Emergency doctors in Italy, the European epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, were this week given guidance on “catastrophe medicine”. As the number of patients requiring intensive care balloons and hospitals run out of intensive care beds, doctors were instructed to “aim to guarantee intensive treatment to patients with the greatest chance of therapeutic success”. With the grim task of selecting patients unlikely to survive, Italy’s health authorities have pleaded with the countries’ friends and allies for emergency supplies. On Thursday, they finally arrived – from Shanghai. The China Eastern flight brought a medical team and 31tonnes of supplies including ventilators.
Beijing’s gesture has reinforced a perceived lack of support from Europe, compounded by a communications blunder by the European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde, who implied on Thursday it was no longer her job to keep Italy in the euro. When Italy asked for urgent medical supplies under a special European crisis mechanism no EU country responded. Fearful of its own shortages, Germany initially banned the export of medical masks and other protective gear. 3M, a producer, said the German restrictions had made it impossible to supply the Italian market. Berlin subsequently relaxed the export rules, but then Austria closed its borders to people arriving from Italy unless they could prove they were virus-free.
The rebuffs are nourishing resentment that Italy has been abandoned by its European friends. It is a perception that hastaken root over a decade, of a currency union that lacks collective solidarity and stifles growth as Italy confronted migrant flows from Africa and the Middle East. This, in turn, has fuelled the rise of Eurosceptic nationalists such as far-right firebrand Matteo Salvini. “It is back to the future, where Italy is left on its own,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “It was the case with the eurozone crisis, then the migrant crisis of 2015-16 and now the coronavirus crisis. It is the same old story and the political implications could be massive.”