Mismanagement of Covid-19: Lessons Learned from Italy

Maria Laura Ruiu. Journal of Risk Research. 2000.


This paper reflects on crisis management practices by exploring the combined effort of political, media and scientific responses to the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy. On 31 December 2019, the Chinese authorities reported a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown aetiology in Wuhan (Hubei Province, China) (Corman et al. 2020) and on 7 January 2020 a novel Covid-19 was identified (WHO 2020a). In one month, the outbreak was declared a Global Public Health Emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and classified as a pandemic on the 11th of March (WHO 2020c). Since the Covid-19 was a novel pathogen, high degrees of uncertainty characterised scientific results, particularly during the earliest phases. For example, on the 23rd of January, scientists classified the infection as more than just a cold given its association with both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) (Paules, Marston, and Fauci 2020). However, the trajectories of the outbreak were classified as impossible to predict, but effective countermeasures and prompt actions were encouraged to contain the spread of the infection (Li et al. 2020). The WHO (2020b) announced the global imperative for the scientific community to broadly share scientific advances and create collaborations to effectively and rapidly inform decisionmakers (Public Health Emergency of International Concern [PHEIC] 2020). This paper investigates the Italian case study, which soon became one of the most affected country in the world. Given that both containment measures and transparency of information are essential to control the spread of the virus, this paper investigates the effects of some emergency response strategies adopted in Italy. This is important in a risk-management perspective due to a potential spread of panic and stigmatisation of people affected (or suspected to be) by the disease (Weiss and Ramakrishna 2006). The Italian case study offers the opportunity to other countries to identify some missteps in managing the same and future crises.

The first section reviews the literature related to crisis management. The second section reports the methods adopted to identify the main events and the actors involved in the communication process. The third section and its related sub-sections describe the responses of the Italian government, the scientific community, the media and other political actors. Finally, these results will help identify the elements that undermined the success of the government response during the preliminary phases of the outbreak.

Literature Review

The literature recognises a fundamental value played by the interrelationships between the media, authorities and public perception in crisis/disaster management (Schultz, Utz, and Goritz 2011). Communication strategies are an essential component of disaster planning, response, and recovery (Houston et al. 2015). Four main forces might affect the communication of a crisis related to its perception, process and metabolization of information, tendency to put greater attention on losses than gains, and trust-building processes (Covello et al. 2001; Glik 2007). These processes are interconnected and can determine the success of a crisis response operation. In fact, the literature highlights that crisis-communication (Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer 1998, 2001) must be “timely, accurate, direct, and […] give people hope” (Glik 2007). Therefore, a crisis/disaster communication deals with an emergency (Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer 1998) and involves huge and scared audiences (Sandam 2003). Specifically, a disaster can be defined as a time-delimited collective experience that is potentially traumatic (McFarlane and Norris 2006). This means that when an unexpected health crisis occurs, governments, scientists and the media deal with uncertainty (Lofstedt 2006), public fear, and rely upon reciprocal support/coordination (Reynolds and Seeger 2005). Previous case studies, such as e.g. anthrax risk in 2001 (Robinson and Newstetter 2003), spread of West Nile Virus (see e.g. Covello et al. 2001), SARS outbreak in 2003 (Brug et al. 2004; Washer 2004) and H1N1 in 2009 (Durodié 2011; Klemm, Das, and Hartmann 2016) gave the opportunity to define effective crisis communication standards (Glik 2007). For example, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8000 cases and 774 deaths with a fatality rate of 9.6% (WHO 2003). Soon after the SARS crisis, between 2003 and 2015, the H5N1 virus affected 826 individuals and caused 440 fatalities (WHO 2015). In 2009, the H1N1 influenza mainly affected young people with high mortality rates and, for the first time, a global effort was initiated by implementing the plans designed after the SARS outbreak and H5N1 flu (Keil, Schönhöfer, and Spelsberg 2011). However, compared to these previous outbreaks, the Covid-19 is extremely contagious. On January 2020, 22580 cases were recorded globally, and on March 11 the number of affected raised to 126214 (Worldometers 2020).

