Pestilence presents a moment of great opportunity for many businesses.

Consider the speed at which contracts are put out to tender to meet extraordinary needs. Consider the ability to move goods and money without all the normal checks or legal and bureaucratic protocols. Plague is a boon for the commercial class.

The art of profit is based on exploiting need, and no one has perfected that dark art better than organised crime. The Covid-19 pandemic is already demonstrating this. With their usual business acumen, criminal organisations have, in recent decades, invested in a number of companies that have turned out to be very relevant to the present crisis: multi-service businesses (catering, cleaning or disinfection), industrial laundries, transport, funeral homes, waste collection, food distribution – and health. All of these sectors have become fundamental to our survival over recent weeks, and will probably remain so for a good while.

In Italy, police have already raised the alarm about mafia cartels’ investment in the production and distribution of “epidemic kits”, comprising masks, hand sanitiser and latex gloves. These products are today almost impossible to find, and the sudden overwhelming demand (surely destined to continue over the coming months) has caused prices to skyrocket.

For the Calabrian mafia, the ’ndrangheta, this would be familiar territory: for years it made capital investments in the pharmaceutical and healthcare products sectors. In March 2016, it was revealed that the ’ndrangheta had been working aggressively to establish itself in medical and pharmaceutical industries across Lombardy – which became Italy’s Covid-19 “Ground Zero” – even dispatching cartel operatives and their relatives to qualify in medicine, nursing and pharmacology.

But such business opportunities are not the only benefit epidemics bring to criminal organisations. An even more profitable commodity is silence. With public attention monopolised entirely by the Covid-19 epidemic, mafia syndicates can manoeuvre undisturbed.

The already small space that their activities occupied in the news cycle has disappeared entirely, because public enemy no 1 is the virus. In February, 98 people were killed every day in Mexico, and in March the number rose to 99 – almost all of them victims of drug cartels. Yet this horror did not reach many newspapers. Earlier this month, 19 people died in a single shootout between cartel gunmen in Chihuahua state. But none of this makes the international political agenda, because, in a time of pandemic, the only deaths that matters are those from the virus.

A queue to buy lockdown supplies of marijuana at an Amsterdam coffee shop last month is evidence of the power of drug cartels. Photograph: Peter de Jong/AP

Additionally, with most law enforcement agencies occupied in the fight against Covid-19, controls at sea and ports have decreased, giving the drug cartels and syndicates an easy ride by leaving ample space for the global circulation of narcotics.

At retail level, there was a sharp worldwide spike in sales just before the lockdown. Frightened at the prospect of being stuck at home for weeks, customers stockpiled narcotics just as they did food. Proof of this came in the queues outside coffee shops in Amsterdam, and the huge increase in requests for marijuana from pushers in New York the moment the measures were announced.

In Italy, criminal clans which have lost their traditional drug-dealing spots outside schools and parks have resorted to home delivery on request, adopting a method known in Anglo-Saxon countries as Dial-a-Dealer.

But there is another door-to-door service that Italian mafia clans – and in particular the Camorra of Naples – have established: daily home deliveries of essentials. In the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Naples, where many people had jobs in the black economy and are now out of work, it is the clans that step in to provide welfare, giving families bread, milk and other basics.

According to Italian anti-mafia sources, the Camorra has also started providing loans – but not at its usual high interest rates – of between 50% and 70%. Demand for loans is so high in this period that it is still profitable to offer competitive rates, even lower than those offered by the banks.

This is kind of activity is classic mafia. It echoes the deep communitarian origins of the Camorra, especially when, at the turn of the 19th century, it moved into the power vacuum between the French Revolution and Bourbon Restoration, and established itself for both “protection” and extortion. The organisations rely on want : if you are hungry, you are not particular about which oven your bread comes from.

By providing daily shopping for families in need, the clans are investing in consensus: desperate people who today receive the Camorra’s help will be grateful or, rather, will have to express their gratitude when everything gets back to normal and the clans need labour for their illicit enterprises.

The same strategy has been adopted by Mexican mafia cartels: in the border city of Matamoros, the Gulf cartel has been delivering parcels of basics to elderly and needy people. Further south in Jalisco and San Luis Potosí, boxes of provisions are labelled for distribution, as with an NGO or charity, by the rising Jalisco New Generation cartel. And in Guadalajara, aid packages bear the printed image of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel who, though in a US jail, continues to make his presence felt through gestures like these.

But the next phase of the pandemic will see even more mafia activity. Companies that emerge from under the economic rubble may need an injection of capital to resume their activities: from catering to trade, from cement to tourism. In these sectors Italian mafia organisations are already well-embedded, not only in Italy but also internationally.

For every honest entrepreneur at risk of having to close their restaurant or shop, there’s a mafia clan ready to intervene and take over the business, or offer a cash injection in exchange for shares.

The clans’ vast availability of contaminated cash is their pass into the “clean” economy. If governments do not act now to come to the aid of companies in crisis – if they wait until the crisis eases – it will be too late. Wherever and whatever survives Covid-19 will be open to mafia intervention.

Europe must be urgently aware of this when deliberating over so-called Coronabonds and other kinds of financial intervention. Many believe that giving money to Italy is equivalent to feeding the mafia – as German newspaper Die Welt wrongly claimed in early April – but the exact opposite is the case. The less economic support is made available to countries in difficulty as a result of the pandemic, the more mafia organisations will take advantage. The coffers of the mafia are always full: if criminal syndicates face difficulties from time to time, liquidity

is certainly never one of them.

Financial centres such as the City of London, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Andorra know this perfectly well. The mafia’s vast resources are stowed in these tax havens – where, among other things, money stolen from the tax authorities of fellow European countries is held – waiting to be spent in the legal economy, in any one of the ways listed above, and far beyond.

The mafia is not just an Italian or Eastern European problem. On the contrary: it is Europe’s winning mechanism. Mafia intervened to save the banks running out of liquidity during the 2008 financial crisis , as was revealed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Likewise, in the present pandemic, there is a risk that the cartels will come to the rescue of European companies.

Today we are in an emergency, and the imperative is to survive. But parallel to this pandemic, criminal interests are mobilising. For us to know that – and know them – will be part of that survival.

Roberto Saviano is an Italian journalist and author who chronicled the rise of the Camorra in his book Gomorrah (Macmillan £9.99). Article translated by Ed Vulliamy