The Influence of Political History in the Response to COVID-19 in Italy and Romania
By Ioana Dobrescu, Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, New Jersey, USA
Washing your hands. Wearing a mask. Sanitizing. Socially distancing. The pandemic has been with us for just over half a year yet seems to have lasted a life-time. Just about everything is unprecedented, and there has not been a day without a new headline concerning the virus. While governments debate and implement policies, some citizens have taken the situation into their own hands and questioned the scope of their governments’ policies, perceiving an unethical, if not illegal, curtailment of their civil liberties in the time of an outbreak.
In light of these discussions, Romania and Italy can serve as case studies to analyze the ways certain factors, primarily a country's political history, reflect citizens’ responses to the implementation of public health measures and their overall ethical responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Italy, the government implemented a Ministerial Degree after catastrophic, delayed action, which placed the entire country under lockdown with a nationwide travel ban (IoRestoaCasa”, 2020). In Romania, preemptive measures were taken, a state of emergency was declared, and a series of military ordinances were instituted (“Decret Semnat", 2020).
Response to these aforementioned policies has been lackluster. In Italy, the government’s weak reaction to the outbreak has polarized Italians from their government even further: up to 47.8% of Italians do not acknowledge the government’s work, and confidence in the prime minister has dropped (Ghisleri, 2020).
Political distrust coupled with anxiety about the future has given fuel to radical political movements in Italy, such as the Orange Vests, a far-right populist group that protests the legitimacy of the virus's existence and the Italian government (Privitera, 2020). Though the protests have been relatively small in number, their appearance is not surprising, given Italy’s history fueled with extreme political fragmentation and populist-driven extremism.
In Romania, stringent rules have upset a great deal of the population, spiking fear of an absolute government. Protesters have accused state authorities of altering information about the disease with the intention of restricting rights, and there has been an increasing number of individuals refusing to obey post-lockdown procedures (“Nou Protest”, 2020). With its history under an oppressive communist regime for over forty years and an ongoing struggle with political corruption, Romania’s citizens are much more wary of how their government’s actions could potentially affect their freedoms.
These factors have also had a direct influence on the degree to which citizens retain a sense of ethical responsibility, which is the responsibility to act in a way that benefits society and not just the individual. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have shown that widespread mask usage grants source control; the greatest protection from COVID-19 is not only when an individual wears a face mask by themselves but when others within their community follow suit (“CDC”, 2020). Consequently, the concept of ethical responsibility is tremendously encompassed when masks are worn collectively, solidifying the necessity for individuals to act as benefactors in their society especially during a pandemic. For example, Britain has stiflingly high numbers in COVID deaths (~46,000), yet only one-fifth of the population chooses to actively wear masks (“CDC”, 2020). In contrast, the number of COVID deaths are significantly lower in Japan (~1,800), and over 80 percent of the public wear masks (“Wear a mask?”, n.d.).
Granted, the role of political trust plays a role in how citizens perceive policy - the greater the trust people have in their government, the greater the incentive there is to work together as a collective society. In a public health crisis, the complexity of determining whether a public health protocol is a rights violation or not is much trickier. On the flip side, if citizens are adamant against following government principles to control the outbreak, it may be necessary for the government to implement tighter policies to insure that they are being followed.
Nevertheless, until a definite solution to tackle the virus is developed, public health measures are currently the only proven method to keep infection under control and prevent more deaths. It is up to citizens and their government to effectively work together to achieve optimal public health in these conditions. Whether those actions may be the government ensuring that their policies remain just or citizens taking responsibility upon themselves to respect regulations for the sake of their community, they are necessary to reduce the outbreak on a global scale.
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