The literature highlights that the spread of panic is one of the most frequent causes of failure of crisis communication, and can result from high degrees of uncertainty surrounding an unknown threat (Frewer et al. 2003), incapacity of leaders to channel people fears into specific actions, speculation and multiple contrasting messages sent to the public (Covello et al. 2001; Robinson and Newstetter 2001), lack of transparency and lack of trust and credible claim-makers (Fessenden-Raden, Fitchen, and Heath 1987; Peters, Covello, and McCallum 1997; Renn and Levine 1991; Reynolds 2005). Given these premises, the first research question (RQ) relates to the role of both government and scientists in managing the communication of the emergent Covid-19 crisis, and it is split in two sub-questions:

RQ1a: How did Italian governmental agencies manage the communication of an emergent and unknown health crisis?

RQ1b: Did Italian scientists represent a unique voice in reporting scientific advances related to the Covid-19?

During health/disaster crises the use of both mainstream media and the Internet increases exponentially (Glass 2002). Eriksson (2018) identifies some lessons that show the importance of combining the use of both traditional media and social media in time of crisis. Even though several studies highlight that traditional media are considered more credible sources of information (see, e.g. Eriksson 2018; Schultz, Utz, and Goritz 2011), social media and blogs often provide “information-sharing behaviors” (Ng, Yang, and Vishwanath 2018) and real-time updates (Husain et al. 2014; Liu 2010), which in turn can influence the content of mainstream media (Houston et al. 2015). Accordingly, social media have been increasingly integrated in crisis management planning to anticipate public reaction (Fraustino, Liu, and Jin 2012; Freberg, Palenchar, and Veil 2013; Keim and Noji 2011; Taylor and Kent 2007). Therefore, a second research question relates to the use of the media by institutional voices to inform the public.

Q2: How did institutional actors (e.g. government representatives, political voices and scientists) use the media to manage the crisis?

The literature identifies four main frames used by the media during crises to help the public interpret the situation (Cho and Gower, 2006; Liu 2010; Neuman, Just, and Crigler, 1992). These frames include the attribution of responsibility, representation of conflicts, economic impact and human interest. Therefore, these elements are investigated by the following research questions:

Q3a: Who are the actors held responsible for managing the crisis?

Q3b: What are the aspects that cause conflicts?

Q3c: What are the consequences on the economic asset?

Q4d: What are the consequences on humans?

Answering these questions will help explore the effectiveness of an emergency response strategy resulting from the interrelationships between political institutions, scientists and the media during the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis in Italy. The analysis will be guided by the five elements identified by Reynolds (2005) as potential threats to the success of an emergency response operation. These are: i) Mixed messages from multiple messengers; ii) delay in releasing information; iii) paternalistic attitudes; iv) lack of immediate reaction to rumours; and v) political confusion. In fact, during health crises, timely and precise communication facilitates public understanding of the events and provides recommendations/instructions about protective measures, symptoms, and practical information (Reynolds and Seeger 2005). By contrast, a lack of coordination between the guidelines provided by governmental agencies and information reported by other mediators (e.g. media) can undermine the success of the crisis management (Sellnow et al. 2019).


To explore the combined efforts of politics, science and the media in informing people and containing the spread of the Covid-19, one of the most read Italian newspaper, La Repubblica (Statista 2019), guided the identification of the main events that characterised the management of the first phases of the outbreak. La Repubblica dedicated an online page to update news about the Covid-19 hour by hour (Stabile and Matteucci 2020). The time frame included in the analysis is between February 22, 2020 and March 11, 2020. On the 21st of February, around 20 cases were identified in Italy and the day after the Government isolated the most affected areas. On the 10th of March, the entire country was locked down and, the day after, the WHO declared the global pandemic status. The sources referenced by La Repubblica were verified and the national law-decrees were analysed to identify government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus.


