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Italy and Spain see ‘first positive signs’ in coronavirus crisis, ambassadors say

Patients are seen at a temporary hospital inside a conference center in Madrid on April 2  amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Patients are seen at a temporary hospital inside a conference center in Madrid on April 2 amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

The Italian and Spanish ambassadors to the United States reported signs of improvement in the coronavirus situation in their countries Thursday, where numbers of confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain high but are beginning to stabilize.

“These are just the first positive signs, and they have to be taken cautiously,” Italian Ambassador Armando Varricchio said. “But they show that measures taken both nationally and at the local level have started to pay off.”

Spain and Italy account for the majority of more than 30,000 deaths in Europe, with more than 10,000 in Spain and 13,000 in Italy, although figures in Britain and France are climbing. All have imposed national stay-at-home orders and closures.

The Spanish government this week issued orders prohibiting home evictions or the cutoff of utilities for failure to pay.

Doctors Maggiore and Pizzicannella filmed inside their hospital in Chieti, Italy, where patients are struggling to recover from the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salvatore Maggiore/The Washington Post)

Both Varricchio and Spanish Ambassador Santiago Cabanas, speaking from their Washington homes in an online forum convened by the Meridian International Center, stressed the need for international solidarity and cooperation. But they cited the risk of growing authoritarianism, such as measures imposed in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing party, with a legislative majority, has closed parliament, indefinitely postponed elections and given him sweeping new powers.

The virus, Cabanas said, is “putting pressure not just on the health of our citizens but also on the health of our democracies. . . . Sometimes the decision-making process in our democracies might be perceived as slow an inefficient,” he said, “but it is a small price to pay to make sure that citizens can be fully involved.”

Mapping the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

The diplomats expressed gratitude for aid shipments and advice from China, which has sent a team of doctors to Italy, but said their governments are fully aware that the Chinese government sees its assistance as part of a global competition.

“We should not try to buy into a [Chinese] narrative that might fall under the umbrella of public diplomacy,” Varricchio said. “We’re not naive, and we understand it very well.”

“There is a need to cooperate . . . to make sure that goods and equipment are shipped,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t want to fall into this sort of trap. We are very clear about our values and clear about our interests. . . . This is no time for politics.”

But he said the crisis has exposed loopholes in the Western international institutions created after World War II that must be addressed after the pandemic has abated.

Both ambassadors sidestepped questions about the Trump administration’s sometimes erratic response to the virus. “I don’t think this is the time for giving advice,” Varricchio said. He and Cabanas said their countries, ahead of the United States in infection rates and deaths, have been in close communication with U.S. government and health authorities.

“This is a very productive, efficient conversation and dialogue at all levels; we’re very appreciative,” Cabanas said. U.S. officials, he said, have told Spain that it is learning from the Spanish experience.