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The response of the Italian regions to the pandemic: a quanti-qualitative analysis

Andrea Filippetti and Fabrizio Tuzi


Covid-19 is the first emergency that affected Italy in its regional institutional set-up. Through a qualitative-quantitative analysis of the regional resolutions in 2020, the article proposes a first analysis of the regional system. Drawing from their own resources, the regions have deployed 7.3 billion euros, of which two billion is intended for interventions to support families and 5.3 to support the production system. The regions that have implemented the most significant interventions per capita are the Autonomous Provinces, the regions with special statute and the large southern regions, the latter largely drawing on the resources of the structural funds. We observe an evolution in the allocation of resources from general and emergency aspects to specific characteristics of the regional production sectors. The regional system has shown a certain ability to mobilize financial resources and a significant degree of differentiation.

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1Covid-19 is the first emergency that has affected Italy in its regional institutional set-up, resulting from the 1999-2001 reforms that modified Title V of the Constitution, giving greater legislative and financial powers to sub-national governments, including regions, provinces and metropolitan cities. This paper aims to carry out a preliminary analysis of the regional system in the face of the pandemic emergency.

2In virtually all countries affected by the pandemic, central governments have played a key role in implementing economic and financial support measures for households and businesses in the months following the first two waves of the pandemic in 2020. The Italian government adopted a series of extraordinary intervention initiatives that were based on the need to support the economy, with particular attention to small and medium-sized enterprises, with the twofold objective of countering the negative effects of the contraction in demand and maintaining the productive capacity of the various sectors of the economy.

3Italy was the first European and Western country to be severely hit by the health emergency. The virus had a geographically uneven distribution: during the first wave (March-April 2020), the northern regions, which represent the productive and economic epicenter of the country, were affected most by the virus. Subsequent waves then spread across the whole country. It should be noted that the Italian regions are responsible for the management of their own respective health sectors. This led them to play a central role in handling the COVID-19 emergency from the outset.

4In Italy, regional governments showed an ‘activism’ unprecedented in the post-war republican age. The intense activism of the regions during the pandemic was grounded on three key elements: i) a political legitimacy emanating from the direct election of regional governments; ii) an increased level of legislative and administrative autonomy in several functions that had previously been the prerogative of the central state; iii) an increase in the availability – and autonomy – of financial resources. In the two decades which followed the 2001 devolution reform, the regions have exercised autonomy alongside the state on matters such as tourism, production activities, territorial planning and health. In fact, although the regions were only established in 1970, there role became significantly more important with the set of reforms introduced at the end of the 1990s – i.e. administrative decentralization and the direct election of regional presidents – and the subsequent reform of Title V of the Constitution in 2001. This set of reforms changed the form of Italian state from unitary to regional (or quasi-federal), assigning legislative and financial autonomy (although the latter is still incomplete today) to the regions (Filippetti & Tuzi, 2020; Marino, 2021; Keating & Wilson, 2010; Palermo & Wilson, 2013).

5In addition to the central issue of health during the pandemic, the regions adopted a series of measures and initiatives, complementary or additional to those activated by the government, aimed at supporting families and the business sector in their territories. The aim of this paper is to provide a first preliminary analysis of the role of the regions and their governments in Italy during the pandemic (see Casula & Malandrino, 2023; Casula & Pazos-Vidal, 2021; Baldi & Profeti, 2020). The paper thus contributes to recent studies which have explored the way in which federal countries – characterized by their multi-level government institutional setting - managed the health emergency (e.g., Steytler, 2022).

6As noted above, the impact of the epidemic varied significantly from region to region and from province to province. An analysis of the effectiveness of the response of the regional system can, in our opinion, be based on two main factors. The first is the speed of the interventions implemented by the regions; the second is their flexibility, meaning their ability to adapt the interventions in terms of intensity and typology, to their territorial context.

7In a country characterized by widespread entrepreneurship, close relationships between the business sector and the local banking system, and profound territorial differences, a corresponding territorial articulation of interventions was deemed necessary. While the central states also have the capacity to articulate their interventions on the territory, the regional and federal states have a greater inherent heterogeneity of public policies on their territories. First, regional governments have greater and faster access to local information; in addition, political legitimacy encourages regional policy makers to react swiftly to mitigate the negative impact of economic shocks on their constituencies. The ability of the regional system to activate different support measures should not be read as a sign of confusion or inefficiency; on the contrary, it represents its most virtuous side. An institutional model with multilevel governance in both directions, top-down and bottom-up, can have a positive effect on public service delivery by allowing states to complement federal regulation, offering opportunities for policy innovations from which the federal level can ultimately benefit (Sager et al., 2019).

