The lesson of the anti COVID-19 face masks on the importance for cities to talk with the rest of the world



During the quarantine, due to COVID19, we were constantly informed and often inundated with the news on the pandemic. Locked in our homes, we traveled from one part of the world to another, to understand what measures the governments of the different countries were taking to deal with the emergency. These days were characterized by uncertainty, spent comparing the actions and reactions of the various national health systems, data on the number of victims, and of cured cases, in search of best practices and solutions.

On the European Union front, in the first stage of the pandemic, national governments were not fully capable of giving an immediate response to the citizens, much less univocal, once again, transmitting the image of a continent divided and weakened by the prevailing national interests. 

The advice of the virologist experts, to whom politics necessarily had to rely on and the global guide of the World Health Organization, was not enough to appease the initial sense of inadequacy with which many governments had to deal, before being able to find a strategy to fight an enemy that was unknown until then. For this reason, in this scenario, solidarity was slow to reach the Member States of the European continent. However, although in the absence of an effective supranational response, the EU intervention, aimed at quelling the national feelings of the member States, was immediate. The European Commission has intervened several times and in various ways, up to threatening with the instrument of the infringement procedure the governments that had adopted confiscation and blocking measures for the export of medical material, contravening all the principles of solidarity contained in the treaties.


The initial national selfishness, also reflected on the economic level, starting from the European debate on the Corona Bonds, was offset by the action of the other entities of the international community. Indeed, since the outbreak of the emergency, associations, NGOs, and companies have organized the solidarity chain. A key contribution also came from local authorities, in particular from cities. The latter have rolled up their sleeves to face an unprecedented situation, sometimes to compensate for the inefficiencies of central governments, other times integrating their work, in line with the principle of subsidiarity and loyal cooperation.

Even in this case, among the tools available to cities, the ability to maintain international relations with other local authorities has proved to be fundamental. Thus, in the same month in which some European governments issued measures to block the export of medical supplies, the Chinese city of Cantón sent 100,000 face masks to Bari, in Italy, as a sign of friendship, given that the two cities are twinned since 1986. To the Puglia Region, of which Bari is the capital, another 200,000 masks have been donated by the Chinese province of Guangdong Ma Xingrui and the Futian district. In those same days, in Italy, Venice received 20,000 masks from the Chinese sister city of Suzhou. Just a month earlier, the Toledo Sister Cities International was mobilizing to help China in need. At the end of March, the mayor of Amiens, in France, announced the arrival of 50,000 masks, as a donation from the Chinese University of Zhengzhou, from the twin megalopolis of Mianyang and from Xi’an, which is part of the international network «The most beautiful cities in the world». Also in France, at the end of March, Shanghai donated 21,000 masks to the twin city of Marseille. The list could go on with hundreds of other examples of local authorities who have found relief in a sister on the other side of the world during the crisis. 

The mask solidarity also involved some European cities and regions: «This is the Europe that I like» said the mayor of Fano, in Italy, during the thank you speech for his German counterpart in the city of Wolfsburg, for the 50,000 masks received. Also from Germany, from the city of Erlangen, 2000 masks were donated to the Italian city of Bolzano.

However, during the emergency, the number of cases of mask diplomacy between EU cities, accustomed to intermunicipalism (in the EU the Union International de Villes resisted two world wars), was far less than the number of EU-Extra EU cities relations, especially of China. Nor has the action of the Union’s institutional forums, such as the Committee of the Regions, in which local authorities find representation, served to encourage cooperation between European cities during the emergency.


What could we learn from this story? First, for the umpteenth time, it is confirmed that the international relations system involves new actors. Among these, local authorities play a fundamental role. It is no coincidence that the “Roadmap for localizing the Sustainable Development Goal” invites to consider the subnational contexts for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. 

However, in this new scenario, when reviewing the first phase of the pandemic, it can be seen that the Europe of the cities has gone on its own, seeking answers beyond the borders of an overly contentious European Union. Why ask for help elsewhere? Why were solidarity actions timid? Indeed, if you analyze what happened on the European continent, the dichotomy “selfish States- supportive cities” does not hold.

Could it be that, like in the case of national governments, behind the mask diplomacy between cities there is a pragmatic vocation more than supportive? Probably yes. The need to respond to one’s own territorial interest shows in the local authorities the most typical face of one of the subjects of international law, the State, and, therefore, the need to govern for the people who live within the limits of the administered territory.

Finally, it should be noted that not all cities have been able to find a plan B in the face of central government shortcomings. Therefore, behind the face mask, once again, come into place article 10 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government which protects the right of association between local authorities and that of cooperating at international level. Why not guarantee this right universally to all cities? A widespread capacity for international cooperation between European local authorities would perhaps have made the difference during the most difficult moments of the health emergency. This is definitely one of the post-pandemic lessons that Europe could need in the future.

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