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Italian Diary IV

March 27th

Yesterday’s figures in Italy were discouraging. A fresh wave of bad news. We have all been home now for almost three weeks (I’ve lost count of the days) and everyone is tired and tired of trying to be cheerful. A lot of nerves are frayed and I think a lot of us are frustrated here at having tried to alert people in other countries to take this more seriously sooner. While many people did take it seriously sooner, many governments dragged their heels. And now we are seeing the results. We are now reading that the US has surpassed China for the highest number of confirmed cases. New York, Madrid, Catalonia are said to risk surpassing Lombardy as the worst-hit subnational regions. Covid-19 thrives in heavily populated places where physical distancing is so difficult. What is now hitting other countries looks so, so disconcertingly familiar.

Yesterday evening, following Sara Sullam’s helpful suggestion, I read the commentary by Mario Mazzocchi of the Department of Statistical Sciences Paolo Fortunati at the University of Bologna. While the numbers in absolute terms remain terribly high, he reads yesterday’s figures in Italy as “a glass half-full” and says they are only apparently worse than the previous day’s. Yes, the number of cases is increasing, but 36,000 swabs were taken yesterday compared to 27,000 the previous day. And the percentage of those testing positive dropped. Wednesday’s figures showed that 19 per cent of those tested were found positive, but on Thursday this percentage had fallen to 16 per cent. Between March 12th and 24th, the percentage of those testing positive was never below 22 per cent and reached a peak of 32 per cent. So, with higher numbers being tested on Thursday, fewer cases were being found on a percentage basis. That is positive, as is the fact that the number of new ICU patients, although slightly higher than the previous day’s low (123 as against ninety-three), remains the second lowest since March 10th. The number of deaths, although still very high, decreased slightly, for the second consecutive day. Slim pickings in the optimism stakes but not nothing.

The second big issue that emerged yesterday evening was the failure of the EU Council to agree on some kind of common Eurobond. In my post of that day, I cited the fact that Germany was treating a small number of Italian Coronavirus patients as welcome and I stressed the need for European countries to hold together. There is a desperate need for solidarity and for far greater co-operation and coordination among the EU countries. There is some but by no means enough evidence of other countries trying to help Italy and Spain, which are the ones most in the firing line at present. Yesterday a hospital in Brandenburg took a further forty-seven Italian intensive care patients and other German hospitals have offered to take more.

The financial clout that divides Germany and some of its northern European allies from southern European economies is glaringly evident in the financial packages it has been announcing this week but also in its anti-Covid-19 health measures. Germany is testing 500,000 people per day and now has 47,278 cases. Yesterday it had a jump of 3,340 new cases and suffered 281 deaths, three in a million. Italy yesterday tested 37,000 people and now has 80,589 cases (+ 6,153 from the previous day). It has suffered 8,215 deaths in total, 136 in a million. Spain has 57,786 cases, 4,365 deaths, ninety-six in a million. People are asking how Germany’s numbers can be so low. The answer seems to be that they are carrying out huge numbers of tests and not registering deaths in the same way as Italy or Spain. The statistics for real death numbers around Europe will not become clear for a long time and given that each country seems to have its own way of counting them, comparisons are not particularly helpful. But whatever way we look at it, some countries, notably Italy and Spain, are suffering disproportionately and desperately need more help from abroad.

Yesterday Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, delivered a reprimand to member governments for their failure to pull together. Too many, she said, had selfishly “looked out for themselves”, restricting exports of medical supplies to other EU countries and closing borders. I think we all know that is true. It is time for the twenty-seven to find ways to react to this crisis as one. Just a week ago, I signed an open letter to the members of the European Council, the conclusion of which read: “We need a common debt instrument in order to mutualize the fiscal costs of fighting this crisis. Now is time for action. Now is the time for solidarity. It is time for Eurobonds.” It was written and signed by academics from all over the world, the majority of whom are economists or political scientists. The first four signatories were Aidan Regan, University College Dublin, Mark Blyth, Brown University, Matthias Matthijs, Johns Hopkins University and Thomas Piketty, Paris School of Economics.


