Coronavirus has taught Italy hard lessons. Other countries must learn from us

Maurizio Molinari

Last week, Italy became the first European country to go into complete lockdown to protect its citizens from a pandemic attack. Previously, such a scenario was just an academic hypothesis for national security experts. Now what Italy is doing can become a model for other countries threatened by the same enemy: coronavirus.

A lesson coming from Italy is the crucial importance of collaboration between citizens and official institutions

Italy remains under attack, as shown by the rising number of infections and deaths, and the battle against the virus is full of unknowns, but there are three aspects of the current emergency that already contain unequivocal lessons.

The first concerns national security. The pandemic caught Italy by surprise, almost like a large-scale terror attack. In schools of war, they teach that you always need to prepare yourself to fight the next conflict. Now we know this can be triggered not by an armed enemy but by a virus. Consequently, hospitals, medical facilities, health equipment, doctors and nurses are equivalent to our frontline. They have to be considered a trench to defend, consolidate and reinforce. We must then invest in health like we do in security – that means rethinking national budgets to dedicate strategic resources to research, development and training in the medical sector and also to the purchase of materials destined to become crucial supplies.

Photograph: Luca Zennaro/EPA

What this requires of individual democracies as well as of the EU and Nato alliances is to equip themselves urgently with an effective, well-structured and even better funded biosecurity policy. Because the secret of success in resisting pandemic attacks is in the logistics: the more hospitals, beds, specialists, nurses, machinery and medicines there are, the more our collective life is protected. And so we need to coordinate efforts: in Europe for example, Spain, France and Germany are drawing from the Italian experience, adopting similar choices. Other countries further afield are also learning from Italy and closing down before a high number of cases emerge.

The second lesson coming from Italy’s experience of the pandemic is the crucial importance of collaboration between citizens and official institutions. If Giuseppe Conte’s government has locked down public life, forced millions of people into a de facto quarantine and faced economic costs that risk recession, it is because this is the only effective prescription to stem – and ultimately defeat – the virus. But for that to be successful, it is necessary for every individual citizen to play their part responsibly. Since we are a democracy, there is a constitutional limit to the obligations that can be imposed on citizens, hence the importance of personal responsibility. The pandemic transforms every street, every apartment block, every house into a part of a collective trench. It is vital for everyone to understand the importance of the limitations they accept and to participate consciously in their application, so that the result is the one desired: defeating the virus and returning to normality.

There is also a third element to the Italian experience: it is reflected in the people at their windows and in balconies, who at midday last Saturday collectively applauded the doctors and nurses who are key figures in the fight against the virus. People are also playing or singing the national anthem from their homes, as well as O Sole Mio and other beloved songs, as a way of uniting against the pandemic in a show of spontaneous patriotism that ultimately makes the nation more cohesive.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is happening across Italy: from the Turin confectioners who are bringing sweet treats to hospitals for patients and doctors to the young Romans arranging to meet in front of laptops for their evening aperitivo; from the Milanese who are not asking for refunds of their unused theatre tickets to the restaurant owners who are working with home deliveries; from the technicians who are using 3D printers to help doctors to far-off hospitals that are mobilising to support Lombardy, the worst-affected region; from the security workers helping families to find food outlets to the representatives of all faiths who are using the internet to guide their fellow believers.

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At La Stampa we have found ourselves on the frontline of this crisis, like many other newspapers with offices in the areas most hit by the virus. Five days ago, an employee at our office in Turin, in northern Italy, tested positive for the virus. Since then we have adhered to strict safety protocols to ensure the paper can be online at every moment and on the newsstands every day. Our staff and journalists gather and coordinate through online platforms. Like every other Italian, we are facing daily risks but we must keep informing our readers. Because when a democracy is under attack, even by a virus, free and independent information has a strategic value: all those who stay home rely on newspapers like ours to know what is going on.

Italy is adapting to the emergency by ensuring that passion for life prevails over fear of the virus, and by refuting the image of an anarchic people who are reluctant to respect laws and regulations: the truth is that when life is at stake, even the most rebellious of citizens becomes a patriot. This is a sign of the energy of our nation and the best guarantee of being able to raise ourselves up again when the coronavirus crisis is defeated. Even if the challenge is far from over.

Maurizio Molinari is the editor-in-chief of La Stampa. This article was translated by Catherine Hornby