19. But in China, an announcement appeared: "We have large quantities of surgical masks and disinfectants available." A few weeks later, more than $180,000 had arrived in three Hong Kong bank accounts and then disappeared forever, just like the PPE.

The virus spreads quickly and crime learns to adapt. Less than two months later, German health authorities fell into the hands of the bandits. They needed 15 million euros worth of masks and were looking to buy from companies in Zurich and Hamburg. Unable to meet demand, they ordered through a Spanish company that, on its website, claimed to have 10 million in stock.

Only after a whirlwind that bounced money from an Irish dealer to a Dutch company, did Germany realize the trick. The website was fake and half a million euros had already been sent to Nigeria. For the clans and the professionals who offer their services, all that protects us is transformed into business. Masks imported with customs documents that seem valid turn out to be forged. Others offer their improvised document certificate services to put on any stamp on anything in exchange for money.

To deal with the emergency, the Italian government chose to proceed by way of derogation, resulting in the Rome Public Prosecutor's Office opening an inquiry into a 1.25-billion euro order with three Chinese consortia and as much as 70 million euros in commissions that ended up in the pockets of Italian "entrepreneurs."

Fraud, swindling of supplies, and false certificates of conformity have generated staggering amounts of money. In Brazil, more than 300 million euros between April and November last year alone. Even in Germany, the raid has highlighted the criminal underworld's political connections, making the governing Christian Democratic Union party tremble in fear.

Now, a year later, commercial outlets for obtaining the vaccine are multiplying in the shadows. There is smuggling, or rather "parallel sales," with free zones where European, Russian or Chinese antidotes change the destination. Or in the Philippines, Chinese gambling businesses have received Sinopharm injections, despite the fact that the authorities in Manila have not approved their use. Prices jumped from $30 to $300. In Ukraine, police recently discovered the trafficking of 3,000 euros per dose.

Analysts point out similarities between the prices of vaccines and those of drugs: All it takes is for the wholesalers to announce a delay and the prices skyrocket. Are multinationals signaling that they cannot meet the deadlines as agreed upon with the EU? Here come the proposals from "subcontractors." In the last few weeks alone, the Czech Republic has received two offers from sellers in the United Arab Emirates ready to distribute vaccines produced in India, as well as those from AstraZeneca.

These cases are not isolated. In fact, OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, has reported the movement of 1 million doses on the "parallel market," putting EU governments at risk of 14 billion euros in fraud. The offers often come from companies based in non-EU countries, created solely for these operations. In some cases they are clearly scams: They ask for payment in advance and disappear with the money, making it almost impossible to trace the perpetrators.

There is also the bazaar of fake vaccines. Counterfeit doses have been seized by Interpol in South Africa and China, but others could land in online pharmacies. Quack doctors are in on the action too, with fake test kits, remedies on digital networks and miracle COVID-19 cures from oregano to cow feces.

Italian soldiers delivering the Pzifer-BioNTech vaccine at a hospital in Parlemo, Italy, in December 2020 Photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/ZUMA

In addition to trade, the pandemic has made mature the illicit activities that were previously only experimental. Hacking has become mainstream, with varying levels of professionalism. Every piece of information about vaccines and treatments has taken on a strategic value. The most evil of hackers try to steal vaccine formulas through cyber attacks on laboratories, hospitals and research centers.

But these raids are only the tip of the iceberg in the digital evolution of lockdown crime, sure to stay. Around the world, these groups act without borders, stealing personal data, penetrating bank accounts, and manipulating credit cards. They break the trust of those who are not internet experts with a million different tricks. There are fake banks, for example, offering links for economic relief and loans with state guarantees. Once an individual takes the bait, they clean out the account. And for businesses, instead, they paralyze servers and block the data until a ransom has been paid.

In the GAFI dossier (Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering), one can see the beginning of a new era where the mafia can count on economic resources and flexibility, but above all one sees their alliances with political mediators and bourgeois professionals, forming a compact transnational block.

The routes for smuggling masks have become the preferred investment channel in activities warped by the crisis — investing in hotels, restaurants, real estate, companies everywhere and moving cash across continents. According to Cerved, an agency providing credit risk management and analysis services, one in five Italian companies is at risk of loans sharking, and in some provinces in the south, such as Naples and Catania, thousands of companies have already changed ownership.

During the pandemic, mafia groups have sought to be seen as a source of welfare.

