In doing so, however, they are repeating many of the errors made early on in Italy, where the pandemic has turned into a disaster. The purpose of this article is to help U.S. and European policymakers at all levels learn from Italy’s mistakes so they can recognize and address the unprecedented challenges presented by the rapidly expanding crisis.
In a matter of weeks (from February 21 to March 22), Italy went from the discovery of the first official Covid-19 case to a government decree that essentially prohibited all movements of people within the whole territory, and the closure of all non-essential business activities. Within this very short time period, the country has been hit by nothing short of a tsunami of unprecedented force, punctuated by an incessant stream of deaths. It is unquestionably Italy’s biggest crisis since World War II.
Some aspects of this crisis — starting with its timing — can undoubtedly be attributed to plain and simple sfortuna (“bad luck” in Italian) that were clearly not under the full control of policymakers. Other aspects, however, are emblematic of the profound obstacles that leaders in Italy faced in recognizing the magnitude of the threat posed by Covid-19, organizing a systematic response to it, and learning from early implementation successes — and, most importantly, failures.
It is worth emphasizing that these obstacles emerged even after Covid-19 had already fully impacted in China and some alternative models for the containment of the virus (in China and elsewhere) had already been successfully implemented. What this suggests is a systematic failure to absorb and act upon existing information rapidly and effectively rather than a complete lack of knowledge of what ought to be done.
Here are explanations for that failure — which relate to the difficulties of making decisions in real time, when a crisis is unfolding — and ways to overcome them.