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Ambassadors from Italy, Spain Have Frank Discussion of COVID-19 Effects

April 3, 2020 by Kate Michael
A healthcare worker prepares medication for a COVID-19 patient at one of the intensive care units (ICU) of the Germans Trias i Pujol hospital in Badalona, Barcelona province, Spain, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

WASHINGTON – Ambassadors from two of the European countries hardest hit by COVID-19 gave details on the rapidly unfolding situation in a virtual briefing Thursday morning hosted by the Meridian International Center. H.E. Armando Varricchio, Ambassador of Italy, and H.E. Santiago Cabanas, Ambassador of Spain, shared thoughts on the global pandemic and how it may ultimately affect world economies and political institutions. 

“Italy is so unfortunately ahead of the curve,” said Ambassador Varricchio, reporting that over 80,000 in Italy had tested positive for the virus as of briefing time. “We were the first Western democracy to be hit. The numbers are [high], but it needs to be considered the very high number of tests, as well. Since the beginning, the decision was taken to be fully transparent.

“We had to combine tight measures concerning health while preserving freedoms and values… Containment can produce important results,” he added.

Early decisions in Italy included ceasing all non-essential activities and shuttering businesses as well as tightening social distance controls, which Spain also did when it announced its own state of emergency on March 14, 2020. Now both countries are starting to see positive effects — health-wise — from their lockdowns. Economically, it’s set to be a different story. 

Both countries will be hit most heavily long-term by a decrease in tourism, with other national businesses and individuals also suffering devastating effects. 

Ambassador Cabanas confirmed that the Spanish government had approved a €700 million ($771 million) aid package that included a measure to suspend evictions of vulnerable households for six months after the state of emergency is lifted. Additionally, he touted microcredits to pay rent, a moratorium on mortgage payments (extended to include the self-employed) and barring water and power utilities from cutting off clients over unpaid bills.

With citizens everywhere calling on governments to make decisions quickly, the diplomats agreed that, even in a pandemic, policy-makers need to thoughtfully consider options before taking action.

“The crisis is putting pressure on the health of our citizens and the health of our democracies… and procedures enforced to cope with extraordinary events need to get back to normal when things return,” said Ambassador Varricchio, citing concerns about moves by fellow European Union partners, like Hungary’s parliament endorsing a bill to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping new powers.

“If there is to be a serious global economic recession, there is a danger of a return toward nationalism and danger in questioning our democratic institutions,” said Ambassador Cabanas. He further warned that “we may see the rise of authoritarian models and an increase in political pressures.”

To combat this, he suggests strengthening international prevention systems in cooperation: “Solidarity is the keyword, not only in the pandemic but also in the European Union.” 

Both Ambassadors shared that they believe this crisis should be fought globally, and its aftermath will require working together and calling upon shared values.

“Nothing will be the same after coronavirus,” said Ambassador Varricchio. “Now that we are experiencing a sort of war, there will be a rethinking of [everything].” 

“This crisis has shown us that we are very fragile. We are fragile as human beings, we have fragile economies and fragile political systems,” added Ambassador Cabanas. “But we have solidarity, and we might be going into a different world after this, but Western values are one of our greatest strengths.” 

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