The Italian Government declared the state of emergency soon after the identification of the first two cases of Covid-19 in Rome on January 31. On February 22, the government enforced restrictions to contain the outbreak, which included quarantine for over 50000 people in 11 towns of northern Italy (Gazzetta Ufficiale 2020a). In three weeks (21 February-11 March), the virus affected 12462 people and caused 827 fatalities (Worldometers 2020). The restrictions imposed by the government involved fines on anyone entering or leaving outbreak areas, suspension of public events, ban of people gatherings, closure of schools and Universities, suspension of public transport and closure of not essential shops. In the same days, new cases of people who visited Italy were found in other countries. Several countries either envisaged (or forced) 14 days self-isolation for people returning from northern Italy. Other countries suspended flights to the affected areas.

To answer the RQs the following sub-sections identify the main steps in the crisis management in terms of governmental and political efforts (Q1a), scientific contribution (Q1b), media communication (Q2), and attribution of responsibility (Q3a), raise of conflicts (Q3b), economic (Q3c) and human consequences (Q3d).

Governmental Agencies Efforts and Political Debate

On February 22, the Italian government approved a first law-decree that imposed draconian measures, such as the lock down of 11 towns in the North of Italy. Between the 23rd and the 24th of February, several governmental representatives sent reassuring messages about the government readiness to deal with the crisis. The Minister of Health stated that the virus could only be contracted by a direct contact with an affected person. Both the Minister of Economy and the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport announced efforts to contain the economic damage. The Department of Civil Protection confirmed that the victims of the virus presented a compromised health status. The Minister of foreign affairs, Luigi Di Maio, engaged into a dialogue with neighbouring countries. However, starting from the 25th of February a misalignment between regional decisions and government guidelines generated confusion in the management. From this point, a fracture between official communications, fake news and local reactions can be identified. Internal and external pressures increased in the following days and required several official statements by ministers. For example, on February 27, Di Maio invited foreign countries to trust the data published by the Civil Protection Department. In fact, only 0.01% of the territory was locked down and there was no reason to suspend flight connections with other regions. In this confusion, the Lombardy governor appeared on a Facebook live wearing a protective mask. Scientists condemned this action as setting a wrong example because the protective mask was not necessary. Moreover, the mask used by the governor was non-conformed to the EU standards. On February 28, a second decree was approved to provide economic support to people and businesses in the affected areas. While the virus spread to several regions, some schools re-opened, and some public events were organised by bars and shops to attract customers.

On March 2, a third decree classified three areas as “red” (locked down), “yellow” (medium-high risk), and a low risk zone. A fourth decree approved on the 8th of March locked down the Lombardy region and additional 14 provinces of the North of Italy (Gazzetta Ufficiale 2020b). Finally, another decree entered in force on the 10th of March (Gazzetta Ufficiale 2020c) and imposed the lockdown of the entire country.