GAFI warns: "Rising unemployment, financial difficulties and the bankruptcy of companies represent vulnerabilities for criminals to exploit more and more."

During the pandemic (and as history shows with other crises too), mafia groups have sought to be seen as a source of welfare: from distributing food parcels to enforcing lockdowns.

"Criminal groups are in search of a valuable and intangible commodity: legitimacy based on social consensus. They pose as governing entities, offering protection in contexts where the state has denied that COVID-19 was a problem, such as in Brazil, or where protecting the weak does not come quickly. As a result, the governance of communities by mafias has grown, and this is an effect of the virus that in some contexts, such as in Latin America, will not end soon once the pandemic is over.

"Italy must pay attention too," says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at Oxford University. He warns that mutations, with regards to computer crimes, will continue after COVID-19. "It is necessary that web giants are considered providers of essential services," Varese adds. "They must introduce a measure of public control. Banks that do not report suspicious transactions must be sanctioned."

The latest sector targeted in the COVID-19 context is public financing. It's sufficient enough to just hire front men or take over failed companies to pocket the subsidies and disappear. In Lombardy, in Italy's north, criminals affiliated with the Calabrian mafia (‘Ndrangheta) have scored riches by using false invoices to justify non-existent income. What's legal and what's illegal become intertwined in order to be sure that criminals can grab subsidies within the gray zone, often ready to offer their services.

In Spain, last April, a criminal organization took over 50 companies on the verge of bankruptcy just to obtain government relief. In Washington state last July, a man was accused of filing false tax returns on behalf of six different companies to obtain more than $5 million. On paper, one of the six companies boasted dozens of employees and wage and tax payments in the millions, but in reality, he bought it a few months earlier over the internet and was inactive.

In Switzerland, in the meantime, a financial institution granted a loan of 90,000 Swiss francs to a phantom construction company that had already played the same scheme with another bank. These numerous episodes mark a global evolution with unpredictable outcomes. Around the world, many fear that this mutation in crime will not disappear alongside the pandemic. On the contrary, it could become the new model of mafia business, increasingly inserted in an economy that's been greatly compromised by virus.

Anti vaccine protesters in Rome, Italy
Italy
Maurizio Di Fazio

Cabals, Clubs, Pseudoscience: Tour Of The Anti-Vaxxer Galaxy

ROME — A deep dive into Italian anti-vaxxer social media groups leaves me stunned. For them, AstraZeneca, Pfizer/Biontech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and the others are very dangerous, lethal poisons. They keep track of all the alleged casualties of the vaccine roll-out — even if they are just a repetition of the same articles, drawn from unlikely alternative media and inflated with sensationalist language. They see side effects everywhere and don't buy the story of the "lack of correlation" between inoculation and any problem that a person may have.

They try to persuade that a eugenics experiment on a planetary scale is underway, piloted by the usual suspects who have mocked the well-deserving Donald Trump: Bill Gates (whom they call "Kill Bill"), the "Davos clique", the Bilderberg group, the WHO, Big Pharma, 5G, the "deep states', the technocratic governments steered by the most soulless multinationals and the evergreen demo-Pluto-Judaic-Masonic elites (as well as clergy-pedophiles) who move, you know, our residual existential threads.

They believe that "doctors no longer cure the virus in order to aid the billionaire vaccine business — there are precise directives from above" ; that "the pandemic, already simulated in 2017, is a planned operation by a health dictatorship and that economic, social and psychological terrorism to lead to the advent of a new satanic world order" ; that "concentration camps for forced vaccination are being rebuilt in Germany" ; that "Israel is well advanced in the work." By now we must be close to a Great Reset, subject to a remake of the Nuremberg mega-trial for those "responsible."

This is what you read if you extrapolate some of the recurring rhetoric that animates Italian Facebook pages such as "The hidden damage," which has some 8,000 followers ; "Freedom of choice for vaccines," which has more than 26,000 likes ; or Facebook groups like "Free-Vax Italia" (11,000 members) and Telegram channels like "Covid vaccine adverse events', 12,000 subscribers.

It's a strange galaxy of people who deny the need for immunization in order to return to some kind of new normal. We are talking about people who are often obsessives, who have monothematic virtual profiles. Now they are clamoring we are facing a mass massacre through a syringe, until a few months ago they fought against the "state muzzle" mask. And every four or five lines they casually wish death to those who do not think like them, the "sheep and lobotomized minds," or trolls at best. The irony.

