Sylvia Poggioli

Italy's prime minister, health and interior ministers faced hours of questioning in Rome Friday as prosecutors opened an investigation into possible government mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.

Investigators want to know why the towns of Alzano Lombardo and Nembro in the northern industrial region of Lombardy were not isolated and declared "red zones" as soon as the first cases were identified. As of now, no one has been charged.

The novel coronavirus is reviving one of Italy's fiercest debate topics — immigration.

The Italian government is considering giving work permits to thousands of undocumented immigrants in the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens crop harvests.

Seasonal farmworkers usually go to Italy each year from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, but recent lockdowns have kept them home. That's creating a critical shortage of labor for picking fruits and vegetables needed for food and exports.

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In Italy, where the coronavirus has shuttered more than 2 million businesses and left 1 in every 2 workers without income, some Italians are putting a new twist on an old custom to help the needy and restart the economy.

In Rome, the Piazza San Giovanni della Malva used to echo with the noise of crowded cafes and restaurants. Now, the only business open is a grocery shop, Er Cimotto.

It's so small that social distancing forces customers to order through the window.

Soon after the coronavirus hit Italy, a parody video of the Naples mafia, the Camorra, went viral, showing a bunch of guys with shaved heads meeting in an empty lot to make a deal.

"I got a new business in my hands," one says.

"100% pure," another thug marvels, unwrapping a packet and taking a sniff. "But what about cocaine?"

"Who gives a s*** about cocaine?" the first thug says. The new commodity — hand sanitizer — is "transparent gold."

Italy has been hard-hit by the coronavirus epidemic, with a death toll of more than 16,000. Its economy is in near-shutdown.

Although Italy's south has seen fewer deaths from COVID-19 infection than the north, its poverty and jobless rates are high. In lockdown since March 10, Naples, a normally bustling city of more than 2 million, is now a ghost town. Acts of charity, long a hallmark of this city, have become more important than ever as a means of sustenance.

Cities across Italy, the country hardest hit in coronavirus deaths, marked a minute of silence on Tuesday at noon to honor the many victims since the outbreak emerged about six weeks ago.

The death toll as of Tuesday had reached 12,428, and the total number of cases stands at almost 106,000. Italy's victims account for more than a third of the pandemic's global fatalities.

As the death toll of the global coronavirus epidemic continues to rise, Pope Francis celebrated an extraordinary ritual Friday evening at the Vatican.

The pope prayed for an end of the epidemic and delivered his homily against the dramatic backdrop of an empty St. Peter's Square, glistening in the rain.

In Italy, when political analysts say, "Here comes the cavalry" ("arrivano i nostri"), they're not talking Hollywood Westerns. They're saying, "Here come our guys: the USA has got Italy's back."

But today, the "our guys" have included less traditional friends.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The number of coronavirus cases in Italy continues to soar. In what has become a grim daily ritual, Angelo Borelli, the chief of the country's Civil Protection agency, announced that in the last 24 hours, the death toll from the virus had risen by nearly 800 to a total of 4,825.

That is the largest daily increase since the outbreak was revealed a month ago today. Italy has already surpassed China with the largest number of deaths from the pandemic. It now has 55,578 cases of the coronavirus, up from 47,021 on Friday.

Daniela De Rosa, a 43-year-old veterinarian in Italy's southwest Campania region, made a video message over the weekend as she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Her video plea has gathered much attention in Italy, which has just surpassed China in the number of reported deaths from the new coronavirus.

"I've been in isolation in a hospital room for so many days I've lost count," she says. "I have no contact with anyone other than doctors twice a day."

It has been less than a week since, along with 60 million Italians, I was put under a government-ordered quarantine to try to curb the spread of Italy's coronavirus outbreak, the worst outside Asia. The new slogan is #iostoacasa — I'm staying home.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Italian government has announced extraordinary measures to contain the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday declared the entire country a "red zone," meaning people should stay home except for work and emergencies.

The move expands the emergency measures already in place in northern Italy, which is where most of the more than 9,000 confirmed cases are.

As of Monday, 463 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported through the country.

Italy is undergoing the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia.

After surfacing two weeks ago in northern Italy, its economic engine, confusion and fear have spread throughout the country.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

After decades of pressure from historians and Jewish groups, the Vatican on Monday began allowing scholars access to the archives of Pope Pius XII, the controversial World War II-era pontiff.

Roman Catholic Church officials have always insisted that Pius did everything possible to save Jewish lives. But he remained publicly silent while some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the bells of St. Peter's Basilica ring out from the Vatican on a chilly January evening, a few people huddled in shabby clothes stand a few yards from the colonnade encircling St. Peter's Square.

They are waiting to enter the Palazzo Migliori, a 19th century palace just behind the square.

One of them is Livia, an Italian woman in her 60s. After having slept on Rome's streets for months, she has been spending nights since early December in what has become known as the "Palace of the Poor."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Rome, just behind St. Peter's Square, there's a palace that the Vatican owns. Some church officials wanted to turn it into a money-making enterprise. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, Pope Francis had other ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

European Union officials will be closely monitoring results of local elections in Italy Sunday that are seen as a bellwether for the fate of the national government.

Polls suggest that the far-right populist League Party could win control of a region that has been a leftist bastion for 75 years.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

They call themselves the "Sardines" — because they want to quietly pack Italy's main public squares like fish in a can. Organizers say their goal is to stop a far-right, anti-immigrant wave rising in Italian society and politics.

On Saturday, tens of thousands turned out in Rome's St. John Lateran Square for their largest rally yet. Retirees mingled with teenagers and families with kids, many holding fish-shaped signs. They sang Bella Ciao, a World War II-era anthem of the anti-fascist resistance.

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