The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The coronavirus is a stress test for the U.S. and E.U.

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The worldwide meltdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak seems to be accelerating. On Monday, fears of a looming pandemic, coupled with the biggest single drop in oil prices since the United States entered the 1991 Gulf War, tanked global markets. By one count, the world’s 500 richest people lost a combined $203 billion in the first 96 minutes of U.S. trading. Economic analysts cite an increasing number of signs that point to the likelihood of an impending recession in the United States.

Investors aren’t just “irrationally panicking,” argues Sina Kian, a vice president of the Blackstone Group, an investment and advisory firm, in an op-ed for Politico. “They’re worried about the human and economic costs of the virus itself. And part of the market’s analysis is its confidence, or lack thereof, in the government’s ability to manage the crisis — to step in forcefully, stay ahead of the crisis, and guide us back out.”

Attention falls squarely on President Trump, who in the face of a spiraling crisis, keeps pinning the blame on his imagined enemies. On Monday, he once more criticized the “fake news” media for trying “to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” and sought to play down the risks facing Americans, before alluding to a package of economic stimulus measures to be unveiled Tuesday. His skepticism about the scale of the public health threat, though, contrasts with growing warnings from officials and epidemiologists over the virus’s seemingly inexorable spread through the United States and other parts of the world.

No place in the West has felt the effect of the emergency more keenly than Italy. On Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that his government would extend travel restrictions already in place in areas in northern Italy to include the whole country, effectively freezing a nation of more than 60 million people. Most Italians are now barred from travel to other countries and other regions in the country. Major public gatherings have been suspended, along with domestic sporting events.

“There is a sense in Italy that the country is facing its greatest emergency since World War II,” wrote The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan. “In recent days, the number of people to fall ill has accelerated, with active cases reaching nearly 8,000. In less than three weeks, 463 people have died.”

In televised remarks, Conte urged his compatriots to recognize the need for collective sacrifice. “We all must give something up for the good of Italy,” he said. “We have to do it now, and we’ll only be able if we all collaborate and adapt to these more stringent measures.”

That’s a hard pitch to make in a democracy built on the guarantee of individual rights. But it may be an indication of things to come as the virus spreads through Europe and across the world. “Italy has long been a political laboratory, for better or worse, and a harbinger of developments that later spread,” wrote the Atlantic’s Rachel Donadio over the weekend. “It’s also a rule-bound country where rules are often ignored, a place that often falls short on long-term planning but rises to the occasion in emergencies and has a knack for improvisation that its northern neighbors lack.”

So far, Italy’s suffering has mostly stoked continental grievances, not solidarity. Countries in the European Union have resisted Italy’s pleas for emergency medical supplies and masks to preserve their own stockpiles. At a meeting of the bloc’s health ministers scheduled for Friday, officials will attempt to cobble together some form of joint strategy, which so far has been conspicuously absent.

“The coronavirus has underscored the difficulty — and perhaps even the impossibility — of Europe responding to a uniform threat with a united front,” my colleagues wrote last week. “If anything, the prospect of a global pandemic has exposed the cracks, bureaucratic and political, in Europe’s ability to coordinate across borders.”

As governments reckon with the immense logistical and economic challenges that come with quarantines, shutdowns and travel bans, the virus is posing a kind of stress test for democratic political systems. In the European Union, national emergencies are fraying continental unity: Nationalists are questioning the merits of an open-border policy, and the prospect of a major euro-zone bailout for Italy’s stricken economy is likely to rankle public opinion elsewhere.

“Talk about ‘Union’! When others are in need, Italians have to pay, but when Italy needs the others, they will shut their doors and wallets,” said Matteo Salvini, Italy’s most prominent far-right politician. “Soon as the health emergency’s over, we’ll need to rethink and rebuild everything, starting with Brussels.”

In the United States, a floundering executive branch has weakened the federal government’s response to the crisis, according to reporting by multiple news organizations. Weeks ago, some experts cast the outbreak as China’s “Chernobyl” event, in disparaging Beijing’s early handling of the epidemic as it ravaged the city of Wuhan. But critics are now applying that analogy to Trump instead for his role in the United States’ bungled initial response to the crisis.

“For a month, we thought that Chinese political values were the cause of the problem, and that our values would protect us from the virus,” Bruno Maçães, Portugal’s former minister of European affairs, told the Wall Street Journal. “It was an ideological approach. You need to use technology and political power, not just trust that things will be all right because we have the right values.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ever the stolid steward of the European political establishment, argued Monday that the “most effective thing against the virus” is time — a timeline that runs through travel restrictions and the systemic disruption of daily life. “We are working for valuable time, time in which scientists can research medicines and a vaccine,” and for medical facilities to stockpile protective equipment, she told reporters in Berlin.

Rather than offer a note of confidence, she could only add that these measures were “not in vain.”

Read more:

The coronavirus outbreak is making expertise great again

How epidemics have changed the world