The demon by which they seem possessed remains that of the online hater, fueled by identifiable disinformation and fake news. And by their pseudo-lawyers, doctors, opinion leaders, bloggers and gurus. "The AstraZeneca vaccine contains fetuses of aborted babies," writes one of the anti-vaxxers with the largest following. "Christians are protesting against this horror, but Pope Francis does not care about this. He worries that everyone will have the opportunity to inject dead babies into the vein."

For a good self-respecting anti-vaxxer, getting vaccinated is a bit like playing Russian roulette.

For a good self-respecting anti-vaxxer, getting vaccinated is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Anaphylactic reactions are around one corner, cerebral hemorrhages are around another, not to mention abortions and heart attacks caused by these potentially fatal injection. Fake videos proliferate, showing post-inoculation writhing and spasms. "What is certain is that between 20 and 50 year-olds, the vaccine certainly killed more than Covid," claims one user, Michele T.

Don't forget the medium and long-term side effects, as Anna E., a quiet girl with freckles, points out: "They are fine today, perhaps, but in the future? The dangers are written on the package leaflet." Chiara B. agrees: "The problem is that you get sick from the vaccine." Clara G. doubles down: "They use the military to force the people to act as guinea pigs for this experimentation with vaccines that are not tested — and just for a simple flu that doesn't exist, but that the government insists it does. Therefore, if you have a little cough, they intubate you and make treatments that sometimes kill you, they are so drastic in their reactions." Fabio F. looks at the broader picture: "My hypothesis is that the advantage of the vaccine is twofold: on the one hand this ‘terrible virus' continues to be kept alive, because the vaccinated become active vehicles for it, and therefore this farce is being helped to continue infinitely; on the other hand, those who do not have immediate side effects will develop, within a few years, nice autoimmune diseases rather than leukemia and tumors."

What about the variants? "They are more complicated to eradicate and are actually caused by vaccines, which are not at all effective against infection or disease," one writes. Rossella C., one of the most enthusiastic, adds: "They threaten you, they extort your consent, they impose false laws on an elusive obligation (which does not exist), they bully you, they treat you like cattle for slaughter, all piled up in closed schools (will they have the minimum safety requirements to be used as vaccination centers?). But what exactly for? For what? This is pure butchery… I can't wait to see you all hanging from a pole."

Luigi M backs her up: "The time has come to get a gun license." Annamaria joins in: "Ready: crossbows, clubs, Kalashnikovs." Alex P. is also on the warpath, riding on the back of paranoia: "It's all connected. This is the Fourth Reich. Gene vaccines are a non-human therapy. Don't let them screw you." Exacerbated and with very clear ideas, Valentina V. has this to add: "They are inept, with serious mental deficits. They deprive themselves of the freedom to live life for fear of being infected with this fake virus. And then they get killed by getting injected with this shit. He who is the cause of his own evil, let him weep for himself. Serves him right. Natural selection. There are too many of us."

At the end, she reveals a fundamental presentiment: "I believe that this is a moment of authentic and radical change. I have highly developed senses. A few weeks before Covid, I had a dream in which the streets were invaded by zombies. Some friends could testify to that. This is to tell you that there will be a global awakening. It will not be an easy process, nor will it be painless, but what comes next will be wonderful."

Bulgaria has become a giant trash can for Italian waste traffickers
Italy
Vittorio Malagutti

Waste Trafficking: A Dirty Italian Affair Poisons The Balkans

Thousands of tons of trash are sent from Italy to Bulgaria illegally each year. Between poor controls and political complicity, wealth-hungry entrepreneurs — and the mafia — and local oligarchs earn millions as Eastern Europe turns into a rubbish dump.

SOFIA — Italians aren't just exporting fashion, food, and soccer to Bulgaria. The Made in Italy label is also attached to mountains and mountains of garbage as Bulgaria has become a giant trash can for Italian waste traffickers. The Bulgarian judiciary have discovered this through recent major investigations, leading to the discovery of dozens of illegal dumps around this Balkan country.

The criminal web is intentionally complex, with overlapping trails, mediators, front men and shell corporations, but in the end, the common thread weaved between business and suspects led to Italy, as discovered by the investigation carried out by L'Espresso and the journalistic consortium EIC (European Investigative Collaborations).

