From a health emergency, the pandemic quickly turned into a systemic crisis, challenging the institutions of all countries, with Italy among the first to be hit hard.
This was a challenge articulated on multiple fronts: the ability to think in terms of complexity, the stability of the social and economic system, the operational and legal tools available, the articulation of clear and effective communication, the transparency of the management system and relationships with other countries.
Italy’s pandemic plan dates back to 2006. Since then, it has never been updated or tested, remaining pure theory – as was also the case with most companies.
In the last year and a half, many have wondered whether Italy could have acted better, or differently, in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is the basic question asked in The State in Crisis, a volume edited by Patrick Trancu, TEDx speaker and 20-year consultant for multinational companies, focused on the preparation, management and recovery of critical situations. The book was written by 35 experts from different sectors, and academics from various disciplinary fields.
The book starts with the statement that crises have become systemic today and this has led to a paradigm shift for those attempting to manage them.
“This is the fourth or fifth crisis of the 21st century,” explained Mr Trancu during an online presentation of the book, organised by Anra, the Italian association of risk and insurance managers. “The first was due to the collapse of the Twin Towers, followed by the financial crisis of 2008, the migratory crisis of 2014, Covid-19 and the climate crisis, which actually originated in the last century but only become visible over the last decade,” he added.
The book concludes that the core problem lies in the fragility of our society and in the strong interconnection that exists between each of its elements. This means that apparently distant events reach us quickly and involve us directly, unfolding their effects over long periods of time. The repercussions of the attack on the Twin Towers are still visible today, for example.
“It is a situation that projects us into an unknown universe, in which we navigate beyond the limits of our knowledge. Current crisis management systems are outdated and inadequate for today’s systemic crises,” added Mr Trancu. To establish a new system, therefore, an intellectual effort will first of all be needed – we will have to get used to surprise, learn to reason and reflect quickly, and be creative in looking for solutions.
Returning to Italy, what could have been done better?
“What made the difference between the various countries was the timeliness of decisions, the courage and the ability to take responsibility – on several fronts,” said Mr Trancu.
One example is the procurement of vaccines, in which each state has responded differently. In the US, as early as March 2020, the Trump administration had identified the pharmaceutical companies to which to distribute, in the form of venture capital, the resources for the development of vaccines. This gave the US priority access to the cure.
Israel, which unlike the US has a population of only seven million people, made an agreement with a single producer, offering a counterpart that was not only economic. It is important to remember that Israel is a country that lives in a perennial state of crisis, therefore it has a culture of crisis management and its leaders are used to making difficult decisions in complex situations.
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, focused on Astra Zeneca (50% UK) and made the courageous choice to vaccinate everyone first with one dose and then later address the problem of boosters.
Europe initially moved with no order and by the time it received a mandate from member states for the procurement of vaccines, it was already September. “In addition, Europe has moved following a procurement logic with the aim of spending as little as possible. It also focused on vaccines that did not arrive on the market, like that from Sanofi,” said Mr Trancu.
Another aspect examined in the book is that of communication. “We could concentrate the information in one place instead of creating multiple points. There was a lot of emphasis on the first rules (from social distancing to mandatory masks) but then everything else was missing,” said Mr Trancu.
“The institutional and crisis communication was taken hostage by politics. Instead of serving the common good, communication has been used to build the Prime Minister’s popularity. This is amply demonstrated by the data we report in the book and also by the choices made, such as not communicating through the social profiles of Palazzo Chigi but through the personal social accounts of the Prime Minister,” he added.
In summary, a strategy has been carried out aimed at increasing popularity and personal consensus. All the rules of crisis communication and institutional communication have thus been violated, favouring the strategy of “we will make and evaluate”.
Instead, it is always useful to remember that in crisis situations, communication is not the action of communicating, but it is communicating action – that is, communication accompanies actions and guides behaviour.
Winston Churchill famously said: “Never waste a good crisis.” Thus, the real question today is whether Italy and the whole world will be able to react better to the next systemic crisis, drawing lessons from the experience of the last year and a half.