The Chinese arrived first. A China Eastern Airbus A-350 from Shanghai touched down at Rome’s semi-deserted international airport. It was March 12.
Nine veterans of the “Battle of Wuhan” — specialist doctors who had fought on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic — led the contingent.
Sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping, they were there “to return the help given by Italy to China” only a few weeks before. This was before Italy had become the European country most ravaged by COVID-19.
The doctors brought with them tons of supplies to replenish the hospitals of Lombardy — the northern region devastated by the virus — severely depleted after only two weeks of battling the virus.
At a press conference the following day, the Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio was effusive in expressing Italy’s gratitude for Beijing’s generosity.
It was only the beginning. Since then, many cargo planes have landed from China with tons and tons of medical supplies. Even Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of the technology giant Alibaba
chipped in with his contribution.
The Chinese arrivals have been big news in Italy. The Maoist flag is now seen standing proudly next to the Italian tricolor in several hospitals in Lombardy, as well as on the cars of the Italian civil protection corps that carry the doctors sent from Beijing.
For ordinary Italians, horrified by the virulence of the disease, worried about the present and, even more, about the future — all that matters is that help is at hand. It really doesn’t matter that Beijing, as some of the skeptics point out, is probably using Italy to make the world forget that the virus was originally “made in China.” And that if the Chinese leadership had moved faster and in a more transparent way, perhaps the world wouldn’t be in lockdown, with over a billion people sheltering at home.
The Americans, on the other hand, have been more discreet with their aid. In fact, the U.S. intervention has been almost invisible to most of the public. Washington did send a makeshift hospital with eight intensive care units to Cremona, in the north of Italy, as well as resources and supplies to boost a specialist center in one of the most important hospitals in Rome.
The U.S. could hardly afford to witness China’s “generosity” without responding, since Italy isn’t only Washington’s main ally in southern Europe and in the Mediterranean region, but also a key battleground for 5G. President Donald Trump doesn’t want the new communication infrastructure to be “polluted” by Huawei’s equipment. And he is equally opposed to China’s attempt to develop the new “Silk Road,” an initiative Italy was one of the first western countries to join.
But tweets like the one sent by Lewis Eisenberg, the U.S. ambassador in Italy, who reminded his followers that the “friendship between Italy and the USA is stronger than ever” are no match against Beijing’s medical offensive.
Chinese propaganda, both internal and external, has even distributed on social media video that had been clearly doctored to show how Italians in lockdown were applauding from their balconies the Wuhan doctors, with the Chinese national anthem in the background.
President Vladimir Putin went all in, with great fanfare, and “no strings attached,” as his spokesperson put it. Russia sent 14 Ilyushin military aircraft with doctors and resources to fight the epidemic. That included 100 virologists and other specialists in infectious diseases, as well as mobile units to deep clean public transport and other open spaces.
The arrival of the Russian aid at the military airport of Pratica di Mare, a few kilometers from Rome, was shown live on Facebook
by Di Maio. There were uniformed soldiers, military salutes but also handshakes and no signs of masks or social distancing, despite the incessant recommendations the government broadcasts to 60 million Italians.
In the game of Risk sparked by the coronavirus, Cuba couldn’t be excluded, given that regime’s long-held strategy of making health care a priority — and using it as an effective diplomatic tool.
The Cuban team left Havana airport bathed in the clapping of tourists and flanked by Cuban and Italian flags: 37 doctors and 15 nurses. They arrived on Sunday at Milan Malpensa airport and will be based in one of the temporary hospitals set up by the Italian army in Crema, one of the areas that has suffered the most from COVID-19.
Many have complained about “communist aid” but Italians, in the current circumstances, don’t care about geopolitics.
And that is how Lombardy and the rest of the country have become a giant postwar stage for a new, paradoxical Cold War, divided up into different areas of influence, just like Berlin in 1945. On one side the Chinese, on the other side, the Russians, and then the Americans, and now even the Cubans.
Once again, the final prize will be tearing down the wall. The wall built by the virus.