This problem is so serious that, in January 2020, then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Sofia to discuss Rome's "maximum cooperation" with Prime Minister Bojko Borisov in fighting the "eco-mafia."

But, in the clamor of scandals and crises over the past few months, Conte's promises were lost in the furore. The Minister of Environment and his deputy resigned after being accused of covering, if not favoring, illegal trash trafficking.

Border checks are not the problem. As both countries are part of the European Union, goods arriving into Bulgaria from Italy enjoy minimal customs formalities. Exporting waste is based on a system of special authorizations. So, in order to evade customs, you need to simply change the transport identification codes en route. Minimal risks are accompanied by huge gains, given that the cost for disposal is much lower in Eastern Europe than it is in Italy. This is why Bulgaria, which has the lowest income per capita in the EU, has become the "promised land" for Italian toxic waste merchants.

"The business of garbage"

In October 2020, after months of investigation, the Carabinieri (Italy's national gendarmerie) of Environmental Protection in Milan dismantled a gang of traffickers, capable of amassing over 24,000 tons of waste throughout illegal dumps in Northern Italy. Among the 16 people arrested at the request of the local Anti-Mafia Department was Antonio Foti, from Calabria, in southern Italy, who had already served jail time for his connection to the "Ndrangheta" (the Calabrian mafia) and who has invested in the "business of garbage" with his children.

Bulgaria has become the "promised land" for Italian toxic waste merchants.

A truck driver witness to the investigation explained over the phone that Tecnobeton, the company owned by Antonio Foti's family, ships waste to Bulgaria. "They're grinding away at full speed. They're always doing business with Bulgaria," he said.

This, however, is not the only thread which leads to the Balkans. Also included in the web is Mario Accarino, as well as his daughter Laura and nephew Francesco. According to the L'Espresso investigation, Accarino, 61, manages the Bulgarian company Acar Eco, where Avni Kadir Musein, 40, is a shareholder (for reference, his brother Kadir Avni Kadir was arrested in 2012 for trafficking cocaine into Italy). However, the police report lists his charges under the name of Krassimir Zlatanski, which was only registered with the Italian state in 2008.

Over the phone, Zlatanski/Kadir confirmed that he knows Accarino. But, he said that Acar Eco was actually owned by his sister, and that he only worked in the iron scraps export, which is currently inactive.

Despite troubles with the law, Zlatanski has not cut ties with Italy. A small trading company in Milan is also registered under his name. "I have nothing to do with Accarino's business," he claimed.

Acar Eco is based in Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv, and is involved with a complicated web of illicit activities discovered through years of investigations. With his brother Salvatore, a likely fugitive in North Africa, Mario Accarino has collected a variety of arrests and convictions for environmental crimes. In 2019, the waste trafficking brothers had a million-dollar fortune confiscated, which included, among other things, 27 properties and 28 bank accounts and safety deposit boxes in Italy and Switzerland.

As wealthy as they are, the Accarino brothers are nothing compared to the Bobokov brothers, Atanas and Plamen, two of the richest entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, with assets of hundreds of millions of euros. The Bobokov brothers, too, have been indicted for illegal waste trafficking and, like the Accarinos, built their empire between Italy and the Balkans. Their case caused a sensation in Sofia last May because of their reputation as being untouchable, thanks to their close relationships with politicians. Their empire collapsed last year when the duo ended up in jail for illegally dispersing at least 7,000 tons of various trash material, including toxic substances, throughout the country. The investigation also involved Bulgarian Deputy Minister of the Environment, Krasimir Zhivkov, who was swiftly arrested, and Plamen Ouzounov, responsible for President Rumen Radev's legal affairs.

Tons of waste in Svilengrad, Bulgaria — Photo: Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto/ZUMA Wire

The Bulgarian story also leads to northern Italy. Three years ago, Monbat group, owned by the Bobokovs, acquired Piombifera Italiana, a metal manufacturing company with an office in La Spezia and a factory in Macrobio, both in the north. The company claims to recycle spent batteries by extracting lead to reuse as raw material, but magistrates in Sofia suspect that they are putting Italian waste in illegal dumps.

"We don't know anything about it," said Paolo Pofferi, Piombifera Italiana's managing director, who already had suspicious shipments returned from Slovenia in 2019.

