COVID-19 shows the limits of the neoliberal model

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An interview with Fabio Massimo Parenti

The Italian Observatory on the New Silk Road/CIVG (Italian branch of the Silk Road Connectivity Research Center of Belgrade) recently interviewed Fabio Massimo Parenti, Associate Professor at the China Foreign Affairs University of Beijing, about COVID-19 emergence.

1) In Italy we experienced a very confused management of COVID-19 emergence. There is an ongoing debate among experts, both for what concerns the bio-medical aspects as well as the reorganization of public facilities, economic activities and people’s daily life. How this crisis has been managed in China?
FMP) I have an indirect but daily experience on what is currently happening in China. The Chinese government reacted with rapidity and efficiency, demonstrating an excellent ability in mobilizing people, specialists and resources. Just to give an impression, since the end of January my health conditions are remotely monitored by the medical experts of the China Foreign Affairs University of Beijing. Chinese adopted a centralized and well-coordinated approach that should represent an example for the rest of the world, as recently confirmed by the World Health Organization.

2) Nevertheless, the ‘Chinese lesson’ has not been learned…
FMP) Unfortunately, when the Western countries have been directly involved in this emergence, the government’s approaches did not appear neither centralized nor coordinated. Sadly, this is an objective fact emerging from the experience of the last weeks.

3) What were the main missteps?
FMP) Until few weeks ago, the Western governments and media wasted times criticizing China, highlighting the weaknesses of the first countermeasures adopted by Chinese government in order to prevent the infections and speculating about Xi’s leadership resilience. Once the crisis spread in our countries, the governments reacted in a shy way, avoiding a systematic control of the in-out people flows. Now we are observing an upside down situation: China is getting better, Xi’s leadership has a large internal and international consensus and the real question is if Western countries will be able to prevent their own collapse.

4) But now we drastically changed our approach, in Italy at least. What is your opinion?
FMP) Italian approach is halfway between the Chinese and the other Western ones. Since the beginning of February, the government started to seriously monitor coronavirus spread, carrying out approximately 97.000 tests. I would say that in our country the emergency is much better managed than elsewhere in the Western world, like in Germany, France or United States. In this latter case the scenario can be even more dramatic because of the lack of a national health service supported by massive public investments; indeed, until few days ago, only 500 tests have been carried out in USA. For what concerns the rest of Europe, there are some uncertainties due to the lack of clear data. It looks like the real numbers behind the crisis have been somehow hidden. If so, it is worth noting that this was the first charge brought against China at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.
By the way, returning to Italy, we must admit that the first countermeasures put in place were not enough.

5) Specifically what did not work?
FMP) We seriously addressed the problem only after February 20-23. I mean the isolation of selected regions of Northern Italy, the suspension of some public services (schools, universities) and economic activities, until the drastic decision to extend the red zone to the whole national territory, prolonging the suspensions of the main services. A correct, but late reaction. Moreover, the isolated cases of people escaped from the red zones demonstrated the initial weakness of local authorities. The crisis was managed in a contradictory way, as demonstrated by suspension of flights to and from China; even if this measure was correct in itself it was not enough, since it was not combined to suspension of flights stopping in other Asian countries where coronavirus was potentially already spread. On the other hand, before the central government announcement of major restrictions in these last days, there was a substantial lack of coordination between national and local authorities. The latter launched campaigns aimed to avoid the suspension of the economic activities (do you remember the hashtag ‘#milanononsiferma’, whose meaning was ‘Milano does not stop’?!?). Finally, such campaigns have been suspended even if in late.

6) However the damage was done…
FMP) Yes. This confusing approach had a reflection in the public debate, leading to many misunderstanding about the dangerousness of COVID-19, with important consequence citizens’ daily life. Until few days ago, it was common to believe that we were just facing something like a slightly more severe seasonal flu. The behaviour of some politicians, journalists and scientists was irresponsible, and should be severely sanctioned.

7) What structural factors penalized Italy?
FMP) As I mentioned before, in Italy we faced some discrepancies between the national and local authorities. Surely this worsened the situation. But the main problem is linked to the substantial lack of structures and resources to treat infected people, that in many cases require intensive cares. Why? It is well-known that in the last decades the number of beds in the intensive care units of our hospitals constantly diminished. In order to solve this problem, the Italian government is now revising the public budget dedicated to the national health service, increasing the number of beds in the intensive units of the hospitals from 5.000 to 7-8.000, involving also military hospitals and readapting other infrastructures. We are doing a good job, but we have to understand the deep reasons why we are now facing such dramatic situation. Indeed, this is the tragic result of neoliberal policies that reduced the public intervention in the management of the national health service. This, once very efficient, risks to collapse because in the last decade the state diminished its investments, allowing private business to gain space in this strategic sector.

8) International scenarios: who and how tried to exploit the Chinese weakness?
FMP) Since the beginning there has been an unacceptable political exploitation of this issue. From this point of view, while the WHO declared the outbreak of a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ on January 30, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese government the ‘central threat of our times’. Even nowadays Fox News and other Western media are accusing China of being guilty for this crisis. This is completely absurd: we are in front of an international crisis, an unpredictable spread of a serious epidemic in many different countries, and these people are trying to attribute a ‘nationality’ to the virus! It is worth to note that this simplicistic and misleading approach is the same that has been adopted when CNN represented Italy as the second world infector. Unbelievable, especially in the light of recent studies that demonstrate a German, rather than an Italian origin of the virus spread in Europe. Such stupid attempt to looking for a COVID-19 ‘nationality’ has determined both verbal and physical racist aggressions against Chinese and Italian people. We should clearly state that we are dealing with an aggressive strategy, planned in an arrogant and inhuman way during a global crisis and aimed to obtain an advantage in the international competition.

9) On your opinion are we facing only a health emergence or a systematic crisis of the neoliberal model? Who will come out really weakened from this challenge?
FMP) Let’s ask ourselves a question: why China has been able to mobilize in a such so efficient way people and resources, promptly building new hospitals in order to take care of its citizens, while we are in such troubles? The Chinese approach is much more performant than the Western one in critical situations because the principles inspiring the ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ allows the private initiative within a general frame of strong public control, especially in the strategic economic sectors. This model is antithetical to the American one, that I fear will have dramatic consequences on the US population. Therefore, I believe that this experience will strengthen the People’s Republic of China and its model. Europe might try to rethink its health policies, remembering the role played in the past by the public engagement in this so crucial field. So, who will lose consensus? The Chinese communist leadership or the Western neoliberal one? Our leaders seem to be taking the greatest risks in this challenge.
Reasonably, the discussion about the most deleterious effects of the neoliberal model will gain much more space in the public debate of the Western countries. I hope that such discussion will be addressed in a constructive and pacific way, in strike contrast with the aggressive attitude that characterized the last period.
For now, my suggestion in this difficult moment is to be more cautious in judging other people and their respective government systems, being also more respectful, humble and collaborative.