Scientific Responses

A constellation of scientific voices provided contrasting information throughout the process. An Italian physician and Professor of Virology at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Roberto Burioni, immediately warned that the outbreak was a serious threat. On both his Twitter account (more than 172k followers) and national TV, the expert often gave indications on the restrictive measures needed to contain the outbreak. Both the Spallanzani hospital and the Superior Institute of Infective diseases stated that the mortality was connected to underlying serious illness and age of people affected. The Civil Protection ensured that around 50% of the cases did not need hospitalisation. Moreover, other experts, such as e.g. the director of the microbiology department of the Sacco Hospital in Milan, stated that the virus was slightly more serious than a flu in terms of affected people and fatalities (https://www.la7.it/laria-che-tira/video/coronavirus-myrta-merlino-alla-virologa-maria-rita-gismondo-pensa-ancora-che-sia-poco-piu-di-04-03-2020-311139). Professor Burioni counter-stated that the virus could not be classified as a flu and needed aggressive containment measures. These contrasting voices inflamed the debate around what to do on both social media and national TV. In addition to these internal forces, external pressures were represented by the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC), which increased the level of alert in the country and started an investigation around the procedures followed by a hospital in Codogno to deal with the first cases of Covid-19. Therefore, Italian scientists and doctors had to deal with several issues related to i) curing patients; ii) informing policymakers; iii) informing people; iv) advancing research; v) dealing with a lack of equipment, personnel and structures; and iv) contrasting rumours. Several times, a misalignment between political and scientific statements was reported by La Repubblica. For example, when the governor of Lombardy appeared on Facebook wearing a protective mask, the scientific community had to release a statement for two reasons. First, scientists repeatedly recommend to use protective masks in case of symptoms or high-risk exposure. Second, that mask was not approved by the European regulation. This point is also connected to a lack of protective equipment and illegal selling of overpriced and unchecked products. In fact, the increasing panic triggered assaults to supermarkets and pharmacies, which in turn caused a lack of necessary products for those in need. Another example is represented by the choice of closing all schools across the country. The scientific committee instituted by the government dissociated themselves from this decision. However, after the publication of a new decree on March 8, scientists univocally asked people to stay at home because of a lack of resources to deal with the increasing number of affected people. In fact, in three days (March 6-8) the number of patients in need of intensive care increased from 462 to 650. Doctors and nurses released statements and posted on social media that the health system was due to collapse.

Media Reaction

La Repubblica reports that the discussion on coronavirus massively populated both traditional and social media. The day after the identification of the first case in Codogno, the hashtag #coronavirusitalia became the second trending hashtag with 31 thousands of tweets. On March 4, Mediamonitor.it reported that the main national radio and tv used the word “coronavirus” once every two minutes since the 20th of February. Governmental agencies and government representatives used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to point people to official sources of information and inform them about government decisions. However, despite these efforts to control the flow of information, fake news and rumours spread on the Web. During the first days of the outbreak a fake logo of the newspaper VeneziaToday was used to report a Covid-19 case in Venice. Moreover, given the scarce availability of protective equipment and sanitising products the Internet and social media became the ideal platform to sell overpriced products.

Social media also became platforms for political conflicts. In fact, throughout the crisis the leader of the Lega Nord party (currently the first party in Italy), Matteo Salvini, accused the Government to do too little too late. On February 24, he posted on Facebook that the restrictions were implemented when the problem was already out of control; on the 26th, he disapproved the investigations into Codogno hospital relative to the management of the first case of Covid-19; on the same day, he advanced the hypothesis of new elections; on the 28th, he condemned the government for limiting the implementation of economic concessions to the red areas. In a similar attempt to destabilise the government, the leader of the Viva Italia party (part of the Government coalition) and former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, attacked the government for its incapacity to communicate with regions. Every time both Salvini and Renzi posted accuses against the Government, other political actors replied to these provocations by further inflaming the debate. For example, the Minister of Transport accused Salvini to use the coronavirus as a propaganda tool. Moreover, Salvini, interviewed by El Pais, condemned the governmental management. In turn, these debates were echoed by both social and national mainstream media, e.g. by giving space to the disagreement between the national and regional governments on the course of action to be implemented. On a national radio, Renzi held the government responsible for the economic failure of the country and stated that the situation was worse than the post 11/09 (Ansa 2020).

Social media and online magazines also reported disagreements between scientists and decisionmakers. The virologist Burioni attacked the political choice to open museums in Florence on his online magazine Medical Facts. Moreover, a conflict on Facebook involved a Professor of Microbiology and Virology at the San Raffaele Hospital, who posted that the virus was slightly more severe than a flu, and the Councillor for Welfare, who expressed his indignation for such underestimation of the problem.

