What if the rest of Europe follows Italy’s coronavirus fate?

The silence from Brussels could be as damaging as the silence on Italian streets

By: and Date: March 11, 2020 Topic: Global economy and trade

This opinion piece was originally published in The Guardian, Le Figaro and Expresso.

The silence. That’s what struck me most hauntingly on the first morning of our quarantine in Milan. A surreal silence that reminded me of the deserted streets of Wuhan which we saw from the safe distance of TV just a few weeks ago. Back then the Chinese city at the centre of China’s coronavirus epidemic appeared to me like the set of a science fiction movie. But now it felt like I was being sucked into the same movie. With every breath we were living the dread and anxiety spread by the invisible menace of Covid-19.

A couple of days on, things feel different. Fear has morphed into an urgent sense of the responsibility to preserve life. Many of us share the intuition that locking down the country is the right thing to do now, to protect others, especially the most vulnerable. When a virus has a daily death toll of a hundred people in your country, that sense of responsibility becomes overwhelming.

Coronavirus has been swift and ferocious in Italy. In less than 20 days, the number of confirmed cases has skyrocketed to more than 9,000 while the number of deaths has surpassed 450: the largest outside China.

This is terrifying when we consider the most obvious political and social reality: that a democracy cannot fight a health threat with the same draconian measures that an autocracy can impose. To stem the spread of coronavirus, China put 58 million people under martial law, with ordinary citizens basically under house arrest. The state used electronic surveillance measures to police the lockdown. This is before you consider what it must have taken to complete the construction of emergency hospitals in a week. In any democracy such powers in the hands of the state, luckily, remain unthinkable.

But, in what President Giuseppe Conte has called our “darkest hour”, Italy has had to quickly find a way to confront a similar existential threat. With no precedent in the western world, Italy is now attempting, as a democracy, to do three extraordinarily difficult things – apply containment measures to the spread of the virus, reinforce its health system and manage the socio-economic fallout. Whether or not it succeeds could perhaps provide useful lessons for other countries if they find themselves in the same situation over the next weeks.

On containment, Italy is attempting to enforce a nationwide lockdown. After having first put only the centres of the outbreak into mandatory quarantine and after having successively widened the measures to most of the country’s north, the government has now extended internal travel restrictions to the entire country, in effect restricting the movements of 60 million people. If it succeeds it will be proof that a democracy can be strong enough to introduce extraordinary measures with its most important tool: the trust of its citizens.

On the reinforcement of the health system, Italy shows that the key priority now for every affected country is to quickly expand intensive care capacity. As I write, helicopters are moving patients with Covid-19 from hospitals in Lombardy to other regions. The reason is simple: a lack of intensive care beds. Lombardy has 900 and regional authorities expect that by the end of March about 3,000 patients will need such treatment. Titanic efforts are going into setting up new intensive care beds, even in hospital corridors, but this might not be sufficient.

So, in a race against time, neighbouring regions are emptying their hospitals of patients who do not require urgent care. Lombardy is well known for having one of the best health systems in Europe. The dire situation it faces shows that many countries could end up in the same, if not even worse, situation. This is why all countries should prepare accordingly.

On the socio-economic front, Italy’s experience shows the critical need for social insurance support to all families and businesses affected by the outbreak. Scaling up national redundancy funds to ensure companies can maintain their workers during the emergency, providing lump-sum payments to the self employed who are not covered by social insurance systems, putting in place measures to ensure small and medium enterprises can remain open and providing vouchers for babysitters to support families as schools close, are all measures that should be quickly adopted by countries to mitigate the virus’s socio-economic fallout.

Italy might just have found itself a couple of weeks ahead of the curve in the coronavirus outbreak outside China. Other European countries might soon experience a similar challenge. This is also why a coordinated response at the EU level is urgent. Only by acting together can EU countries maximise their efforts in limiting the virus’s spread and in limiting its socio-economic impacts. Joint action will be required once the emergency is over to relaunch our economies after this shock.

