An opinion piece published yesterday by DW says:

The first thing that fell by the wayside, as always in times of crisis, was solidarity. It was Italy, the first country hit by the Corona crisis — and hit hardest of all — that had the bitter of experience seeing its strong neighbor, Germany, stop the export of medical supplies. This rightly led to huge quarrels among EU health ministers. It was a picture of miserable national egoism in the face of problems already becoming apparent south of the Alps.

[subheading:] China is already capitalizing on Europe's mistakes

France, by the way, behaved in a similar manner. In fact, Paris and Berlin opened the door wide for a propaganda campaign by the Chinese who flew doctors and supplies to Italy for publicity purposes. The political message to all the people opposed to Europe and all those populist skeptics was: When things get serious, everyone only thinks about themselves. Why didn't anyone in Brussels or Berlin come up with the idea to call the Italian government and offer help? The media reported in detail on the plight of Italian hospitals, the emergency measures and the deserted streets. So no one can say they didn't know what was going on.

The European Commission has only just launched a joint procurement of medical equipment. Daily video conferences between, say, health ministers and regular contacts between heads of government have only just begun to ensure that they really do share and coordinate their plans. So far, they have all been bobbing and weaving — probably to the best of their knowledge, but always with their voters in mind. [...]

So basically, it claims no help was [directly] offered by EU members to Italy during the Covid-19 outbreak and that the later EU-level response was weak at best. Since it's marked as an opinion piece, are these facts indisputable (in particular those that don't require much value judgement, e.g. the unambiguous statements of what Germany & France categorically did and didn't do)?

1 Answer 1


claim: Germany didn't offer help to Italy

  • I didn't find indication of Germany directly offering aid to Italy
  • But there is indication that on Mar 12th (4 days before the opinion piece) Germany decided to send a batch of supplies (1 mio masks) to Italy - as I understand that may be counted rather as part of the European process (see below) than as direct German offer.

Why didn't anyone in Brussels or Berlin come up with the idea to call the Italian government and offer help?

  • It may be literally true that no-one from Brussels (or Berlin or Paris) called the Italian government to offer help. But:

  • I found indication of a 2nd special meeting of the European ministries of health about aid for Italy on March 6th. The Austrian minister of health is cited before the meeting to have said that the "EU ministers of health want to know what kind of aid Italy needs" and "it may be about medical supplies" (my translation).

    They also cite the Italian health minister about

    • "the contacts between us ministers of health during the last days", i.e. there was European activity already before March 6th.
    • that "inspite of strong political will to cooperate there's a need for faster European coordination"
    • Italy pushing for a joint procurement of medical supplies
    • But also that "Italy has the professional, technical and organisational resources to deal with this difficult situation".
  • The EC communication Annex II from March 13th states that the joint procurement procedure was launched on Feb. 28th (see below)

claim: Germany stopped the export of medical supplies

  • Germany did order an export stop on March 4th (official source in Bundesanzeiger) so the claim is literally true.
  • But it is also misleading as that export stop has a number of provisions to approve export related to international aid, including within a joint European procurement procedure according to the EU directive on serious cross-border threats to health.

  • At the same time Germany also ordered that these medical supplies will be centrally provided to hospitals, medical practices, and pharmacies (Tagesschau/German public TV sender March 4th; also reporting on actual shortages due to theft).
    So it's not only that an Italian hospital can no longer "just get" these supplies from Germany: also German hospitals don't "just get" or "just buy" such equipment any more (vital requirements of German hospitals will be served first before any exports are allowed, though; and the German hospitals AFAIK may still be allowed to buy, but apparently there aren't any supplies to be bought right now – my impression is that behind the scenes, governments may be negotiating with manufacturers the order of who gets which future production batch).

