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We will all be Italian

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 13 March 2020

What happened in Italy this week could tempt us to feel smug.

Surely, the decision to put the whole country into lockdown must be an exaggeration. Perhaps those Italians did not manage their affairs well enough. Italians have always been a bit melodramatic, right?

If that is your response you do not understand either Italy or this new coronavirus.

Despite all that is usually wrong with Italy’s government, bureaucracy and economy, this time Italy got most things right. Still, its initial steps were not enough to prevent the spread of the virus. And this led the government under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to make an unenviable choice.

Conte could have tried to just slow the spread of the virus while keeping public life as open as possible. Or he could have dramatically acted to stop it even at the risk of crippling the Italian economy.

Conte chose the latter. But really, he did not have a choice.

After more than 300 deaths, no government could have sat by to watch the virus decimate the elderly. While the virus’ lethality is low in younger and healthier cohorts, it is not so for older people. Italy’s median age is among the world’s highest.

No government could have idly witnessed a surge of Covid-19 cases overwhelm its health system. While the virus may only require hospitalisation for 15 percent of cases, if these cases all happen at once, it will exceed hospitals’ capacity.

So, Conte had to take dramatic action. By bringing Italy to a standstill, he will do the utmost to keep contagion to a minimum. Unfortunately, that also means wreaking havoc on the Italian economy.

In my Newsroom column this week, I described the dramatic coronavirus consequences for the Italian economy. The Italian economy is likely to collapse. Government debt will explode. There could be a banking crisis. Even the Euro might fail.

And still, you cannot blame Prime Minister Conte for his choices. He had to take the lesser of two evils.

Sadly, by the same logic of contagion, the Italian fate now awaits most other nations. Soon Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern will have to make the same decision as Giuseppe Conte. Just a few weeks later.

We will all be Italian.

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