There is a political case for joint EU action over this emergency. Such situations profoundly shape the collective memory of a nation. For instance, in Italy we still celebrate the “mud angels” that provided help in Florence during the 1966 flood. If we want to show that the EU is about people and close to people, then solidarity is required. The silence heard from Brussels here in Italy could prove to be, in the long term, as damaging as the one the virus has brought to our empty streets. Let’s face this unprecedented challenge all together, as a collective European family.

Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to [email protected].

Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Fiscal policy and rules after the pandemic

What are the possibilities for shaping the new fiscal policy?

Speakers: Zsolt Darvas, Maria Demertzis, Michel Heijdra and Katja Lautar Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: November 24, 2021
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Fiscal arithmetic and risk of sovereign insolvency

The record-high debt levels in advanced economies increase the risk of sovereign insolvency. Governments should start fiscal consolidation soon in an environment of low nominal and real interest rates and post-COVID growth.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global economy and trade, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 18, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author




How did Europe respond to the pandemic?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European governance Date: November 17, 2021
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Phasing out COVID-19 emergency support programmes: effects on productivity and financial stability

How can European countries phase out the COVID-19 support measures without having a negative impact on productivity and financial stability?

Speakers: Eric Bartelsman, Maria Demertzis, Peter Grasmann and Laurie Mayers Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: November 9, 2021
Read article Download PDF

Policy Contribution

European governance

COVID-19 financial aid and productivity: has support been well spent?

While support schemes during the pandemic were not targeted at protecting ‘good’ firms, financial support mostly went to those with the capacity to survive and succeed. Labour schemes have been effective in protecting employment.

By: Carlo Altomonte, Maria Demertzis, Lionel Fontagné and Steffen Müller Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 4, 2021
Read article

Blog Post

European governanceInclusive growth

The socioeconomic effects of COVID-19 on women

The pandemic has disproportionately affected women both professionally and at home. Although the gender gap in labour force participation since the onset of the pandemic hasn't worsened, policy still needs to tackle existing gender gaps, which for some EU countries are very substantive.

By: Maria Demertzis and Mia Hoffmann Topic: European governance, Inclusive growth Date: November 3, 2021
Read article More on this topic

External Publication

Elimination versus mitigation of SARS-CoV-2 in the presence of effective vaccines

Article published in Lancet Global Heath on strategies to end the COVID-19 pandemic in the presence of effective vaccines.

By: Miquel Oliu-Barton and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global economy and trade Date: November 3, 2021
Read article

Blog Post

European governance

Is the risk of stagflation real?

Most economic forecasts predict a return, in the medium-term, to pre-pandemic growth and inflation. Nevertheless, the European Central Bank and fiscal authorities need to be vigilant for signs of the contrary.

By: Monika Grzegorczyk, Francesco Papadia and Pauline Weil Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 2, 2021
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Strong, balanced, sustainable and inclusive growth? The G20 and the pandemic

The G20 is not doing enough to support strong, balanced, sustainable and inclusive growth in the wake of COVID-19, with the poorest countries left behind by the recovery.

By: Suman Bery and Pauline Weil Topic: Global economy and trade Date: October 29, 2021
Read article Download PDF

Parliamentary Testimony

European ParliamentInclusive growth

Understanding the socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women

Testimony before the European Parliament's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) on the consequences of the pandemic on women.

By: Maria Demertzis and Mia Hoffmann Topic: European Parliament, Inclusive growth, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 27, 2021
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Inclusive growth

Making antitrust work for, not against, gig workers and the self-employed

Policymakers should act to deal with labour-market concentration trends that potentially harm workers, especially gig workers and the self-employed.

By: Georgios Petropoulos Topic: Digital economy and innovation, Inclusive growth Date: October 11, 2021
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

European governance

Pandemic prevention: avoiding another cycle of ‘panic and neglect’

Agreement is needed at international level on mechanisms to ensure better preparedness for the next pandemic.

By: Anne Bucher Topic: European governance, Global economy and trade Date: October 7, 2021
Load more posts