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corona scam How Mafia made millions through their infiltration of the health system during Covid-19


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A protester during a demonstration over the decision to include Calabria in Italy’s Covid red zone

A protester during a demonstration over the decision to include Calabria in Italy’s Covid red zone

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A protester during a demonstration over the decision to include Calabria in Italy’s Covid red zone

Decades of Mafia corruption has crippled the ability of the health service in Italy's poorest regions' to cope with the second wave of Covid-19.

The 'Ndrangheta are believed to have made millions through their infiltration of the health system contracts alongside their usual criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and loan sharking.

Calabria in southern Italy is the stronghold of the 'Ndrangheta which has grown to become Italy's most powerful and wealthiest organised crime syndicate.

It is made up of hundreds of autonomous clans who pool their resources for certain criminal enterprises but do not operate under one leader.

Europol describes them as one of the most powerful and dangerous organised crime syndicates in the world and their activities are believed to earn them tens of billions of euro every year.

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Police on the streets

Police on the streets

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Police on the streets

Calabria has a lower infection rate and fewer intensive care patients than northern Italy, but is in the highest risk category because its health system is struggling to cope.

As the mafia seized resources and ran up debts, the health system was left in such disarray that 18 public hospitals were closed due to cutbacks, while staff numbers and bed places were also cut.

The gangsters paid off local officials so mafia-fronted companies would be given lucrative contracts, allowing them to establish monopolies on programmes such as ambulance services, transporting blood and taking away bodies.

They also sent in invoices for services never received, which left the health system heavily in debt. The crime syndicate also used the financial markets to sell-on debts owed to mafia-fronted companies as part of an elaborate money laundering operation, the Financial Times reported earlier this year.

Doctors in Lamezia Terme reported this summer that the mafia's grip on the health service was so tight that medical staff had to wait outside a hospital ward for gangsters to open the locked door with their keys.

This week, Santo Gioffrè, a gynaecologist who, as head of a local health authority exposed fraud five years ago, said he was told by authorities to keep quiet.

"Calabria found itself without the appropriate hospitals to meet even the minimum requirements of coronavirus - so the whole system went into meltdown," he told the BBC.

He said the mafia plundered the health service through issuing fake invoices.

"We couldn't pay creditors and there were fake bills. As the mafia got rich, we now have no hospitals, no healthcare system, we're in an emergency."

Several 'Ndrangheta members and public officials were arrested earlier this year as part of a police probe into the awarding of €100m worth of public tender contracts in Italy.

Police targeted more than 60 individuals on allegations of public tender fraud, abuse of office, and bribery.

A number of the tenders involved €42m worth of EU funds to develop urban and waterfront areas near the port city of Gioia Tauro.

Police said they also found "systemic fraud" in related public supplies contracts and that materials used in construction were not up to standard.

The ties between politicians and mafia in the region were exposed once again following the recent arrest of a local politician who has been charged in connection with an alleged mafia money laundering operation run through a chain of pharmacies.

Police allege regional council chief Domenico Tallini cut red tape required to set up the pharmacies in exchange for votes in 2014 elections. He has been placed under house arrest.

Another 18 suspects arrested are accused of crimes ranging from mafia association to attempted extortion, harbouring illegal weapons and money laundering.

Hospitals in Calabria are continuing to struggle to cope with the second wave of Covid-19.

The problem has been made worse not only by the corruption of some officials by the mafia but serious political mismanagement.

Authorities recently appointed the third health commissioner to the region, just two weeks after his two predecessors were fired.

Saverio Cotticelli was fired in early November after admitting on TV he wasn't aware he was in charge of drawing up a local emergency plan to tackle Covid-19.

His successor, Giuseppe Zuccatelli, was only a few days in the job when he was fired after footage emerged of him saying face masks were useless and you'd need to kiss an infected person with a tongue for 15 minutes to become infected.

The next replacement changed his mind on taking the job, claiming his wife didn't want to move to Calabria.

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