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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Armando Varricchio (Image source: Public domain)
The news every day is filled with sorrow and fear regarding the coronavirus, so when there is at least a hint of good news, it's something to be celebrated. That is coming this week in the news from Italy and Spain, as they are a few weeks ahead of the United States with the progression of the virus. The U.S. ambassadors to these countries are reporting that they are seeing the "first positive signs" in these two countries' battles.
While the coronavirus pandemic began in China, it started branching out in travel-related situations to other countries. Italy was hit quicky, followed by Spain. The numbers out of these two European countries were enough to scare many Americans.
"These are just the first positive signs, and they have to be taken cautiously," said Ambassador to Italy Armando Varricchio. "But they show that measures taken both nationally and at the local level have started to pay off."
The majority of the 30,000 COVID-19 deaths in Europe are out of Spain and Italy — more than 10,000 in Spain and 13,000 in Italy. The numbers in Britain and France are escalating, however. There are closures and national stay-at-home orders in all four countries.
This week the government in Spain issued orders that prohibit citizens from being evicted from their homes or having their utilities cut off for failure to pay.
Varricchio and Ambassador to Spain Santiago Cabanas spoke from their homes in Washington via an online forum through the Meridian International Center. They stressed a need for international solidarity and cooperation while also noting the risk of enriching authoritarianism. This was the case with the measures imposed by Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative party. Parliament was closed, elections postponed indefinitely, and sweeping new powers were handed to Orban.
Cabanas warned that COVID-19 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 and inefficient," adding, "but it is a small price to pay to make sure that citizens can be fully involved."
The ambassadors are thankful for the aid their respective countries have received from China. Initially, a team of doctors was sent to Italy. Both Varricchio and Cabanas are also very much aware that the Chinese government views the assistance as some type of competition globally.
"We should not try to buy into a [Chinese] narrative that might fall under the umbrella of public diplomacy," noted Varricchio. "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 added. "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 not time for politics."
He also had a warning for how things should be handled once the threats of the pandemic are solved. He believes it has exposed loopholes in the Western international institutions that were created after the Second World War and believes this should be addressed at a later date.
Neither of the diplomats addressed questions regarding the Trump administration's response to the pandemic so far. "I don't think this is the time for giving advice," stressed Varricchio. Both he and Cabanas noted that their respective countries have been in touch with the U.S. government and health authorities.
"This is a very productive, efficient conversation and dialogue at all levels; we're very appreciative," expressed Cabanas, adding that U.S. officials have told Spain that it's learning from their experience.
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