Pofferi is not new to the limelight. Thirty years ago, he founded an off-road vehicle factory in Nusco (near Naples in southern Italy). The company had a short life and closed after just three years. Pofferi, in the midst of a series of bankruptcies, ended up at the center of an inquiry on wasting public earthquake reconstruction fund and is also accused of having buried polluting waste from his companies in Nusco. His accountant, Giovanni Grazzini, has just been appointed local commissioner of Forza Italia (Italy's right-wing political party), however Grazzini says he is unaware of any judicial troubles. "A long process, but in the end I was acquitted," boasted Pofferi.

In Bulgaria, however, the question of relations with the Italian company remains as present as ever. The affair could land in the courtroom by spring, with three minor defendants already pleading guilty.

Parcels from Naples

In February 2020, Bulgarian authorities came to a legal verdict that resulted in the rejection of 3,700 tons of waste in 147 containers: "Take back your eco-bales' (compact balls of refuse) was their refrain.

The Bobokov brothers ended up in jail.

The delivery, which was part of a larger shipment of about 600 containers, had just landed in Varna and was promptly returned to Salerno, where it had parted months earlier. Dentice Pantaleone, the waste management company that had sent them, then had to manage its own waste, symbolizing a catastrophe for waste management in the Neapolitan area.

According to the official version by Bulgaria — contested by Italy — the parcels were different from what was declared on paper. In Bulgaria's capital city Sofia, the government suspended the license of the local coal-fired incinerator controlled by Bulgarian energy magnate Hristo Kovachki working with Italy.

To pick up the slack, in November 2020, another Bulgarian company entered the playing field: Blatsiov. This one, however, is actually managed in part by two Italians: Ezio Buscè, who has since died, and engineer Vincenzo Trassari. When questioned by L'Espresso, Buscè"s brother, Fabrizio, presented himself as the "operational manager" of the company that shipped eco-bales to Bulgaria.

The third manager of Blatsiov is Goran Angelov, a Bulgarian man who is actually also the manager of the Italian waste management plant, FCL Ambiente of Frosinone, just outside of Rome.

This waste management system is a closed circle with Italian (criminal) elements involved in every step. Thousands of tons of waste will still need to be disposed of in Italy, and hopefully without the disposal method used in 2015, when an Italian ship dumped 65 tons of plastic waste into the sea off the coast of Tuscany. Those 65 tons of eco-bales are still there, still polluting protected waters and still slowly killing off a sanctuary for cetacean aquatic mammals.

Facebook moderators, 'the clandestine guardians of what a contemporary network puts out.'
Italy
Maurizio Di Fazio

For Facebook Moderators, The Soul-Crushing Job Must Go On

Underpaid and overexposed to what in some cases can be truly disturbing content, moderators are the invisible, human grease that keep the social media machine running. It's grueling but essential work that happens behind the scenes.

The message was for Mark Zuckerberg. "Without our work, Facebook would be unusable. Its empire collapses," the founder of the social media titan was told in a letter sent last year and signed by more than 200 people.

"Your algorithms cannot spot satire. They cannot sift journalism from disinformation. They cannot respond quickly enough to self-harm or child abuse," the missive went on to say. "We can."

The we, in this case, are social media content moderators. Employed not only by Facebook, but also Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and all the other major digital platforms, they are the clandestine guardians of what a contemporary network puts out. It's a crucial profession, but one that's also goes largely unseen.

Moderators are sacrificed in the chase of the illusion of complete editorial automation.

"I believe that the most difficult aspect is the condition of total invisibility in which they are forced to work — for safety reasons, but also to minimize the importance of human work," says Jacopo Franchi, author of the book Obsolete. "Today, it is impossible to establish with certainty whether a moderation decision depends on the intervention of a man or a machine. Moderators are sacrificed in the chase of the illusion of complete editorial automation."

Speed is of the essence, silence is golden

Because technology fails to grasp the way we mean some of our words — and who knows if it will ever understand them — platforms still need someone to hide the dirt under the carpet in the eyes of the billions of subscribers and advertisers. Someone, in other words, needs to take that stuff down before it infects too many monitors and smartphones.

Digital moderators are men and women without specific skills or specializations, and of any ethnicity and background. They're absolutely interchangeable workforce. To be hired, you just need to be immediately available, have a stable connection and some nerve.