8In financial terms, the magnitude of the contribution of the Italian regions is certainly not comparable to that of the central government, which was able to leverage a large debt capacity, also thanks to the support of the European Central Bank. The regions, for their part, were able to draw on resources from their own budgets and from the uncommitted resources of the structural funds from the European cohesion policy. This was made possible thanks to two European regulatory initiatives - Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) and Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus (CRII Plus) - that the European Union made available to Member States to face the current health crisis, allowing them to redirect the European funds for the seven-year period 2014-20 toward expenses related to the pandemic emergency. In fact, the procedures allowed a very quick reprogramming of funds, including support in the form of working capital to SMEs, if necessary, as a temporary measure to provide an effective response to a public health crisis.

9In this paper, we examine the intensity of the economic support of the regions to both families and the business sector. Our quantitative analysis is based on an original database developed by Issirfa-CNR, in which more than 350 measures of regional councils aimed at supporting families and the economic system in response to the Covid-19 emergency in 2020 were recorded. Alongside the quantitative analysis, we carried out a textual analysis of the titles of these measures to identify the qualitative trends during the different phases of the epidemic as well as between the different geographical areas.

Covid19 and regional activism

10Covid triggered a remarkable return of governments to the center of the scene. However, significant activism was also observed at sub-national levels of government, especially in countries with a federal or regional form of government (Coletti & Filippetti, 2022; Bailey et al., 2020; Steytler, 2022). The pandemic set the framework for an increased focus on regional and local politics, amplifying political voices and agencies and, in some cases, challenging traditional multi-level governance systems (Radil et al., 2020; OECD, 2020; Lynch & Gollust, 2021). Bailey et al. (2020) define the crisis as “undoubtedly a regional one” (p. 1163) due to several aspects, including its uneven impact at the regional scale, the new spatiality of supplies, and the reconceptualization of the urban dimension.

11The emerging role of sub-national politics in response to the crisis should be considered in light of the process of the rescaling of statehood over the last two decades (Brenner, 2004: Keating, 2021) and within the perspective of the growing political mobilization based on national and regional identity and mobilization from below (Loughlin, 2000).

12A particular element was the activities of sub-national governments during the pandemic, which frequently generated tensions between central and sub-national governments, depending on how each state, nation, or country was governed. In federal and regionalized states, sub-national governments exploited their autonomy to become particularly active and, in some cases, quite vociferous. In principle, federal countries should be less reactive to crises because of inherent co-ordination issues between the different levels of government. This was the case in the United States, where a lack of co-ordination from the federal powers left the individual states to cope with the emergency by themselves (Agnew, 2021), in the absence of uniform national standards, each governor pondered the proper range of regulatory interventions (Brown, 2021). In Brazil, states (and to some extent municipalities) introduced their own restrictive measures because the federal government had been inoperative for several months. Germany was forced to rebalance its federal powers during the pandemic, giving the central state, and especially the federal health ministry, additional competencies. However, the Länder level remained important, retaining the option of implementing central regulations on a regional basis, using their own discretion. The heads of Länder governments were also involved in the informal decision-making. (Bandelow et al., 2021).

13Regional governments have been active in regionalized states such as Italy and Spain: “Loyalty does not mean submission” according to Ximo Puig, the socialist prime minister of the Valencian Autonomous Community, when speaking about the passive and subordinate role given to the autonomous communities for the management of COVID-19 (Grau-Creus & Sanjaume-Calvet, 2020). Finally, in unitary states such as the United Kingdom, there were political tensions between central government and key metropolitan areas (namely London and Manchester) over the restrictive measures put in place to contain the pandemic.