  • On March 12th, German Ministry of Economy (into whose authority the export restrictions) changed their line towards Italy from telling suppliers that they need to apply for an export authorization to The export restrictions were changed so that for the listed exceptions approval is no longer needed. (Bundesanzeiger BAnz AT 12.03.2020 B1, I did not find a way to obtain a permalink)

    Also, the Ministry of Health (whose authority is the inner-German distribution of these supplies) exporting such supplies to Italy (la Repubblica on March 13)
    The opinion/comment in the question is dated 4 days after this decision and nowhere even mentions it, although newer measures such as the border controls are discussed.

  • Meanwhile (19th) the FAZ writes that Germany is so far the only EU country that did send medical supplies to Italy (said 1 mio masks).

    The German export restrictions are cancelled (BAnz AT 19.03.2020 B11)
    The cancellation notice states that the national export restrictions are not necessary any longer as the purpose is now fulfilled by EU Regulation 2020/402

  • A report on the special meeting of the EU ministers of health on March 6th (politico) (see also below) indicates that there was tension with the German export stop.

    The German ministry of health is cited that these restrictions were imposed since supplies did not go where needed but where money was, and that "other countries could be given personal protective equipment upon request from German authorities" (politico): "If it is for a European neighbor country, it is more likely that we are going to say yes" (German minister of health).

    He is further reported to state that Germany will keep their export restrictions in place until the EU has regulation in place.

  • Related background: Time USA Feb 28 saying that China is the largest producer of medical masks with production a capacity of 20 mio/day, but needing [during Corona epidemic] 50 - 60 mio/day and producing only at 76% of capacity. (Also, the WHO having warned by mid of February that demand in protective equipment is up by a factor of 100.) This post reports on medical face masks being low already across the world.

    The WHO issued a statement on March 3rd "To meet rising global demand, WHO estimates that industry must increase manufacturing by 40 per cent."

claim: France, by the way, behaved in a similar manner.

  • Yes, and even before Germany: on March 3rd, France commandeered medical supplies.

  • Other countries behaved similarly:

    • According to a post on politico from Feb. 26th) exporting such medical supplies out of Italy also needs an official permit. The post links to an [official document]( http://www.quotidianosanita.it/allegati/allegato7592911.pdf) where my limited Italian could not spot such a regulation (and I'm not sure deepl is quite up to Italian legalese, neither) – maybe someone who reads Italian can help?

    • Czech republic "asked local producers of masks to keep supplies within the country" (source: long report on the health minister meeting on March 6th also)

    • News report about a German manufacturer of protective equipment producing in China whose products were commandeered by China (Feb. 2nd)
      The Time post above cites a US mask retailer that while there is no formal export stop, they don't think any masks have left China since mid of January [until end of February].

    • The justification section of the German export stop order lists further countries with trade restrictions such as India and Thailand (see below, and BTW not as "we do as they do" but as "we cannot buy needed supplies, reasons for our shortage include that they don't export any more")

claim: propaganda campaign by the Chinese who flew doctors and supplies to Italy for publicity purposes

True - although with the propaganda the (Italian) public may have helped more or less unwittingly.

  • The Chinese did fly doctors to Italy, and they also sell supplies to Italy.

A comment from (March 12th Il Foglio) discusses this and also the propaganda aspects in some detail:

  • The Chinese Government issued a somewhat ambiguous statement about their help to Italy, which was misinterpreted as donation and lead to very enthusiastic thanks to China in various comments on the Facebook page of the Chinese embassy in Italy.

  • The author also refers to a "well told" post at Milano Finanza from March 11th that also makes the sale read like a donation and points out that Milano Finanza belongs to the publisher Class who is partner of China's state press agency Xinhua.

  • The comment points out that China is one of the main producers for such medical supplies (see also links above about Chinese production of protective equipment and WHO warnings). These supplies got low [world wide: see also above] when the Chinese production shut down due to Corona virus.
    (Other source: According to the Indian Republic World on Feb. 8th the WHO back then warned that the Corona virus epidemic caused a severe disruption in the global supply of protective gear.)
    And that they are ramping up their exports since their internal needs are now fulfilled and are in need of customers.

