PARIS (Reuters) - Europe has failed to win the communications battle in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, leaving other powers such as China or Russia to win hearts and minds in the most affected countries like Italy, a French official said on Wednesday.
Italy, now the country worst-hit by the virus worldwide, was sharply critical of France and Germany after they initially declined to provide face masks and other equipment to help handle the outbreak.
Rome turned instead for help to China, which sent an airplane full of masks and ventilators bearing “Forza Italia” stickers with small Chinese and Italian flags - and leaving a powerful impression on Italians.
France and Germany later lifted their restrictions and sent hundreds of thousands of masks to Italy, but failed to garner enough media coverage to correct the first impression of a lack of European solidarity, the French official said.
“On the issue of solidarity, we had a narrative weakness,” an Elysee adviser told reporters. “Europe hasn’t, as a group, communicated enough on the concrete efforts it was making at the local or regional level towards one another.”
“Germany has sent masks to Italy, France has sent masks to Italy, as many as China has so far,” the official said, saying Paris had sent 1 million masks and 200,000 gowns to its neighbor despite a critical shortage for its own population.
German hospitals with spare capacity welcomed their first coronavirus patients from Italy on Tuesday.
“A lot has been done, so we need to get out of this Europe-bashing, because that’s not right,” the adviser to President Emmanuel Macron, a fervent European integrationist, said.
“Mistakes were made for sure, there was some flip-flopping, hesitations, but that’s the case everywhere in the world,” the official said. “When we see what’s going on in the United States today, Europe is not the continent that’s the least organised.”
But damage seems to have been done.
A recent poll by Monitor Italia showed 88% of Italians, once one of the most Europhile people in Europe, believed the European Union had not done enough to help their country.
The same poll showed those who believe EU membership is a disadvantage to Italy has risen to 67% from 47% in November.
China was not alone is outdoing European countries and Brussels on the communications front.
The Russian army has also flown medical help to Italy after receiving an order from President Vladimir Putin. The planes and trucks it sent bore giant stickers showing heart-shaped Russian and Italian flags next to one another with the slogan “From Russia with Love” in both Russian and Italian.
Reporting by Michel Rose; Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Leslie Adler