They sift through and possibly delete the millions of anonymous daily posts, videos and stories reported by users. Such content includes child pornography, hate messages, fake accounts, hoaxes, revenge porn, cyberbullying, torture, rape, murder, suicide, local wars and live massacres. These rivers of mud escape the fallible dam of algorithms, and can end up making unspeakable horrors viral. These are the people that resolve machine selection errors, even if everything must appear, to the end user, to be a uniform and indistinct projection of artificial intelligence.

It's essential and misunderstood work. It's also, in many ways, barbaric. "I was paid 10 cents per piece of content," writes Tarleton Gillespie in his Custodians of the Internet. "For this amount I had to catalog the video, published by ISIS, of a boy who had been set on fire."

A former moderator said that Facebook even keeps track of their bathroom breaks.

The custodians work at a frenzied pace, deleting up to 1,500 pieces of content per shift. This happens one at a time, following the guidelines provided by the companies, the changing Community Standards (which the moderators refer to as the Bible).

If a post is in a language they don't know, they use an online translator. The important thing is to be fast: They have a few seconds to determine what needs to be removed from our feeds. Valera Zaicev, a former moderator and one of the major activists in the battle for rights in this category, said that Facebook even keeps track of their bathroom breaks. Nobody knows anything about their mandate, forced as they are to silence by martial confidentiality agreements.

"Content moderators are an example, perhaps the most extreme, of the new forms of precarious work generated and directed by algorithms," says Franchi. "Nobody can say how many there are: We are talking about 100,000 to 150,000 moderators, but it has never been clarified how many of these are hired full time by companies, how many are hired with temporary contracts by subcontracted agencies and how many instead are paid piecemeal on the "gig working" platforms."

Always answering to the algorithm

At Facebook, the most protected moderators in the United States have a stable contract paying about $15 per hour. But there are also roughly 1,600 moderators employed by the contractor Genpact in Hyderabad, India, where they are paid $6 dollars per day, according to Reuters.

The latter are part of a reserve neo-industrial army that responds at the platform's disposal, thanks to outsourcing companies like TaskUs — people in unspecified corners of the globe, paid peanuts for one gig after another.

Facebook EU HQ in Dublin, Ireland — Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/ZUMA

They face immense body and mind fatigue, commanded by an algorithm, a mathematical-metaphysical entity that never stops, and makes for an authoritarian leader.

"It is an algorithm that selects them on LinkedIn or Indeed through deliberately generic job offers," says Iacopo Franchi. "It is an algorithm that organizes social content that can be reported by users. It is an algorithm that plans review queues and it is often an algorithm that determines their score on the basis of their "mistakes' and decides on their possible dismissal."

Yes, if they are wrong in more than 5% of cases, they risk getting the boot.

For those who manage to keep their jobs, it's essential to disconnect completely in their free time. "There are thousands of moderators in the European Union and all of them are working in critical conditions for their mental health," says Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, a pressure group that assists them in lawsuits.

In 2020, Facebook paid $52 million to thousands of moderators who had developed psychological problems due to their work.

Few last more than a few months on the job before being fired for disappointing performances or leaving by their own volition because they are no longer able to observe the evil of the world without being able to do anything other than hide it.

For those who manage to keep their jobs, it's essential to disconnect completely in their free time.

The aftermath can be heavy. The accumulation of bloody visions traces a deep furrow. Who else has ever plunged so deeply into the abysses of human nature?

"Exposure to complex and potentially traumatic contents, as well as information overload, is certainly a relevant aspect of their daily professional experience, but we must also not forget the high repetitiveness of their tasks," says Massimiliano Barattucci, work psychologist and professor of organizational psychology.

"Unlike another new job, that of delivery couriers, content moderators are exposed to all sources of technology-fueled stress," he adds. "And this helps to understand their high turnover and burnout rates, and their general job dissatisfaction."

Alienation and emotional addiction to horror could be just around the corner. "A progressive cynicism can arise, a habit that allows you to maintain detachment from the shocking content they see in their work," says Barattucci. "They may develop disorders such as insomnia, nightmares, intrusive thoughts or memories, anxiety reactions, and in several cases, PTSD."

One day, in the Facebook center of Phoenix, Arizona, everyone's attention was caught by a man who threatened to jump from the roof of a nearby building, a former moderator tells The Verge. Eventually, they discovered he was a moderator, a colleague of theirs: He had walked away during one his two allowed breaks. He wanted to log off the horror.