14The role of regional political actors during the pandemic must be understood within the broader context of the regionalism that took place in several countries. Regionalism, or the process of increasing autonomy (or self-rule) for regional actors, has been the result of both a top-down approach by states to regions and a bottom-up process driven by mobilization from below (Loughlin, 2000). Regionalism can be interpreted along two conceptual lines (Jones & MacLeod, 2016). On the one hand, theories about regional spaces have analyzed the role of the region as a system able to sustain endogenous economic growth and innovation through the mobilization of regional economic actors, institutions, and local networks. On the other hand, studies on spaces of regionalism have focused on the regional mobilization of political forces based on rising regional identity and social capital to foster democracy, political legitimacy and increased autonomy (self-rule). In the former, the regions are conceptualized as functional spaces, as in the context of the European cohesion policy. In the latter, they are conceptualized as a “space with which to cultivate performance citizenship” (Jones & MacLeod, 2016, p. 436; Keating, 1998). In this article, the regions are conceptualized according to the latter definition, with particular reference to the ‘political’ element of autonomy that derives from i) regional competencies in some key policies (e.g. health); and ii) the regions’ participation in national policymaking.

Regionalism in Italy

15Italy is a rather ‘young’ country where the regional level of government, introduced in the Italian constitution of 1948, was only formally implemented in 1970, although the regional governments were initially characterized by insufficient political influence and financial autonomy.

16Italian regionalism has coexisted with the developmental gap between north and south, unresolved even now, which has been addressed by strong political and economic efforts since unification (Graziani, 1998). Nevertheless, Italy is still marked by significant income disparities across regions, which are larger and more persistent than in any other European country (Asso, 2021.

17Table 1 shows some socio-economic indicators that highlight the divide between different areas of the country.

Table 1. Some regional socio-economic indexes


GDP per capita











Trentino-Alto Adige












Valle d’Aosta
























Friuli Venezia Giulia




















































































Source: ISTAT, 2023

18The issue about the ineffective central government measures for the southern regions to reduce the regional economic divide, combined with dissatisfaction with high taxes, central state bureaucracy, and the national political class, led to demands for greater regional autonomy, especially in the northern regions. These instances flowed into the political process that led to the 2001 Constitutional reform. The new constitutional provisions reshaped the relationship between the central, regional, and local governments. It granted regional governments greater political legitimacy, legislative powers in several areas, and financial autonomy (Keating & Wilson, 2010). The result of this reform (and the ensuing legislation) was to change the structure of the state from unitary to ‘regionalized unitary’, as in Spain, providing to reduce the burden of central governments by delegating sub-national governments to deal with several public policies (e.g., environment, training, social welfare, etc.) (Tanzi, 2008). Further, other policies – concurrent matters – are managed jointly with the central state, while justice, education, defence, and few others remain in the hands of the central government. Health is a typical concurrent matter. These competences, according to the Italian Constitution, provide for a vertical distribution of powers between central government and regions; in the management of health services, the state sets up the primary principles, while the regions are responsible for the programming, organization and delivery of health services (Colasante, 2017). In financial terms, health accounts on average for about 80% of the regional budgets, making it the leading competence of regional governments (although much of the funding is transferred from the central state). The decentralization process was meant to increase not only the effectiveness of the state thanks to a transformation of the division of labor between the central government and the sub-national levels of government, but it was also meant to have a greater impact on the functioning of public administration (Longo & Mobilio, 2016, p. 515; Lippi, 2011; Mele, 2010).

19This process has a common matrix with many other projects of modernization and reform of the form of government in Europe (i.e. Spain, France, and the United Kingdom), “the opening of sovereignty and the internationalization of the economy requires a different organization of the state… (where) the function of the government in domestic politics is significantly reduced to a few public policies” (Mangiameli, 2013, p. 97).

20For the member countries of the EU, a further push towards devolution came from the EU itself, which required a significant commitment of the regional level for the implementation of cohesion policy, although the final effect of these provisions on enhancing the role of the regions was not univocal (Baun & Marek, 2006).Fiscal federalism was proposed as a possible solution to improve the state’s management of public finances (Lippi, 2011; Fabbrini & Brunazzo, 2003).

21The 2001 revision of the Italian Constitution also reshaped the relationship between central and subnational governments according to the principles of the so-called fiscal federalism. Article No. 119 was amended to introduce into the Constitution the needed foundations for the transfer of fiscal power from the center to the regions and local governments. However, the so-called crisis legislation, introduced to address the 2009 financial crisis, initiated a period of re-centralization that would leave the planned fiscal autonomy of regions and local governments largely unimplemented (Filippetti & Tuzi, 2020). In the last years some regions – Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia Romagna, followed by the others – have moved further competences and financial autonomy to the central government, based on the provision of art. 116 of the Constitution. This process has been interrupted by the pandemic, but the dispute is ongoing, providing evidence of the growing political ambitions of the Italian regions.

