Italy's government showed the world how to take responsibility in a pandemic

‘We Italians have clawed ourselves out of the tragic pit we were in this spring.’ Military trucks take away coffins in Seriate, Lombardy, in March. Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters
‘We Italians have clawed ourselves out of the tragic pit we were in this spring.’ Military trucks take away coffins in Seriate, Lombardy, in March. Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

If there ever was an unlikely country to be designated a model of collective civility, that’s Italy. My native land is usually depicted as a beautiful place whose abundance of natural and cultural treasures is entrusted, alas, to its disorganised, corrupt, unruly inhabitants.

And yet everybody these days seems to be lavishing praise on us: the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal are all describing as exemplary the way in which we Italians have clawed ourselves out of the tragic pit we were in this spring, as coronavirus raged and convoys of military trucks had to be deployed to carry the coffins – they were so many.

We’ve certainly come a long way from being described, as we were at the pandemic’s start, as the usual irresponsible incompetents for allowing such a disaster to happen, or for sentencing to death an already terminally ill economy with an ultra-rigorous lockdown. Now, an article on the US website Foreign Policy presents Italy in almost mystical tones, as the country that “snatched health from the jaws of death”.

What should we Italians do exactly with all this praise? Is this global surprise at our collective behaviour flattering or patronising? Most of all, our national pride is sobered by the understanding that things are far from over.

We are now in a much better situation than in March, so we have certainly done something right, but the infection numbers are rising again. Claiming victory over Covid-19 when a vaccine is still out of reach and a winter in closed spaces is approaching, feels like hubris. More poignantly, we are still too much in the middle of the pandemic to say who was right and who was wrong, which policy was the best, who has saved more people from the mouth of the monster.

Take Sweden, a country that, as of today (yes, this is an essential little phrase when navigating a pandemic) is seen as an example of how wrong things can go when no lockdown is implemented. However strongly I might feel, as I do, that my government did something extremely right, even brave, in implementing a strict lockdown so early, the hard truth is that we do not know yet which country – Italy or Sweden or any other – will ultimately come out in better shape when we are eventually on the other side of this horrible pandemic. It’s still far, far too early to be able to say.

So do we Italians deserve this praise or don’t we? The short answer is: yes, but not for the reasons everybody is praising us for.

We should acknowledge that these pandemic curves are only freeze-frames of a situation still very much in flux: the only epidemiological opinions worthy of being listened to are those of experts in the present time, and eventually of the analysts of the future – at a point in which full tallies will be possible. What we, the general public, can and indeed should, talk about now is politics.

What Italy’s government has done right, paradoxically, is exactly what the Swedish government has done right, although with opposite strategies: namely, to have taken full responsibility for its public health policy in facing Covid-19.

Both the Italian and the Swedish governments followed closely the advice of experts. Both, on the basis of this advice, then chose the strategy they deemed more suitable to the national sentiment, culture, political and social history. Both governments communicated this strategy to their citizens, and said how they were expected to act.

Italians, for instance, were told we had to stay at home. It wasn’t advice, it was the law. If you didn’t comply, you were fined or even risked a trial. I think the reason Italians complied mostly without protest, in the orderly fashion everybody seems so stunned about, is because of the responsibility the government took for giving these instructions, just as it has for its mistakes (and there were many). Sweden is on the opposite end of the spectrum as far as its strategy goes – but on the same side as Italy if the divide is not about lockdowns, but about governments that rely on the advice of experts to present their policy decisions to the public in an accountable, consistent way, and those who don’t.

So the line I would draw when looking at positive or negative experiences, is neither about the number of infections or deaths, nor about the devastating effect all of this is having on our economies: Covid-19 is a marathon and we don’t know if we have even reached the halfway post. The line I would draw is between those governments that are taking full responsibility for their actions, and those that leave their citizens in a haze of uncertainty, and have unaccountable leadership.

And I am not talking about authoritarian countries, but about some western democracies that have given citizens muddled and often conflicting instructions. You don’t need to have a degree in history or politics to see how the lack of a leadership clearly devoted to the public good in times of deep crisis opens the door for the worst demons of society – not to mention of human nature.

We are living in a world in which the president of the greatest military power and, as of today, its greatest democracy, refuses to reassure his citizens that he will peacefully concede defeat if that is the result of the upcoming election. In this context, one looks in a new light at governments that humbly take responsibility for their humanly imperfect decisions in the uncharted territory of a pandemic, providing consistent instructions without shying away from criticism.

Accountability and transparency no longer look like the outer frame of democracy into which the more relevant policy details are placed. We now see them clearly as democracy’s very fabric. Something without which everything else – health, society, peace, life itself – is in grave danger.

Francesca Melandri is an Italian author. Her “Letter from the future” published in March in the Guardian was translated into 32 languages

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