As an Italian citizen working closely with activists and young political leaders from all over the world, I have experienced the sadness of seeing my country going through all stages of the CoronaVirus outbreak while keeping an eye on developments elsewhere.
There is a pattern that Italy experienced, and that is starting in many other democracies. First, our social media were full of memes mocking the disease and those worried about it. Then, people started getting sick: many rushed to stockpile and escaped the affected areas, worsening the situation. Politicians fueled the fear (Matteo Salvini, the right-wing leader of the biggest opposition party in Italy blamed the government in late February for alleged mismanagement of the crisis), stopped when the panic threatened to spiral out of control and started again the day after: the dance continued for a few weeks. Now the country is locked down, the health system and its workers are doing miracles while being under immense pressure, and the economic impact is yet to be estimated: all-in-all, it’s a really tough situation.
From a citizen concerned about the effect of Covid-19 on the world as a whole, those are lessons learned from having witnessed a western, wealthy country falling into a dark place.
1. Act early
Today is already too late. COVID-19 is not a pandemic (yet), however, it spreads fast and it is quite lethal for the most senior members of the population (mortality rate climbed to 3-4% from the 2% of early estimates, and goes in double digits for 80+). Until a vaccine is ready - and this might take a full year - the best thing a country can do is to prepare contingency plans for all scenarios that must include economic measures to cope with lockdowns or severe limitations of people's movement. In layman terms: governments must help shops, restaurants, theatres, gyms, and cinemas facing weeks or months of shutdown, as well as ensuring that parents that have kids can stay home and look after them if schools close. Measures can include freezing mortgages and loan repayments, and go as far as cash payouts for affected citizens as already tested in Hong Kong. Fiscal stimuli and support will also be needed to cope with local and global business slowdown. And let’s not forget the worst-off in society: emergency shelters and food still need to be provided.
2. Orderly communication is key
What the early stages of the crisis have taught us is that transparency is not negotiable: it saves lives. China's secretive attitude toward the outbreak in late 2019 delayed for more than a month international awareness about the seriousness of the crisis. What the handling of the situation in Northern Italy has proven is that messy communication can make things worse: when on Saturday night the draft of the lockdown measures was leaked ahead of their implementation, people rushed to leave the “red zone”. As a consequence, the contagion spread further and now the whole country is locked down.
Communication is not only needed to avoid panic but also to ensure we all pick up the right habits. Social media and TV have been bombed by tips to avoid catching and transmitting the disease: wash your hands, cough on your elbow, and so on. Way less has been said about the fact that when the disease hits your area, you must stay home. Italians have resisted it for a short while, but now the hashtag #IoRestoACasa (“I stay home at home) is trending all over the web. Horizontal, peer to peer communication can help a lot when people do not particularly trust their government.
3. You need competent people at the top
No, the life-long politicians who never managed a team of 3 - the profile of most of the Italian political class - in their life can deal properly with this. You need real health experts deciding the policies, crisis management professionals to implement them, a squad of advisors to understand the implication on all sectors and prepare fixes where needed, and a good deal of collaboration from the media to sensibilize the population. At this stage, without all the information, it’s impossible to assess whether Roberto Speranza, the Italian Minister of Health (a political science graduate with no experience whatsoever in the health sector) is taking appropriate measures, but someone in the corridors of Palazzo Chigi (the sit of the Italian Executive Power) for sure made unforgivable mistakes, like the documents leakage. For all U.S. readers: neither the Trump-style successful business person “I-know-it-all” who dare say “mmm that mortality rate seems too high to me” it’s a potential recipe for disaster.
4. Your healthcare system will be under stress, pour money into it
Even Italy’s health system, one of the most advanced in the world, is almost unable to cope with the influx of emergencies. An outbreak of COVID-19 does not only create a shortage of basic sanitary equipment and put health workers under severe risk of infection and burnout but also an exponential burden on Intensive Care units in hospitals. We are talking about not having enough beds and respiratory machines for people, and doctors having to choose who to save like in war times. The situation is so dire, that Instagram influencers like Chiara Ferragni are organizing spontaneous fundraisers to help hospitals in Milan. All governments should divert resources in ICUs and ensure that when vaccines will be available this will be free and accessible to all citizens.
5. There’s no way out: without a global response and real solidarity, we will all badly hit
Despite being one of the top budgetary contributors of the European Union, Italy’s request for assistance to get sanitary masks from its European partners fell in the void. France and Germany actually instaurate controls on the export of protective medical gear, in defiance of one of the fundamental freedom of the EU, the free movement of goods. In the early stage of CoronaVirus, governments' response seems to be focused on (re-)instating tougher border controls, instead of helping struggling countries. We shall all be clear: history proves that pandemics spread transnationally way before planes, cars, and even bicycles were invented - the Black plague run through the whole of Eurasia back 700 years ago - and while containment might help slowing down the spread, hardly any country will be spared by COVID-19. Global problems require global solutions at least as much as national ones. Basically, we should be ready to take the hit together.
Written by Andrea Venzon