What History Tells Us?
History tells us that all pandemics, from the black plague of the fourteenth century to the Spanish flu of 1918, have left the way they came. Hopefully, COVID-19 will do the same. Besides the unfortunate toll of deaths, the world is dealing with an economic crisis worse than the 1929 Great Depression. At least 150 countries will experience negative growth, and millions of people will lose their jobs. Let’s go back in time. During the outbreak of syphilis at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, people frequently questioned the cause and origins of the disease. The Italians called it a “French disease,” stating that it was brought to Italy during the invasion of King Charles VIII, who claimed dynastic rights over the Kingdom of Naples. In turn, the French refuted this statement and called it “The sickness of Naples.” In the same way, Christians called it an “oriental disease”; the Asians considered it a “Portuguese disease”; the Portuguese called it a “Spanish disease.” The same thing is happening with COVID-19, and most of the online speculation suggests that the virus was the result of lab experimentation, evoking fear amongst society.
The past has also taught us how to contain a global outbreak. In 1576, a doctor from Palermo, Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia, published a book entitled Del pestifero e contagioso morbo, in which he argued that any pestilence should be fought with “gold, fire, and gallows.” Gold was a reference to the stimulus funds necessary to support the economy. The fire was used to burn any contagion source, and the gallows were used to punish those who did not obey isolation restrictions, which were necessary to prevent the spread of the plague.
From history, we can learn many other things. We can learn, for example, that there are people who struggle during a crisis and others who exploit the situation. Mobsters are some of those who end up exploiting crisis and prospering. Let’s take the Italian example. Mafia and Mafia-like criminal organizations always take advantage of social hardships and economic difficulties, especially during the cholera outbreak in Sicily in 1867 and Naples in 1887. As well as, the 1908 earthquake in Reggio Calabria and Messina, the seism in Campania and Basilicata in 1980, and other natural disasters in Emilia Romagna, Abruzzo, Umbria, and Marche. These all provided profitable opportunities for the Italian-base criminal organizations, as they were able to get their hands on the stimulus and reconstruction funds.
Drug money worth billions of dollars, also helped some banks avoid bankruptcy during the financial crisis of 2008. This was “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse.
What is the current situation?
Currently, COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the global economy and is influencing and shaping organized crime worldwide. Many countries have seen a decrease in crime like murders, extortion, prostitution, illegal betting, and human trafficking.
With businesses closed, there are fewer places for organized crime to conduct business. Without live professional sports, there are no games to gamble on. Fewer counterfeit goods are coming in from China to sell. Moreover, drug producers are having trouble getting imports of chemicals from China; thus, the price of illicit drugs has increased.
In many countries, criminal groups or associates have distributed food and other essential items, taking advantage of the absence and delays of State intervention. It’s called Mob Welfare, a strategy to invest in consensus. Desperate people who today receive food parcels will be grateful, regardless of who gave it to them. Another risk is that of financial doping. Many companies may fall into the hands of criminals just as there is a high risk that criminals would find ways to fraudulently apply for aid. In the coming months, we will witness a lot more corruption, as organized crime is capable of adapting rapidly to systemic weaknesses.
How will Mafia and Mafia-like criminal organizations come out of this experience?
We have already had some indications of this. There has been an increase of COVID-19 related phishing scams whereby cybercriminals have impersonated reliable sources of information, such as the World Health Organization, to spread malware or garner personal information, with an increase to 600% in cybercrime cases worldwide.
More criminal opportunism will emerge as the crisis unfolds. As a mobster warned during a conversation intercepted a few years ago in Italy, there will be less and less need for people who know how to click a gun but more people capable of click a keyboard. After COVID-19, mobsters will be more sophisticated, fiercer, and more creative. It is up to us to reduce their operating margins. And fight them seamlessly. If COVID-19, hopefully, will disappear by lysis. Organized crime does not.