22In this perspective, this paper aims to explore the behavior of the Italian regional system during the Covid19 pandemic in terms of its responsiveness and its capacity to adapt to the specific needs that emerged in the territory during the health emergency.


23One of the objectives of the COVID-19 Observatory, developed by the Issirfa-CNR, is to quantify the financial effort of the regions in support of families and the businesses sector to face the socio-economic crisis that resulted from the effects of the various lockdowns imposed to reduce the impact of the pandemic crisis. For this purpose, the data were obtained from the analysis of a total of 350 resolutions of the regional councils that were expressly addressed to support families and the economic system in response to the Covid emergency in 2020, which were published on the regions’ institutional websites. Only the measures that involved changes in the regional budgets expressly aimed at initiatives to support the Covid emergency were selected.

24The regional measures aimed at offering support to families mainly concerned the granting of one-off contributions or vouchers to cover the purchase of basic needs, such as the cost of childcare during the school closure period, the promotion of distance learning, support for tenants with a free-market lease who were in a housing emergency, etc. The beneficiaries were generally families with income below a certain threshold, those already dependent on social services, individuals who had suffered a reduction in income due to the Covid emergency, lost their jobs, or had been forced to cease their professional activity. The financial resources earmarked for these measures were channelled to those entitled to them, through the transfer of resources to the municipalities.

  • 1 The following are examples of the regional measures. A more detailed list is available at https://w (...)

25The measures in favor of the business sector concerned both the provision of grants to businesses, including non-repayable ones, and the financing of credit instruments in favor of companies, through the activation of regional financial companies and the financing of financial instruments, such as guarantees. In addition, specific micro-credit instruments were made available to small businesses and artisans. Some regional interventions are given as examples to illustrate the different types of measures adopted by the regions 1.

26The various initiatives activated by the regions to carry out interventions that did not involve the direct disbursement of loans or the granting of credit but which resulted in indirect economic benefits for citizens and businesses have not been included in this survey (i.e., the deferral of payment of regional taxes).

Data analysis

Support for families and the regional business system

27Our analysis covers the year 2020. The emergency began in March with a first wave hitting mostly the northern regions, then spreading to the whole country in autumn. As of December 31, 2020, the regions had earmarked approximately 7.3 billion euros in their 2020 budgets, of which two billion was for interventions to support families and 5.3 billion to support the business sector (mostly SMEs) to face the Covid emergency.

28The greater commitment of the regions in resources allocated to the production system, compared to those aimed at initiatives for welfare and families, is visible. A possible explanation is that the central Government in preparing interventions in favor of families was able to group them based on income data and, therefore, to reach the various beneficiaries in a homogeneous way throughout the national territory, without generating imbalances in the distribution of resources. In a nutshell, it was not particularly problematic to identify families in financial distress using income data available at the level of the central government, i.e., the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

29By contrast, the support of the productive system by the central government through generalized measures on the territory can hardly account for territorial differences, especially in terms of qualitative characteristics such as productive structure and industry specialization. Hence, the relatively greater effort of the regional administrations to support the business sector can be justified by the development of specific measures based on the specific needs of the respective territories which are easy to tackle at the sub-national level. Furthermore, the regions have significant competences in the field of ‘productive activities’ and, in general, in the support of regional production systems (e.g., vocational training, innovation, tourism); by contrast, individual welfare is predominantly a matter for the state, involving examples such as citizens’ income support and the various forms of unemployment benefits.

30Table 2 and Figure 1 show the total amount of resources allocated by the regions, to cope with the pandemic crisis, expressed as euro per capita, in order to highlight the regions that have implemented the most significant interventions in relative terms.

