Italy government

The Italian government has shown the world how to assume its responsibilities in the event of a pandemic | Francesca Melandri

IIf ever there was an unlikely country to be held up as a model of collective civility, it’s Italy. My homeland is generally described as a beautiful place whose abundance of natural and cultural treasures are entrusted, alas, to its disorganized, corrupt and unruly inhabitants.

And yet everyone these days seems to shower us with praise: the New York Timesthe FinancialTimesthe the wall street journal all describe as exemplary how we Italians climbed out of the tragic pit we found ourselves in this spring when the coronavirus raged and convoys of military trucks had to be deployed to transport the coffins – they were so numerous.

We are certainly far from being portrayed, as we were at the start of the pandemic, as the usual irresponsible incompetents for allowing such a catastrophe to occur, or for condemning an already terminal economy to death with a ultra-rigid containment. Now an article on the US site Foreign Police presents Italy in almost mystical tones, as the country that “snatched health from the clutches of death”.

What exactly should we Italians do with all this praise? Is this overall surprise at our collective behavior flattering or condescending? Above all, our national pride is soothed by the understanding that things are far from over.

We are now in a much better situation than in March, so we certainly did something good, but the number of infections is increasing again. Claiming victory over Covid-19 when a vaccine is still out of reach and a winter in enclosed spaces is approaching sounds 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 best, which saved the most people from the jaws of the monster.

Take Sweden, a country that as of today (yes, that’s an essential little phrase for navigating a pandemic) is held up as an example of how bad things can get when no lockdown is n ‘is put in place. Strong as I can feel, as I do, that my government has done something extremely right, even brave, in implementing a strict lockdown so soon, the harsh truth is that we don’t yet know which country – Italy or Sweden or whoever – will eventually come out in better shape when we are finally on the other side of this horrible pandemic. It is still far, far too early to tell.

So, do we Italians deserve this praise or not? The short answer is: yes, but not for the reasons everyone praises us for.

It must be recognized that these pandemic curves are only snapshots of a situation that is still very fluid: the only epidemiological opinions worth listening to are those of today’s experts, and possibly tomorrow’s analysts – at a point at which full scores will be possible. What we, the general public, can and must talk about now is politics.

What the Italian government has done right, paradoxically, is exactly what the Swedish government has done right, albeit with opposing strategies: namely, to have assumed full responsibility for its public health policy to Covid-19.

The Italian and Swedish governments closely followed the experts’ advice. Both, on the basis of this advice, then chose the strategy they deemed most suited to national sentiment, culture, political and social history. Both governments communicated this strategy to their citizens and indicated how they should act.

The Italians, for example, were told that 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 lawsuit. I think the reason the Italians complied most of the time without protest, in the orderly way that everyone seems so stunned, is because of the responsibility the government took for giving those instructions, just like he did it for his mistakes (and there were many). Sweden is on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to its strategy – but on the same side as Italy if the divide is not about lockdowns, but about governments relying on expert advice to present their political decisions to the public in a responsible and consistent manner, and those who do not.

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 even reached the middle post. The line I would draw is between governments that take full responsibility for their actions and those that leave their citizens in a fog of uncertainty and have irresponsible leadership.

And I’m not talking about authoritarian countries, but some Western democracies that have given citizens confusing and often contradictory instructions. You don’t need a degree in history or politics to see how the absence of leadership clearly dedicated to the public good in times of deep crisis opens the door to society’s worst demons – not to mention human nature.

We live in a world in which the president of the world’s greatest military power and, to date, its largest democracy, refuses to reassure its citizens that he will peacefully concede defeat if that is the outcome of the next election. In this context, one looks in a new light at governments humbly taking responsibility for their humanly flawed decisions in the uncharted territory of a pandemic, providing consistent instructions without hesitation to criticism.

Accountability and transparency no longer resemble the outer framework of democracy in which the most relevant political details are placed. We now see them clearly as the very fabric of democracy. Something without which everything else – health, society, peace, life itself – is in grave danger.

Francesca Melandri is an Italian author. His “Letter from the Future” published in March in the Guardian has been translated into 32 languages