As the problems created by the coronavirus quickly escalate, the political credibility of many governments is being tested.
If its effects on Milan are anything to go by, the coronavirus crisis has several major implications for both Italy and the West more broadly. The data show that the number of confirmed infections in northern Italy is growing by around 25 percent each day. And the true number of cases is almost certainly higher than this, given that the authorities have only supplied virus-detection swabs to people who have symptoms of the disease and those who have been in contact with them.
The development of the epidemic in Italy appears to be 10-15 days ahead of that in European countries such as Germany and France. Therefore, the rest of Europe may have something to learn from Italy’s recent approach to crisis management. The government in Rome implemented restrictive measures in much of northern Italy on 7 March – after taking a series of smaller steps to contain the virus in the region earlier in the week – and expanded these measures to the rest of the country on 9 March.
The Italian response revealed much about individuals’ behaviour, lifestyles, civic responsibilities, and relationships with public institutions. In Italy, as in much of the Western world, citizens tend to believe that things will turn out for the best – that tragedies will not affect them personally and that the Cassandras of our time only speak out of fear or irrationality. They try in every way to ignore or minimise the danger, in the hope that it does not exist. This habit is particularly prevalent among generations of Europeans who – perhaps aside from their experiences with the terrorist attacks that struck Europe in recent years – have never felt truly threatened.
This naive optimism makes it difficult for citizens to change their habits and lifestyles during an emergency. Moreover, the crisis of legitimacy facing democratic institutions, and of broader public mistrust of the ruling classes, compounds the problem – in Italy and elsewhere. Populist movements that have fed off this crisis of legitimacy have weakened the authority of the central government, hampering its efforts to respond to threats such as the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the Italian government and media have alternated between alarmism and premature signals of a return to normality. Concern about the economic difficulties created by the virus – in every sector, not least trade, services, and tourism – has sometimes pushed the government to take excessively light measures. But the resulting instability in government communications has disorientated the Italian public to some extent.
The crisis of legitimacy facing democratic institutions, and of broader public mistrust of the ruling classes, compounds the problem
At the same time, the problems faced by the Italian healthcare system – especially in hosting a large number of people in intensive care – have triggered more stringent government measures, which may have exacerbated the threat in some ways. For instance, the central government announced the lockdown on 7 March prior to implementing the measure, prompting many people to hastily return to the south from areas it the authorities designated as new “red zones”. Adding to the challenges created by this approach, there have been communication problems between the regional authorities (which, like their German counterparts are responsible for some aspects of healthcare) and leaders in Rome.
Some Western governments seem to have already learned from the Italian situation, recognising the importance of an effective communications strategy on the crisis. They have also suspended many of their links with Italy by denying entry to Italian citizens – which has had important economic repercussions. Countries with sovereigntist leaders, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, initially appeared to suppress communication about the virus. Strikingly, US President Donald Trump went so far as to deny that Covid-19 posed a threat to the US economy. Yet, while choices of this kind are designed to minimise the chance of a global economic crisis, they take huge risks with public safety.
As the problems created by the coronavirus quickly escalate, the political credibility of many governments is being tested. Although the need to take swift decisions could amplify the authoritarian tendencies of governments in some European countries, it could also demonstrate many populist parties’ inability to govern – by showing how disinformation, alternative facts, and biting attacks on one’s enemies can be counterproductive. This is especially true in a delicate situation that demands accuracy of information and targeted action, as well as composed leadership.
The long-term economic effects of the coronavirus are unpredictable. China may weather the emergency and experience only a decrease in its economic growth rate, but many European countries could slip into a new vortex of recessions – just as they did in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Faced with such a possibility, Europe cannot allow itself to nurture new internal conflicts that further inhibit the European integration process and the pursuit of European sovereignty. Indeed, the response to the virus requires the coordination of European containment measures and constant exchanges of information on best practice. The extraordinary meeting between all 27 EU heads of state in a conference call today is a good sign that they are willing to make a joint commitment to tackle the coronavirus. They should remember that, if they mismanage their response, this could jeopardise not only the free movement of people and goods in Europe – one of the continent’s greatest achievements – but also the foundations of an open society more broadly.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.