Table 2. Regional appropriation grouped by beneficiaries and total (Euro per capita)



Business sector


Valle d’Aosta








Pro. Aut. Bolzano




Prov. Aut. Trento












































Friuli Venezia Giulia
























Emilia Romagna




Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

31There is only a partial correlation between the level of wealth of the different regions, as shown in Table 1, and the amount of resources they made available to cope with the pandemic crisis. Only the Autonomous Provinces and Special Statute Regions are at the top of the two rankings. The high level of wealth, the greater financial autonomy granted by the constitutions, and the larger (in relative terms) size of the regional budget allowed these regions a greater spending capacity. On the other hand, some regions with a high level of wealth, and which were the most affected by the health emergency (Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto), allocated few resources to households and businesses because they had to deal with the health crisis first. As regards the southern regions, their high spending capacity is attributable to the fact that they benefited more from the structural funds from the cohesion policy than the regions of the center-north. The opportunity to redirect these funds toward support measures for families and the regional economy during the pandemic crisis allowed them to implement significant interventions. Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Apulia, and Sicily were the recipients of the largest amount of structural funds provided to Italian regions by the European cohesion policy in the 2014-2020 programming period. These regions received 23,4 billion euros out of a total allocated to Italy equal to 33,9 euros to fulfil the convergence objectives. For this reason, from the outset of the crisis, the southern regions could rely on a significant amount of financial resources compared to the other Italian regions.

Figure 1. Total regional appropriation, euro per capita

Figure 1. Total regional appropriation, euro per capita

Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

32The figure below (Fig. 2) shows the source of the 7.3 billion euros allocated by the regions to cope with the pandemic crisis, highlighting the resources from the regional budget and those obtained from the reprogramming of the structural funds. In total, more than 60 percent (4.45 billion of euros) of the resources allocated by the regions during the crisis were recovered by the reprogramming of structural funds. As expected, the Southern Regions were the main beneficiaries of the structural funds. Campania, Sicily and Puglia were the main users of the structural funds, as was to be expected, since they were also the main recipients of the European cohesion policy. Campania, for example, was the first to provide a 0.9 billion euro umbrella measure for supporting the regional economic system, safeguarding jobs and assisting families by reprogramming the structural funds. By contrast, the remaining regions had to rely mainly on resources from their own regional budgets (budget surplus, reserve funds, debt, etc.). For instance, Lombardy, through a specific regional law (n.9 /2020), funded a three-year measure for a total budget of three billion euros which provided for public investments in roads, road safety, schools, public buildings, sustainable mobility as well as economic recovery supported by resorting to new debt.

Figure 2. Source of the financial resources: regional budget and structural funds reprogramming, (millions of euro)

Figure 2. Source of the financial resources: regional budget and structural funds reprogramming, (millions of euro)

Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

33The following figure (3) shows the dynamics of regional interventions in the period from April to December 2020. On the left side of the chart are the regions that reacted quickly to the emergency, such as Campania and Piedmont, which by the end April 2020 had already earmarked the total financial resources allocated to cover the interventions in support of the emergency.

Figure 3. Temporal dynamics of regional interventions

Figure 3. Temporal dynamics of regional interventions

Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

34The high proportion of structural funds available, which could be quickly redirected to the emergency, may have been decisive. The reaction to the crisis in Campania, Apulia Sardinia, and Calabria, which relied heavily on structural funds, was among the timeliest, even though empirical data on the quality of their governmental institutions place these regions at the bottom of the list of Italian regions. The use of ordinary legislative tools to involve the regional councils and to respond systemically to the crisis may have influenced the different speeds of intervention of the other regions. The need for the regions most affected by the health emergency to cope with the health crisis first could be another factor that affected the dynamics of the response.

35Another explanation for the different speed of the regions in providing financial resources could be related to the quality of the regional administration. We have taken a measure of the quality of regional government, measured by EQI index (table 3), based on a large survey of citizens in which respondents are asked about their perceptions of the quality of government in European regions (Charron et al., 2022). A simple pairwise correlation between the per capita regional appropriation (Table 2, measured using a logarithmic scale) and the regional score of the EQI index reveals a positive correlation of 22.7%. This suggests that administrative capacity can only partially explain the dynamics of regional interventions.

Table 3. European Quality of Government index 2021 for Italian regions


EQI Index



Friuli-Venezia Giulia












Valle d’Aosta




























Source: Charron et. al., 2022.

