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COVID and Nationalism: Italy as the Canary in the Coal Mine

Katherine Everitt

In spite of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) attempt to streamline research and restrictions in light of COVID-19, states have largely taken an independent and often nationalistic approach to their battle against COVID. From the U.S. decrying the WHO as an agent of China to EU states reasserting their once dissolved borders, we have approached a stunning paradox: the resurgence of nationalism amidst a global, unifying experience.

Some posited that COVID, an epidemic that knows no borders, would bring states together in favour of information-sharing, collaboration, and global cosmopolitan spirit in order to defeat the virus (see Charles P. Reis’s article on the promise of G20 cooperation; President Xi’s own plea for increased global cooperation; or WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s call for transnational information-sharing). And yet, much like other transnational problems such as climate change and terrorism, cooperation is the exception to the nationalistic rule. The West’s awakening to COVID was not, in fact, due to its ravaging of Wuhan and China as a whole, but instead, the West was awakened through the sacrifice of Italy.

For almost as long as Italy has existed as a unified state in the 19th century, Italy and other Mediterranean states have existed as the Other in the European imagination. Economists who specialise in the ongoing European debt crisis humorously and incorrectly pointed out the problem lay not in the German Central Bank or the cross-national fiscal unification necessary in currency unification, but in what pundits dubbed the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain).

While one can debate the causes of the European debt crisis ad nauseum, one thing is clear, the PIIGS stood as the Others in the European project, the seemingly problematic states that detracted from the European project of integration. Of course, integrating these economies meant nothing short of their complete collapse, but that still hasn’t stopped economists from posing their pseudo-scientific theories cloaked in otherisation, about the “cultural differences” of these economies.

In terms of COVID, the West only woke up once the Italian healthcare system began to drown under the weight of elderly patients in need of intubation, without sufficient equipment or medical personnel in sight. It was at this moment, that Europe, the United States, and the West broadly awoke to the problem of COVID — if it can happen in Italy (who we assume are already somehow inferior as a nation), then we must stop it from reaching us (the more sophisticated states of the West).

In it in this nationalistic otherisation of Italy that the West, namely the United States, began to produce ventilators en masse. Even though Italy has never recovered from its integration with the euro, the EU was never implicated in Italy’s failure to deliver sufficient healthcare services in the light of the booming COVID explosion. It was somehow the fault of the culture, of Italy as the redheaded stepchild of the European project, that accounted for this tragedy.

Italy stands as the West’s relatable other, whereas China is far removed from any ideological comparison with the West, and hence COVID in China remained an imaginary, distant occurrence. Both spatially and ideologically, COVID’s arrival in Italy was far more impactful to the West than well documented and publicised destruction in China. Italy, in this way, was the sacrificial canary in the coalmine, situated within the West’s ideological outlook.

Only once COVID tore through the fragile healthcare system of Italy, did the EU, the UK, the US, and the West broadly begin to accept COVID as a real threat. Hence, nationalism as an ideological outlook continues to shape policy. The radical otherisation of China and the more intimate otherisation of Italy were fundamental ideological components to the West’s rather belated reaction to the threat of COVID.

Katherine Everitt is a PhD Candidate at the European Graduate School.