  • The comment also reminds that the Vatican (with a collection by the Chinese Christian communities in Italy) actually donated 600,000 masks to China in January.
    The post also refers to 2 tons of protective supplies Italy donated as humanitarian aid to China.

  • This comment is also quite understanding towards the German and French export restrictions, saying that politicians [i.e. the Italian minister of foreign affairs] should know that these are measures that are taken automatically in such an emergency – and that Italy would have done the same had they had the time to realize the impact of the epidemic.

  • update March 19th: According to the FAZ the European Commission negotiated that China will donate 2 mio masks, 200 k respiratory protective devices and 50 k tests which are to be delivered directly to Italy - to return the favor that 56 tons of medical supplies were donated from the EU to China (from 9 countries including Italy [see above], France, Germany and Hungary). France and Spain are also expecting or just got deliveries from China (the newspaper does not say they are donations).
    The remainder of the post is about the EU currently buying supplies on behalf of 25 member states (to have better power in negotiations) and a 2nd program (only 6 member states, not including Germany) who will pool supplies and have the EC distributing them according to need.

 claim: The European Commission has only just launched a joint procurement of medical equipment

Literally, this claim is not true since that procedure was launched Feb. 28th. But it is true in the sense that that procedure had a "launch failure" and only on March 13th (2 weeks later) they seem to have arrived at an agreement that will hopefully have practical results.

  • According to the EC Communication on the economic aspects of the COVID-19 crisis Annex II from March 13th, the "procurement procedure for personal protective equipment for 20 Member States under the Joint Procurement Agreement launched on 28 February 2020"

  • On March 11th, the Italian permanent representative at the EU complained at politico:

    Italy has already asked to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection. But, unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.

  • This post from March 14th says that still "not a single EU member state has sent Italy the needed supplies"
    (though this comes a bit late regarding the German export restrictions, see above)

  • I've not found very clear sources, but indication that somewhere between a (video) meeting of the European leaders on March 10th and March 13th (communication linked above), the European Commission seems to have arrived at definitive rules.

    If that is what the claim means, it's true.

    These rules leave restrictions within the authority of the member states, but they are bound by rules, and the governing criterium is proportionality: the rules must be "appropriate, necessary and proportionate". They must also provide mechanisms to get the essential supplies where they are needed, both within the member state and in other member states.

 claim The media reported in detail on the plight of Italian hospitals [implied: and nothing happened regarding the supplies]

This is a tight call, which I cannot finally resolve. There may have been several days between broad media coverage of the problems in Italian hospitals and the EC communication on supplies.

  • The first news post about the Italian hospitals being at the limit I've found so far is from March 8th (Swiss newspaper NZZ), so 2 days later than indication of the procurement procedure.
  • IIRC it took another 2 - 3 days or so until the "plight of the hospitals" arrived in German media mainstream coverage.
  • By then we're in the time frame for when EU quarrel about export rules was resolved.

claim: The media reported in detail on the emergency measures and the deserted streets

True. But I don't see that the general population obeying the quarantine orders is a good surrogate for the health system being overwhelmed.

claim Daily video conferences […] have only just begun

  • 3
    It should be noted that a part of France supply of medical masks and hydroalcoolic solution has been supposedly sent (sold ?) to China in January. Hence local shortage since mid-february and impossibility to share.
    – MakorDal
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 10:00
  • @MakorDal: I don't know for Germany (I can just say that I'm not aware of e.g. Churches collecting donations at a large scale). The Italian press release about the 2 tons donated by their development agency also reports about another 16 tons of material that was bought by the Chinese embassy in Italy and sent with the same flight. Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 14:39
  • @MakorDal: just read that Germany was also among the countries that donated supplies to China (with France, Italy, Hungary + 5 unnamed countries). Updated the China part of the answer about a relevant news post from today. That post explicitly writes these were donations. Commented Mar 19, 2020 at 20:23
  • China sent back a part of it in the last days. It tends to be FFP2 masks sent there and surgical masks sent back.
    – MakorDal
    Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 6:59

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