Support to the regional credit systems

36The measures to support credit have been the most relevant instrument to respond to the liquidity needs of companies generated by the crisis. The measures taken by the central government, in agreement with the European Commission, intervened promptly to support the credit needs, particularly of SMEs, simplifying the access procedures and expanding the coverage and the audience of recipients of the Central Guarantee Fund. 35.4% of companies, especially small and micro firms, chose to take out new bank loans. At the same time, the national intervention measures for deferral of debt repayments were applied by 13.4% of companies (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Measures funded by the central government used by companies to meet the liquidity needs caused by the Covid-19 emergency

Figure 4. Measures funded by the central government used by companies to meet the liquidity needs caused by the Covid-19 emergency

Source: ISTAT, 2020

37The regional governments acted in parallel, adopting a series of policies to enhance the resources of the existing credit instruments and to introduce several changes to widen the circle of beneficiaries. , Out of 5.3 billion total regional resources for supporting the production sector during Covid emergency, the regions (Fig. 5) allocated approximately 2.1 billion euros to finance credit instruments tailored to their own territory, targeted especially to the sectors most affected by the crisis. The southern regions, also in this case thanks to the reprogramming of the EU structural funds, provided for the greater amount for the financing of credit instruments.

Figure 5. New bank credit and deferral of debt repayments funded by Italian regions (millions of euros)

Figure 5. New bank credit and deferral of debt repayments funded by Italian regions (millions of euros)

Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

Textual analysis of regional laws

  • 2 An n-gram of length 1 is called a "unigram," of length 2 a "digram," of length 3 a "trigram," and f (...)

38This section presents the results of the textual analysis of the titles of regional council decrees aimed at supporting households and enterprises in facing the consequences of the pandemic, collected by Issirfa-CNR in the Covid 19 Observatory. A word cloud analysis was used to visualize the main themes of the analyzed data through a graphical representation, where the size of each word indicates its frequency or importance. The word cloud analysis is based on n-grams2, which are sub-sequences of n elements of a given sequence, which in our case are the texts related to the titles of the regional councils' measures. The objective is to summarize and schematize in a static way, through a graphic representation, the main issues contained in the textual data.

39First, the texts concerning the titles of the regional measures adopted in 2020 were divided into three groups each corresponding to a specific time range: i) March-April, which represents the first phase of the emergency response; ii) May-July, which includes the end of the first lockdown and the phases of preparation for the summer season; and iii) August-December, which includes the recovery of activities after the summer period and the reopening of schools. For each period, the texts of the corresponding titles of the regional measures were collected in a specific file to highlight the existence of temporal dynamics of the responses that the regions provided to their territories during the management of the pandemic.

40The three files obtained were uploaded to a website3, obtaining for each period a list of words and their frequency. Some words were eliminated from the list: all numerical values, articles and verbs, normative references, some generic words not relevant for our purposes (e.g., law, region, project, measure, fund, financing, etc.) and the unigrams to make the most relevant themes more visible. The graphical result obtained is schematized in Figure 6, with no correspondence between word positions and geographical areas.

41In the first phase of the emergency (March-April period), the regions directed the resources of their budgets, especially those of European funds, to support households, businesses and the social sector. In this sense, the response is characterized by what we can call an "emergency" nature, providing "general" support without differentiation.

42In the second period (May-July), after the first emergency phase, interventions were segmented into different initiatives. For example, as the summer season approached, the regions began to focus their actions on supporting trade, tourism, and coastal and seaside activities. At the same time, to support the production system after the negative effects of the pandemic crisis, the regions provided initiatives to enable businesses to restart production cycles, both by supporting investment and through measures to support employment.

Figure 6. Textual analysis of regional laws in the three periods

Figure 6. Textual analysis of regional laws in the three periods

Source: Authors’ elaboration on Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

43In the last period of 2020 (August-December), the system was oriented toward the new emergency posed by the reopening of schools in September. The issue of face-to-face educational activities becomes central as the beginning of the new school year approached. Although education is primarily the responsibility of the central government, the regions were required to work with the central government to implement the new measures for the new school season. Complementary but key initiatives were taken by the regions in the areas of school buildings and local public transportation to ensure compliance with the constraints imposed by the new central government regulations.

44To verify the existence of differentiated measures in different regions based on corresponding territorial vocations, the texts of the titles of the regional measures adopted in 2020 were also grouped into four regional macro-areas: Northwest, Northeast, Center, and South & Islands. Using the same methodology as for the temporal analysis, the texts of the titles of regional measures for each macro-area were collected and processed to obtain a file containing a list of meaningful items. The graphical result obtained is schematized in Figure 7 for each territorial macro-area. In the appendix the most significant words for each area are listed with the corresponding frequency.

