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Cuba, Russia, and China Send Assistance to Italy, Against the Coronavirus Crisis

March 24, 2020


Medical equipment are loaded onto a Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft to be sent to Italy on March 22. 2020 Chinese assistance to Italy during the Coronavirus crisis, March 2020
Cuban doctors and nurses after their arrival at Malpensa airport, Italy, to help in the
 fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 22, 2020


Cuban doctors arrive in Italy to combat coronavirus pandemic

On Cuban News, March 23, 2020

The island’s 52 specialists will assist their colleagues from Lombardy, who are working under extreme conditions and in overflowing hospitals due to the rapid rise in the number of serious cases in that region of northern Italy.

by OnCuba Staff March 23, 2020 in Cuba

The Cuban medical brigade that traveled to Italy from Havana on Saturday to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in the Italian region of Lombardy arrived this Sunday in the European country, the current epicenter of the pandemic.

The group of 52 specialists, made up of 36 doctors, 15 nurses and a logistics specialist, was received by the Cuban ambassador to Italy, José Carlos Rodríguez, who greeted them when they got off the plane with a slight contact with the elbow, as he showed in a post on his Twitter account.

The Cubans, belonging to the Henry Reeve International Contingent–specialized in disaster situations and epidemics–landed at Malpensa airport, Milan. Their trip responds to the request for help from that northern Italian region, the one most hit by the pandemic in that nation.

The island’s specialists, highly qualified and experienced in other epidemics such as Ebola in Africa, will assist their colleagues from Lombardy, who are working under extreme conditions and in overflowing hospitals due to the rapid rise in the number of serious cases. In addition, they will join Chinese doctors who have arrived in the area with this same purpose.

Cubans are expected to carry out their work in the newly built field hospital in Crema, a city in Lombardy of about 17,000 inhabitants, Prensa Latina news agency reported.

Lombardy concentrates 46% of the more than 59,000 cases and 68% of the more than 5,400 deaths registered until this Sunday in that country.

This is the sixth medical brigade that travels to combat COVID-19 off the Island, where until this Sunday there were 35 confirmed cases and 954 patients hospitalized in isolation centers on suspicion of suffering from the disease.

Groups of Cuban specialists to help fight the coronavirus have already traveled to Suriname, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Venezuela and Grenada, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, and the departure of others to respond to new requests from affected countries is not ruled out.

In addition, medical cooperation members from the island are present in 37 countries with cases of COVID-19, although according to the authorities, no Cuban doctor has been infected.

COVID-19: China steps in to help Italy battle the virus

DW, March 24, 2020

Italy is at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. China has come to Italy's aid, while some critics say Europe has lacked solidarity in fighting the crisis, to Beijing's advantage.

As the COVID-19 outbreak ravages communities in northern Italy, a group of Chinese medical experts arrived in the region last week to advise Italian public health officials.

The spokesman for the Italian Red Cross, Marcello de Angelis, told DW that the Chinese experts have "gained a great deal of experience that Italy urgently needs." Last week, the number of COVID-19 fatalities in Italy surpassed that of China.

"China has had considerable success in fighting the epidemic, and we want to work with Chinese experts on an international level," said de Angelis, adding that the Italian and Chinese Red Cross organizations have a long history of cooperation.

The first team from China arrived on March 12 in Rome with 31 tons of essential supplies and equipment, including respirators, protective suits, masks and medications. The supplies were donated both by the Chinese government and private donors. Another Chinese team flew directly to Milan on March 18.

"There are still people who would like to help Italy," said Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Chinese medical workers are helping Italy to fight the COVID-19 outbreakSino-European solidarity

China has also helped hard-hit Spain with medical equipment, and assistance is also expected soon to arrive in France. More deliveries to the EU from China, like 2 million protective face masks, are expected to be delivered after talks between EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen und China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

The Europeans provided assistance to the Chinese during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, with several EU countries shipping 56 tons of essential equipment.

Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin, said that China is in a good position to help others now that the worst of the coronavirus epidemic in the country appears to be over.

"There is now a lot of extra capacity there available for the rest of the world," said Benner, adding that China also has an obligation to help. "A lot of the blame for the coronavirus spreading with such force can be laid at the feet of the Chinese government," Brenner told DW.

A 'healthy' New Silk Road?

However, there are also concerns among China observers that Beijing now has an opportunity to drive a wedge into the European Union.

Italy is indeed that first country in western Europe that officially joined China's "New Silk Road" global economic and infrastructure project.

  Italy steps up measures to control coronavirus outbreak

According to Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a telephone call with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte that Italy and China were the "cornerstones of a New Silk Road of health."

Benner from GPPI said that it is normal for China to pursue its geopolitical goals in providing aid, and other countries would do the same. However, Benner added that he is concerned that European's are lacking solidarity in the current crisis.

Over the past several weeks, Foreign Minister Di Maio has pointed out that despite "cries for help" from Rome, Italy's European neighbors have not offered the same level of assistance as China.

Aid shipments blocked by bureaucracy

And there were reports in Italian media two weeks ago that a shipment of over 800,000 surgical masks en route from China to Italy was stopped in Germany due to a ban imposed by German authorities on exporting essential medical goods used in the fight against COVID-19.

Although the export ban does not apply to goods in transit, it managed to stop critical aid from reaching Italian medics.

Even after diplomacy prevailed and the delivery was allowed to go through, the masks have apparently disappeared while in Germany, according to the Italian regional newspaper Il Giorno, quoting the Italian company that imported the masks.

The mass circulation daily "Corriere della Sera" reported that in the past several weeks, the delivery of more than 190 million protective face masks to Italy has been blocked by the country's neighbors.

