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March 25, 2020, 4:30 p.m. EDT

Letter from locked-down Italy: the Cuban, Russian and Chinese efforts to assist Lombardy

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By MarketWatch, MarketWatch


Reuters
Military help in Italy.

The Chinese arrived first. A China Eastern Airbus A-350 from Shanghai touched down at Rome’s semideserted international airport. It was March 12.

Nine veterans of the “Battle of Wuhan” — specialists who had fought on the initial front line of the coronavirus epidemic — led the contingent.

Sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping, these medical professionals 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 just 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 /zigman2/quotes/201948298/composite BABA -0.58% , chipped in with his contribution.

Read: Eerie silence in Rome as the coronavirus lockdown takes effect

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 at 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 technologies. 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 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.

Read: ’No happy hour, deserted gyms and empty shops’: This Italian describes life in locked-down Milan

Chinese propaganda, both internal and external, has been distributed on social media in the form of videos clearly doctored to show how Italians in lockdown were applauding from their balconies the Wuhan doctors, with the Chinese national anthem playing 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 filled 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 /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.54%  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.

Read: Nearly two weeks into its lockdown, Spain longs for the coronavirus to loosen its deadly grip

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’s 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’s 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 a great deal 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 spheres 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.

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