Many others are making the same point in different ways, none more powerfully or with more authority than Mario Draghi. The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who has the support of the vast majority of Italians at present (despite the cynical efforts of the right wing – Salvini and Meloni in primis ‑ and to a lesser extent of some of his own coalition partners to undermine him), has pushed for “Corona bonds” as a fiscal solution to the pandemic. Whatever it might eventually be called, this is a desperately needed measure. Otherwise, Europe’s stronger economies will emerge from this crisis even stronger in relative terms while the weak will emerge, if they emerge at all, much weaker. The gap between North and South and between the rich and poor countries risks becoming even wider. The result would be akin to what was inflicted on Greece during the financial crisis, but far, far worse. Germany and other rich northern European countries for the moment are resisting and could be accused of prioritising their own economies over the loss of lives in neighbouring countries (of pursing a callous capitalist model that is most bluntly personified by Trump and his desire to force the US back to work just when it should be doing the opposite). Their opposition to the Eurobond idea goes back (at least) to 2011. Just read this paragraph from an article published in September 2011 by ISPI (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale):

German opposition to the Eurobond proposal is intense. Whether you poll public opinion or survey editorials in the popular newspapers, the answer is always the same. The German people do not want to be responsible for the debts of the Greeks, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, or the Italians. They do not want to run the risk that they could have to pay back the loans taken out by countries that appear to have borrowed irresponsibly. And they do not believe their parliamentarians should be allowed to make a decision that would be too painful to reverse. Joining the single currency was bad enough; Germany will not join a European ‘debt union’.

That may have been the case back then but if it was ever justifiable it no longer is. We are in a wholly changed new reality. As Mario Draghi wrote: “We face a war against coronavirus and must mobilise accordingly … Faced with unforeseen circumstances, a change of mindset is necessary … The memory of the sufferings of Europeans in the 1920s is enough of a cautionary tale. The speed of the deterioration of private balance sheets ‑ caused by an economic shutdown that is both inevitable and desirable ‑ must be met by equal speed in deploying government balance sheets, mobilising banks and, as Europeans, supporting each other in the pursuit of what is evidently a common cause.”

This political debate is not over yet and yesterday’s failure to reach agreement is not the end of the EU. Not yet at least. It is not, surely, in any single country’s interest to break Europe in this way. For the record, the countries that have jointly called for a Eurobond are Italy, France, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Slovenia and Luxembourg. In their joint letter they write: “We need to work on a common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market on the same basis and to the benefits of all Member States.” Germany, Austria and the Netherlands are the countries most strongly opposed.

Europe, led by Germany, inflicted undue pain on Greece during the financial crisis. This time round – as Draghi said – the normal rules do not apply. This is a matter of life and death and Europe will have to go down this route if it is to survive. But the process of convincing the countries that are resisting will take more time and, tragically, many more deaths, before they do the right thing.

Frequently, over the past few days, I find myself hearing half-remembered quotes from Samuel Beckett. One among them, from Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” That describes a lot of our lives right now though it’s not uniformly awful or even regularly awful in most homes. We have days when we do fine, days when we can busy ourselves and let distractions of work or school carry us through. But we all have our moments during this crisis. Moments when we cannot but look into the darkness and wonder when or where it all might end.

There are some people who just can’t hack it and break out of their apartments. Last week I wrote that the dogs were having the legs walked off them firstly by their owners and then by the neighbours. Now I read that the mayor of Cassina Rizzardi in the province of Como, Piergiorgio Bonino, is reporting that people have been seen walking around with cats and fake dogs on leashes. In another story, a forty-one-year-old from Milan “borrowed” a dialysis van so as to go and see his girlfriend. He was reported by neighbours and stopped and charged, for three separate offences, by the police. Shutdown means shutdown.

At another point in Waiting for Godot, Estragon says: “I can’t go on like this.” That too is being said, I imagine, in many homes today. Vladimir’s response is “That's what you think.” In other words – you can. So can we. And we will. For as long as it takes.

Image: Mario Draghi, urging Europeans to support each other in a common cause