German analyst Benner said that the crisis has damaged the image and credibility of the EU and Germany as guarantors of European solidarity.

"The EU has not succeeded in effectively helping Italy, which is the country most affected by the pandemic in Europe," said Benner. "Many Italians must have developed a very bad impression by now. Although many in Germany talk about a 'common European fate,' when fate strikes a blow, it looks more like we are not helping our neighbors."

In the meantime, although Germany has relaxed the medical export ban on other EU countries, and critical aid like respirators has arrived in Italy, a negative impression among Italians has most certainly taken hold.

"The decision from Berlin came too late, and the sentiment in Italy is now extremely negative," said Benner.

China takes advantage

Chinese propaganda is also using the coronavirus crisis in Europe to its advantage, and portraying Beijing as a source of stability amid European disunion.

In recent editorial, China's state-run Xinhua news agency wrote that "if handshakes do not count anymore in Europe, China's helping hand could make a difference."

However, these tactics from Beijing do not come as a surprise to European leaders. Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in 2017 that China needs to respect the policy of "one Europe" and warned Beijing against attempting to undermine European solidarity.

But the EU has issues with solidarity with or without Chinese interference. "Countries like Germany must do more to promote the idea of 'one Europe' and we still have an opportunity to show solidarity," said Benner. "It is up to us to learn from this crisis."

Putin Flies Help to Virus-Stricken Italy, Exploiting EU Fumble

By John Follain and Stepan Kravchenko

Bloomberg, March 22, 2020, 11:00 PM EDT

Doctors, supplies sent after phone call with Premier Conte Italy is fertile ground for Russian diplomatic offensive

As soon as Vladimir Putin got off the phone with the desperate Italian prime minister, Russian aid was being loaded onto military planes, headed for the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

The consignment was given a high-profile reception by Giuseppe Conte’s government, with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio there to see the reinforcements land at a military airport south of Rome on Sunday night. As well as protective masks and coats, ventilators, swabs and testing equipment, there were doctors and disinfection teams on board, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

With Italy’s economy collapsing and its hospitals buckling under an avalanche of new cases, the European Central Bank dramatically ramped up its bond-buying program last week and the European Union is considering unleashing its 410 billion-euro ($440 billion) bailout fund to help keep the country afloat. Yet the bloc has left itself vulnerable to a PR coup from Russia and China in a critical member state.

EU leaders have stirred up resentment in Italy by restricting exports of critical medical supplies as they prepare their own health-care systems for an onslaught of infections.

That opened the door for Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. The Russian supplies were dispatched bearing a sticker with a heart and the words “From Russia with Love,” news wire Ansa reported.

“This is all about perception,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “This medical help from Russia is nothing compared to the 750 billion euros of assets the ECB is going to buy. But it’s very hard to convey the importance of that to the public.”

Putin’s opportunistic diplomacy follows a long courtship of officials in Rome, who’ve been among the strongest advocates of a rapprochement with Moscow within the EU and NATO.

Yet the humanitarian cargo is only one side of Putin’s double game when it comes to Europe and its health-care crisis. According to an internal EU report, Russia is also responsible for an organized campaign spreading disinformation about the coronavirus with the intention of undermining confidence in western leaders.

For any geopolitical rivals seeking to undermine EU unity, Italy is a weak link, since many of its voters blame the euro for decades of economic malaise and are inclined to back populist and euroskeptic parties.

EU Sanctions

Russia was linked to the euroskeptic League last year following a report that an ally of its leader, Matteo Salvini, had solicited illegal funding on a trip to Moscow. Salvini has denied wrongdoing.

On Saturday, once foreign and defense ministers had wrapped up negotiations, Putin opted to call Conte personally to tell him that the aid was on its way, according to an Italian official who asked not to be named discussing confidential matters. The call was also a mark of the good personal relations between the two leaders, the official said.

“It’s good foreign-policy PR, showing Russia as a force for good,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “Like China’s Xi Jinping, Putin can now say his regime is on the side of good and is effective because one person can make decisions quickly without having to pay attention to the opinion of the population.”

He’ll have a chance for payback when the EU has to review its sanctions on Russia over eastern Ukraine, where government forces are fighting Russian-backed rebels. In the past, Italy has criticized the sanctions but has not moved against their renewal.

Europe’s resolve though has stiffened over the past week, with the ECB stepping up to the plate and governments accepting a barrage of fiscal stimulus that would have been unthinkable a few days earlier. That may provide a powerful disincentive if Conte looks to deepen his embrace of Russia.

Eight Brigades

Italy’s priority is to resolve the virus emergency, said another Italian official, who welcomed the more recent readiness of European bodies to help Italy and other countries cope with the pandemic, especially the ECB’s emergency bond-buying program which has helped stem the rise in Italian borrowing costs.

But he also said that Italy won’t forget how other states behaved during the crisis. Foreign Minister Di Maio himself has said Italy will remember who helped it through the virus emergency, with China among the most generous with doctors and medical equipment.

Russia has pledged to send eight brigades of virus specialists -- about 100 people in total -- and disinfection trucks, as well as medical equipment, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Many on the team had experience in past Russian aid missions to Africa for the Ebola virus and other epidemic relief. The Kremlin said the request for help came from the Italian side.

The Kremlin began restricting travel relatively early and has reported 367 cases of Covid-19, with no deaths blamed on the virus. While schools and some businesses have been closed, the government hasn’t announced a broad lockdown.

The medical aid “will give us a chance in relations with Italy to hint gently about the need to repay the favor and block the extension of EU sanctions in June,” said Frolov. “It’s also important to point out the aid is going along military lines, which shows how helpless NATO is.”  


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