Can Europe Make It?

Italy: the epidemic vs. democracy

Only a true democratic consensus on what must be done will make more stringent and efficient measures possible if these are necessary.

Antonia Williams-Annunziata
10 March 2020, 2.10pm
Travellers on March 10, 2020 at Padua train station following new Italian government emergency measures to contain Coronavirus
Massimo Bertolini/PA. All rights reserved.

ROME: At about 2:30 am on Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte decreed a partial quarantine over a swathe of Italy’s north region. Just over 24 hours later, he extended the measure to the entire country of 60 million people. These decisions were the most aggressive countermeasures against coronavirus taken since the outbreak in January. Italy is suffering the second worst outbreak in the world, with more deaths than in any other country outside China.

Originally billed as a full lockdown of northern Italy, Conte’s measures, as they became clearer, turned out to be limited. He ordered some restrictions on travel and public activities covering the entire country. To move around, citizens are supposed to fill out a Ministry of Interior form giving the reasons for travel: for work; for a “situation of necessity;” for health reasons; and to get home.

The statement is a “self-declaration,” so it’s not clear how the information is going to be verified. Police will be carrying out spot-checks.

“We want to guarantee the health of our citizens. We understand that these measures will impose sacrifices, sometimes small and sometimes very big," Conte said.

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Open democracy

This should not be compared to a lockdown, at least as practiced in China where suspected carriers of the virus were pulled off the streets of Wuhan town, epicentre of the crisis. Nor in Italy are people ordered to stay indoors, subjected to house-to-house searches and rounded up in warehouse-like quarantine centres. Nor are doctors detained for putting out information or criticizing the government’s handling of the crisis, as in China. Reporters are not disappeared for publishing unauthorized articles or issuing web reports.

Nonetheless, for an open society, Italy’s new restrictions are without recent precedent and are similar only to periods during World War II. As such, Italy is in the forefront of open democratic countries fighting the virus. European countries are watching closely. The continent will have to adopt containment measures like Italy’s, said Austria’s president Sebastian Kurz. “It will be important to decide which steps to take when,” he said. “You can close schools for one or two weeks… It will happen in other European countries. The decisive question is when to do it.”

Correct behaviour ?

The outbreak of coronavirus in Italy was always likely to be a challenge for the country’s sometimes dysfunctional democracy. The semi-bans, rather than a full lockdown, reflect both the nature of Italy’s society and democracy, where politics is freewheeling, where open debate is endemic and people are reluctant to be told what to do.

The US State Department advised Americans in Italy to follow Italian rules, but added, “It remains unclear what mechanisms the Italian government foresees to enforce the provisions of the decree.”

Just before Conte’s official announcement about Lombardy, reports about the measures created panic and confusion in Milan, the regional capital. Hundreds of people stormed the main train station and bus terminals. Videos that circulated on social media showed people piling into jam-packed trains. One Milan passenger, told by a conductor that trains were full, shouted, “Call the minister and get more trains!”

Political criticism soon erupted. The governor of Veneto referred to the decisions as “out of proportion." Governors elsewhere told Italians fleeing the north to stay away. In Puglia, a southern region, Governor Michele Emiliano appealed to its citizens in Lombardy to, “Stop where you are and go back.” He said he would quarantine anyone who arrived overnight. In Salerno, a town south of Naples, inspectors were examining people getting off trains for fever.

In the wake of the outcry, the government quickly shifted responsibility to the population for tamping down the virus. “Decrees aren’t enough. A country needs to behave correctly,” admonished Health Minister Roberto Speranza.

New elections?

Italy is venturing into uncharted territory, commented Benedetta Allegranzi, a World Health Organization’s (WHO) coordinator of the infection prevention global unit. “We didn’t expect the spread of the virus to grow this rapidly,” he said, and added, “Italy will have a lot to teach WHO and the rest of the world.”

The sudden expansion of official concern over the weekend was a turnaround in Italy’s official mood. The government ordered the closure of museums, cinemas, nightclubs and other public spaces outside the north, including the rest of the country. The football matches – Italy’s national sport – were being held in empty stadiums; now the games are banned entirely.

For Italy the economic stakes in controlling the epidemic are high. Before the coronavirus outbreak Italy’s economy was the slowest growing in Europe. Now, with tourism in sharp decline and the possibility of factories closing, the country faces a probable recession.

Difficulty in taking even sterner measures also reflects the weakness in the current government. Conte’s cabinet has been in power only since September, the sixth government in five years. The ruling coalition is a shaky alliance of a populist movement M5S and PD the center left party, long at odds with each other. The nationalist opposition, led my Matteo Salvini’s Lega party, is calling for new elections.

Further complicating Italy’s response to the virus is the decentralization of the country’s health care system. Italy’s 20 regions are in charge of their own hospitals and spending. Early in the outbreak, Conte had a dispute with Lombardy health officials over testing for the virus, hinting at flaws in regional management.

Where is the true democratic consensus?

Public acceptance of restrictions has been spotty. Early on, some citizens tried to sneak out of quarantined north Italy towns. Despite warnings not to move among crowds, nightlife in Rome’s youth entertainment district of San Lorenzo had been busy. Art lovers lined up at the Scuderie museum near Rome’s presidential palace to view a major exhibition of paintings by Raffaello. “At least one gets sick with Raffaello in one’s sights” said an elderly man waiting to go in.

Italians have been accused of hiding their symptoms for fear of being placed in quarantine and made a pariah. One state employee told his boss he had a flu but pleaded with him not to tell anyone so he would not be tested and possibly quarantined.

Giuseppe Ippolito, Scientific Director at Italy’s National Institute for Infectious Diseases (INMI) at Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, said people who had fled the north were, “A danger to the nation.”

There are fears this epidemic will not be curbed, despite the new measures. That, in turn, brings up the question: if not, what happens next? There are options for governance. During Europe’s recent financial crisis, the country turned to a so-called unelected “technical” government to handle Italy’s sharp economic downturn. Effectively, that took economic decision-making out of the political arena. But Italy’s last technical government, led by economist Mario Monti, lasted only two years and fell when it tried to crack down on tax evasion.

If that past is any guide, only a true democratic consensus on what must be done will make more stringent and efficient measures possible if these are necessary. Barring that, the government is banking on individual actions to curb the virus tide.


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