Figure 7. Textual analysis of regional laws for macroareas

Figure 7. Textual analysis of regional laws for macroareas

Source: Authors’ elaboration on Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR

45The graphic representation of the texts of the titles of the regional measures shows a marked differentiation of the interventions according to the specific socio-economic characteristics of the respective territories. For example, the Northeastern and Northwestern regions appear to be more oriented toward promoting initiatives to support businesses and employment in their areas; this is consistent with the industrial specialization of their economic systems. The issue of health was also important in these areas, given that they were the areas most affected by the health emergency and had to deal with the health crisis drastically. Support for tenants with open-market leases who were in a housing emergency appears to be another specific issue in the Northwest regions.

46The central Italian regions appear to have pursued interventions promoting the cultural and tourist vocation of their territories. There was considerable support for education, universities, and research, , given the high concentration of institutions in these regions, especially Lazio and Tuscany.

47The southern and Islands regions, with a marked specialization in tourism, focused their initiatives on supporting tourism and seaside activities. One example is the case of Sardinia, which strongly supported the entire tourism industry, providing the sector with substantial funding using available structural funds. However, the general commitment to social issues and to small businesses and handicrafts, as well as welfare support for families, strongly supported by structural funds (ERDF), were also significant.

48The schematic representations of the textual data analyzed appear to demonstrate regionalism at work, with interventions that address the specific needs that emerged in highly differentiated contexts according to different territorial vocations, especially in terms of the production system.

Discussion and conclusion

49The complexity of the pandemic and its consequences necessitated a plethora of interventions to support families and the productive system at every level of government. During major crises central governments play the most important role, especially in unitary governments but also in federal and regional states. The pandemic was no exception. Central governments introduced several restrictions on access, internal mobility, and support to the people, also supported by the European Union. However, sub-national governments also played their part. The experience of federal countries, such as the United States, Australia and Germany, showed an activism of the sub-national levels of government that was fundamental to articulating and managing an effective response to the pandemic crisis.4

50In countries where the central government was inactive in the early stages, as in the case of the Trump administration in the United States and the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil, sub-national governments, central governments and municipalities, often played a substitute role of fundamental importance in containing the spread of the pandemic and the associated economic damage. There was no lack of friction between levels of government, as in the Spanish and Italian cases (Coletti & Filippetti, 2022). Early studies show that cooperation between levels of government was an essential factor for an effective pandemic crisis management policy (Agnew, 2021).

51In the Italian case, the activism of the regions, which at times led to the leadership of the presidents of the regions in a kind of regional version of populism (Casaglia & Coletti, 2021; Coletti et al., 2020, 2021), was justified by both institutional and economic factors. As far as the former are concerned, since the 2001 devolution reform, the regions have acquired a significant degree of autonomy alongside the central state; with regard to the latter, the profound differences between regional production systems in terms of sector specialization and industrial dynamics justified the need for a bottom-up approach. Regionalism, and even more so federalism, are state organizations that by their very nature generate differentiated and differently articulated policy interventions in the territories.

52This article’s purpose was to carry out an initial 'assessment' of the response capacity of the Italian regional system in the management of the pandemic crisis in 2020. We identified two main criteria to evaluate the regional response: timing and differentiation. Based on our qualitative and quantitative analysis, at a descriptive level, we can make some observations.

53The regional system has shown a positive ability to mobilize resources from their regional budgets, also through the reprogramming of the structural funds still available. Despite the fact that a large part of the regional budget was earmarked for health and its own administration, the amount of funds mobilized was not negligible.

54Regarding the capacity of the regional system to differentiate its interventions across the territory, we have shown that a significant degree of differentiation emerged. This suggests an ability to adapt to the local contexts, which is to be read as a desirable characteristic of the Italian regional system – or, more generally, of any regional system. The regions showed a capacity to adapt their interventions both over time, according to the different needs that arose in different periods of the pandemic crisis, and in space, by articulating economic support interventions according to the characteristics of regional production systems.

