Italy and coronavirus: A stress test for Europe

A police officer talks to people at Milan's main train station, following a government decree that has shut down large areas in the north of the country, to stem coronavirus contagion, Milan, Italy March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo

With almost 7,000 reported cases of coronavirus (including 366 dead), Italy is the European country hardest hit by COVID-19 contagion. While one might expect nationalist narratives to thrive in a time of stress and uncertainty, Italians have actually set aside euro-skepticism and anti-globalization sentiment and have instead embraced international cooperation. The long-term consequences will depend in part on whether the European Union can manage this crisis effectively and as one.


Italy was the first European country to ban direct flights to and from China. Now the rest of the world is pointing its finger at Italians as the source of contagion. Opposition leader Matteo Salvini (of the League party) along with Giorgia Meloni (of the Brothers of Italy) seized the opportunity to re-emphasize their propaganda — criticizing the government and calling for new elections, blaming migrants coming from Africa and Chinese communities in Tuscany, and advocating for the suspension of the Schengen Area (French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen has said similar things). Turkey and Israel have cancelled flights to Italy; the Czech Republic has announced heavy fines for anyone coming back from Italy who does not respect a two-week self-quarantine; and a plane full of Italian tourists was forced to fly back to Italy after landing in Mauritius.

Recognizing the force majeure circumstances, the Five Star Movement has temporarily set aside its euro-skeptic views to advocate for more cooperation on the EU level. Italy’s Five Star-Democratic Party coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, expects to receive authorization for 7.5 billion euros for deficit spending from the European Commission to support the economy and affected families. That influx would count as an emergency measure and therefore would not qualify as a violation of the Fiscal Compact (which obliges countries to keep their deficit below 3% of GDP and also to commit to reduce deficit spending over time). At this stage, both the Chamber and the Senate would need to approve this package of measures with a plurality of votes. At first, Salvini’s bloc opposed the originally foreseen 3.5 billion euros, saying it was not enough; should the League and Brothers of Italy oppose this new measure, the full responsibility would fall on the Democratic Party’s shoulders, but for now that does not seem to be the case.


Conte’s ministerial team has been operating with full transparency as well as good communication through daily press conferences and Facebook Lives. It has the support of a scientific committee headed by the chief of the Italian Institute of Health. It has also taken very unpopular decisions, such as extending the existing quarantine measures on Lombardy (and other “red zones”) to the entire country, closing all schools, and postponing administrative elections and the constitutional referendum on cutting the number of deputies.

Yet, although the transparency is to be praised, Italy is now facing heavy repercussions in terms of tourism, manufacturing, exports, investments, and of course reputational costs. (Some countries had requested a “virus-free” stamp for Made in Italy products, and there was even a French commercial showing an Italian pizza maker coughing on a pizza.) According to data from the Confederation of Italian industries, 65% of Italian businesses reported difficulties due to the decrease in consumption, and some hotels and restaurants are closing and lowering worker salaries, as the number of tourists has dropped over 60% in certain cities. However, this data is just a preliminary estimate that does not necessarily take into account all the losses related to the suspension of major public events, such as fairs and the Serie A soccer league (for now, teams are still playing, but the public is not allowed into the stadium), along with the closing of schools, gyms, theaters, clubs, and public places of any sort.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, forecasts around Italian economic growth were gloomy already (-1.2%). It is very striking to see a vibrant city like Milan panicking, with people storming grocery stores, restaurants shutting down, customers foregoing the aperitivo culture (drinks and buffet food), disco clubs closing, and workplaces asking people to work from home or allowing only 50% of personnel to come into the office in order to maintain distance. Unfortunately, these measures did not stop people from gathering or traveling to the south of Italy, and so the disease keeps spreading.

Since it seems practically impossible to contain the outbreak, at this point Italy is trying to slow down the contagion and buy time for its hospitals to address this challenge. Despite the broad and affordable coverage, and outstanding doctors, the impact of the budget cuts to the national health service since 2008 and the north-south disparities in terms of hospital equipment and conditions is now manifest in all its brutality. While it is true that many of the victims are elderly or had underlying health conditions, some young and middle-aged people are also in need of hospitalization. Doctors from the “red zones” in Lombardy have to deal with overcrowded emergency rooms, lack of space in intensive care units, and shortages of medical equipment for breathing support — as a result, they face the heartbreaking choice of intubating only those with the highest chance of survival. On top of this, hospitals are struggling to cope with all the other patients, being forced instead to direct most of their energy and personnel to containing the outbreak. The Italian government has announced plans to hire nurses and doctors in the thousands, dedicating over 1.5 billion euros — that is good news, but it will take time to implement, and cuts to health services should have not happened in the first place.


The time is now for Europe to face this public heath crisis as a family, rather than get trapped in nationalist dynamics.

If anything, this virus has shown that there are no national borders and the time is now for Europe to face this public heath crisis as a family, rather than get trapped in nationalist dynamics. So far, the EU has set up a task force to deal with the virus, but more needs to be done in terms of coordination and information-sharing.

While other European leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, have called for more coordination both in the EU and with the United States, Europe is currently facing some protectionist trends that risk undermining a collective approach to handle the crisis. The meeting of EU ministers of health in Brussels on March 6 revealed that for now, Europe is failing this stress test, as it was impossible to convince France, Germany, and Czech Republic to lift the ban on exporting protective medical gear (face masks, mostly) to avoid shortages at home. To address this, President of the European Parliament David Sassoli declared that the EU commission is working to create a centralized agency in charge of buying and distributing this kind of material in order to prevent “useless competition between EU member states and prevent international speculation.” Conversely, the Chinese company Xiaomi has donated thousands of face masks to Italy as a thank-you for having welcomed the firm so warmly two years ago.

Hopefully sooner rather than later, coronavirus will be under control and manageable — but the damages will remain for a long time. At that point, Italy will remember who came to help, and Europe will know the results of the test over its capability to share both risks and prosperity.