The coronavirus pandemic, even as it induces great anxiety and fear over people’s health, is at the same time causing disruption to our societies’ economies on a scale that is perhaps unprecedented. In Italy, at least in the period after World War II, no comparable crisis has been experienced before. For anything like the same level of disorder one has to look back to another difficult and trying period, the 1970s, when terrorist groups like the Brigate Rosse were kidnapping and then executing trades unionists, judges, police officers and politicians. The rock bottom of this political crisis arguably was reached in 1978 with the brutal killing of the 38th Prime Minister of Italy and prominent Christian Democrat, Aldo Moro. Yet despite the horror and uncertainty of that political catharsis, day-to-day life in Italy then was very different from the challenges of what we are now undergoing under lockdown. The majority of people in the 1970s were by and large conducting normal lives, despite the hard times and the periodic social and societal convulsions that went on around them. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought about upheaval of a completely different nature and on an altogether larger scale – at least in western societies. The feeling that this is a crisis of far greater proportions is perhaps even more pronounced in Italy and elsewhere because of the generalised feeling that European countries, thanks to their mostly sturdy public healthcare systems and high levels of medical and technological prowess, could no longer be seriously at risk from infectious diseases like COVID-19. This may explain, at least in part, why in the West the coronavirus took us so much by surprise, shaking to their very foundations our ideas of what we thought we knew about the world, as well as calling into question our assumptions about the future.
European countries have of course been hit by the virus in different ways and at different times, with differing consequences (as we can see from the rate of infection and death). Consequently, they have adopted a variety of contrasting – and often much criticised – strategies in order to slow down and curb the pandemic. However, despite the diverse and alternative approaches adopted, it is nevertheless a positive sign that in regard to certain actions those within the EU found ways to coordinate their efforts to counter the disease. Indeed, after the H1V1 and SARS pandemics the European Union showed an increasing awareness of the significant risks posed by such epidemics and decided to act, launching its ‘Joint Procurement for Medical Countermeasures’ (JPMC) project. On 20 June 2014 the agreement was signed by 14 European countries and passed into EU law. By the end of 2014, the number of countries adhering to the venture had risen to 20. By June 2019 the number of signatory countries rested at 25 and, as of February 2020, the quota stood at an impressive 37.
The JPMC was an important first step: not just in terms of maintaining general standards of health and protection in Europe, but also of being a significant – collaborative – political act. The vision behind it was, and is, that Europe should now properly coordinate its protection against infective pandemics to prevent the spread of such diseases in future, as well as fight them both effectively and concertedly. This recent thinking is at the same time very much in line with the 2000 European Community (EC) Communication on the ‘Precautionary Principle’, which supports the view that – in areas such as the environment and health – the European bloc should at all times take proactive measures to prevent serious risks to its people.
On 28 February 2020 a joint procurement scheme was launched to secure masks of types II and III, while on 17 March a follow-up procurement measure came into effect for obtaining other medical items such as gloves, goggles, face shields and ventilators. At a time when the benefits of EU membership have from so many quarters been called into question, this seems to me to represent the Unione europea at its best: offering an overarching and benign layer of protectiveness to its citizenry. And if the admirable spirit underlying the JPMC is taken as an ongoing template for European health protection, the hope going forwards must be that a similarly sustained and fully collaborative approach will lie behind all future decisions concerning how to cope with the economic recession caused by the coronavirus. For it is surely only through proper and properly coordinated trans-European collaboration that the full effects of COVID-19 – whether economic or medical – can substantively be mitigated and dispersed.