ROME – I never thought I’d live to see it, but there it was in the New York Times on July 23, big as life, in the headline over a column by Paul Krugman: “Why can’t America be like Italy?” Since then, unflattering comparisons of the US to Italy in terms of handling the coronavirus have become a media meme, popping up all over the place.
For me, it’s enough to induce intellectual whiplash. For most of my adult life, Italy has been a global exemplar of how not to run a country, with a legendarily opaque bureaucracy, notoriously corrupt, and struggling to provide even basic public services such as garbage collection or fixing potholes. Now all of a sudden, Italy has become a case study in efficiency and leadership.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte celebrated his 56th birthday yesterday, and even he has to be a bit dazed. Not only is he being feted around the world for his management of the pandemic, but Italy’s most recent polls show he enjoys a 65 percent approval rating.
Like most media memes, the “Italy success story” is a bit exaggerated. Nonetheless, there’s enough truth to it that it’s worth unpacking.
Let’s start with the exaggerations.
To begin with, whether Italy is truly a success story remains to be seen. The most recent monitoring data has shown an uptick in infections over the past week, with 552 new cases reported on Friday, and the average age of those contracting the virus is going down. Gianni Rezza, Director of Prevention for Italy’s Ministry of Health, warned that the country has to “pay attention,” and the government extended precautionary measures until Sept. 7.
Still, Italy reported just three coronavirus fatalities on Friday, as opposed to 1,287 in the US, and Italy’s infection rate remains among the lowest in the European Union at a time when other EU states are struggling with new outbreaks.
For another thing, Italy probably lucked out at the beginning of its crisis because it was largely concentrated in the wealthy north, as opposed to the chronically underdeveloped and dysfunctional south.
Had Conte been in the position of asking Italians to accept a national lockdown over a problem localized in the south, many northerners might have written it off as yet another example of the south being a mess that had nothing to do with them. On the other hand, in their heart of hearts, many southerners likely thought that if this disease can cripple even Milan, then God knows what it could do to us, and were more inclined to accept drastic measures.
Further, Italy also benefitted from the quirky nature of its parliamentary system, where heads of state can take power as a result of backroom deals without a single person ever having voted for them.
Conte initially was the product of a Faustian pact between the right-wing Lega party of anti-immigrant hawk Matteo Salvini and the left-wing populist Five Star movement. He was a nobody before being thrust into the Prime Minister’s role, and to this day he has no clear party affiliation or allegiance.
As a result, nobody suspects Conte of pursuing a partisan agenda, and, for the most part, public health precautions such as face masks have not been politicized in Italy as they have elsewhere, most notably the US.
Had Italy been under the stewardship of a different kind of PM, one with a stronger partisan edge – say, had these still been the Berlusconi years – the story might have been very different.
Finally, let’s also note that much of the “Italy good, America bad” drumbeat in the US media right now has a clear anti-Trump edge. (In fact, I wasn’t completely honest above – the headline of Krugman’s July 23 op/ed actually was, “Why can’t Trump’s America be like Italy?” In one fell swoop it managed to be both critical of Trump and snide to Italy, with the suggestion being, “If even Italy can figure this out, what the hell?”)
All that said, there’s still a case for celebrating Italy’s accomplishment, and perhaps a lesson in it too.
First, from the beginning Italians used the language of salvare la Patria, “saving the country,” to describe their anti-COVID efforts, even when they were joking about it (“You can save the country in your pajamas!” was one popular trope during the stay-at-home quarantine.) The campaign awakened dormant national memories of the WWII-era partigiani and their sacrifices to help liberate Italy from Nazi occupation.
In the States, such rhetoric has been in short supply. Instead, sounding alarms from the beginning has been cast as a political maneuver designed to bring down Trump. It was cast that way by the president, and, frankly, it’s been exploited that way by many of his critics.
Second, Italians bought into the mobilization in a way a broad swath of Americans never have. Honest to God, I actually witnessed ordinary Italians self-policing orderly lines in front of grocery stores … something that if you’ve ever been to Italy, you know is nothing short of an utter cultural revolution.
Third, there’s the eternal X factor in Italian life, which is the role of the pope.
Yes, there’s a strong anti-clerical streak in Italian life, most Italians don’t go to church anymore for anything beyond weddings, baptisms and funerals, the Italian bishops wield declining influence in national affairs, and on and on.
Still, in moments of national crisis, Italians instinctively turn to the pope, like kids in a family that fights all the time still look to dad when the chips are down.
From the beginning, Pope Francis urged the church to share in the sacrifices being made by other Italians, even indirectly rebuking the Italian bishops when they appeared poised to defy government restrictions on public celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments. At key moments, Francis also articulated the national mood, most poignantly in his March 27 Urbi et Orbi blessing from a deserted and rainy St. Peter’s Square. He helped hold the country together and keep it on course.
As both a Catholic and an adopted Italian, all that can’t help but make me feel a swell of pride.
Now, let’s see if Conte can move from the implausible, in flattening the curve of the virus, to the seemingly impossible, and actually get the garbage off the streets. If Francis can give him an assist on that too, I’ll personally prepare the positio for his eventual beatification.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.