55The experience of Italian regionalism during the pandemic can be beneficial to other countries, especially for regionalised countries such as Spain. There are at least three main lessons that can be potentially relevant for other countries. First, territorial differences can be tackled by providing legislative autonomy to regional governments, even without the federal constitutional umbrella. The capacity of the regional system to deliver tailor-made policies is relevant not only in ordinary times, but also in case of emergencies and crises such as the pandemic. In this sense, regional autonomy can be understood as a means to reach social and economic resilience. Second, financial autonomy is a key part of the process. Our evidence shows that those regions which had more financial resources – incidentally from the Cohesion policy money – were able to allocate a larger amount of provide a greater amount of support to families and firms. Hence, reinforcing financial autonomy is relevant to allow sub-national governments to effectively intervene alongside central governments during such emergencies. A final message regards the use of cohesion policy to contain the damage of the pandemic. Italy is now recentralizing the management of cohesion policy. This somewhat mimicks the experience of the Next Generation EU and in particular the management of the Recovery and Resilience Fund. The logic underpinning recentralization is clear and mostly points to a better coordination of funding. However, our results have shown that in several regions, especially in the poorer regions of the South, cohesion policy funding has been key to integrating regional resources. While this function was not originally part of the design of cohesion policy, it needs to be fully taken into account in periods of great instability.

56The results presented here have several limitations and should be considered as a first stimulus to encourage more in-depth analyses capable of studying the functioning of the regional systems at work during major crises. Some essential elements for the proper functioning of regionalism remain to be considered through a more in-depth analysis that goes beyond a descriptive approach and assesses issues such as the level of efficiency of these interventions and the degree of complementarity versus redundancy with respect to the interventions carried out by the central government. The application of a counterfactual evaluation approach would allow a more rigorous assessment of the functioning of the Italian regional system during the pandemic crisis. Finally, a comparative analysis with other similar institutional settings is also desirable.

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List of the most significant words and their frequency

North west

North east


South & Islands

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1 The following are examples of the regional measures. A more detailed list is available at Campania: Decree No. 138 – March 11, 2020 "Extraordinary measures to support families residing in Campania for the care of children under 15 during the period of suspension of childhood education services". The measure allocates financial resources in the field of socio-educational services and schools to provide support to families for the purpose of caring for their children during the period of closure of these services due to the COVID-19 emergency. Latium: Decree No. 1000 - December 15, 2020 ""RISTORO LAZIO IRAP" - non-repayable contribution in favor of micro, small and medium enterprises and self-employed V.A.T. holders penalized due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis". The measure allocated 51 million euros through the remodulation of EU funds. Lombardy: Law No. 9 - May 4, 2020 "Interventions for economic recovery". The three-year investment put in place comprised more than three billion euros, including 83 million euros in 2020. The measures included a public investment for local governments of 400 million euros (roads, road safety, schools, public buildings, sustainable mobility), 2.47 billion euros for economic recovery, and 130 million euros for strategic investments. The financial coverage of the entire amount was ensured using debt. Marche: Decree No. 577 – May 15, 2020 "Bill at the initiative of the Regional Council concerning: 'Extraordinary and urgent measures related to the epidemiological emergency from Covid-19 for the restart of Marche'". This intervention allocated 103.3 million euros in 2020 to be distributed to enterprises. Apulia. Decree No. 687 – May 12, 2020 "Covid emergency - 19. Allocation of an extraordinary economic contribution in favor of people in conditions of very severe disability and non-self-sufficiency." The measure allocated 41.5 million euros to these people. Sardinia. Decree No. 13/11 – March 17, 2020 "Urgent measures to support the regional production system in conjunction with the Covid-19 epidemiological crisis". The measure allocated 92 million euros of additional finance and guarantees to support the productive sector with reference to tourism.

2 An n-gram of length 1 is called a "unigram," of length 2 a "digram," of length 3 a "trigram," and from length 4 on, an "n-gram."


4 For a review of several experiences see:

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Total regional appropriation, euro per capita
Credits Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Title Figure 2. Source of the financial resources: regional budget and structural funds reprogramming, (millions of euro)
Credits Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Title Figure 3. Temporal dynamics of regional interventions
Credits Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Title Figure 4. Measures funded by the central government used by companies to meet the liquidity needs caused by the Covid-19 emergency
Credits Source: ISTAT, 2020
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Title Figure 5. New bank credit and deferral of debt repayments funded by Italian regions (millions of euros)
Credits Source: Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Title Figure 6. Textual analysis of regional laws in the three periods
Credits Source: Authors’ elaboration on Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Title Figure 7. Textual analysis of regional laws for macroareas
Credits Source: Authors’ elaboration on Observatory Covid-19 Issirfa-CNR
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Electronic reference

Andrea Filippetti and Fabrizio Tuzi, The response of the Italian regions to the pandemic: a quanti-qualitative analysisInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 5:3 | 2023, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 20 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Andrea Filippetti

Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy

Fabrizio Tuzi

Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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