Finally, throughout the crisis, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, invited journalists to avoid inflaming controversies on the measures implemented by the Government (Corriere della Sera 2020). He also invited the country to be united in tackling the problem, implicitly encouraging the media to support decision making without spreading alarmism. Several times, representatives of the government asked to stop sterile political debates on the media and to put aside political rivalry. However, a member of the Rai Supervisory Commission (national tv) and member of Viva Italia party, stated that the prime minister could not pretend a de-escalation of tones since he was the first to spread alarmism on media platforms.

Attribution of Responsibility, Raise of Conflicts, Economic and Human Consequences

The results connected to the RQs3 related to i) attribution of responsibility, ii) raise of conflicts, iii) prediction of economic and human consequences, should be explored in the light of both internal and external pressures.

Attribution of Responsibility

The events described in the previous sections show a general internal political chaos. Even though the government followed the procedures recommended by the WHO to manage outbreaks, several issues emerged in the communication between i) the central government and regional authorities, between ii) the government and scientists, and between iii) the government and the public. The previous sections highlighted an initial misalignment between government decisions and regional implementation of restrictions. On February 26, the Governor of Marche authorised the closure of schools without government approvals. A mayor in Calabria (South of Italy) closed the town boarders to people arriving from the North of Italy. The governor of Sicily asked people from northern Italy not to visit the region. This suggests that even though the government asked for internal cohesion, some political actors undermined its credibility. Furthermore, other regional governors and political representatives inflamed controversies in several occasions. For example, the leader of the Fratelli di Italia party (right-wing party) accused the Prime minister to be a “criminal” for the management of the crisis (https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/03/05/coronavirus-meloni-su-la7-giuseppe-conte-e-un-criminale-ha-responsabilita-gravissime-myrta-merlino-la-riprende-e-lei-rettifica/5726787/). The day after, the prime minister replied to this accusation during a press conference (https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/03/05/coronavirus-conte-a-meloni-io-criminale-parole-gravi-dannose-per-il-paese-e-uno-schiaffo-a-tutti-i-cittadini-a-cui-abbiamo-chiesto-sacrifici/5726935/). Therefore, the government was held responsible for tackling the emergency, but constantly criticised for the decisions taken throughout the process.

Moreover, some choices taken by local and regional governments to support local businesses (such as e.g. promotion of aperitives and cultural/entertainment events) were strongly criticised by scientists on social media. Some government representatives, e.g. Nicola Zingaretti (governor of the Lazio region and leader of the main governmental political party), demonstrated not to be completely aware of the severity of the situation. In fact, even though Zingaretti supported the government throughout the process, he also promoted initiatives such as #Milanodoesn’tstop and #ItalyIloveyou, which invited people to socialise and consume aperitives in Milan. Soon after these events, and given the acceleration of the outbreak, Zingaretti supported the implementation of restrictive measures, and, around ten days later, he resulted positive to the virus.

Finally, the government was not capable to communicate a sense of responsibility to citizens. This confusion at multiple levels generated two opposite public reactions. On the one hand, an underestimation of the problem caused that some businesses did not respect the restrictions, thus contributing to the spread of the virus. Several people were investigated for leaving the red area; illegal parties were organised in several cities; a private nursery school in Sicily continued ordinary activities after the government order to close schools; patients with fever visited ERs forcing the hospitals to shut down in several areas. The situation was aggravated by several prison riots across the country due to a ban on family meetings, which culminated with the death of 6 people (Radighieri 2020).

On the other hand, some panic reactions increased the exposure of the South of the country to the virus. The content of the government plan to lockdown the Lombardy region leaked on the 7th of March. The CNN published the content of the decree draft (https://edition.cnn.com/asia/live-news/coronavirus-outbreak-03-08-20-intl-hnk/h_f28ad3a7c6c653b1fe04a628870946d1), as well as the Italian media. This leak jeopardised the government attempts to deal with the crisis – thousands of people assaulted train stations to flee to the south and forced other regions to implement more restrictions. The new decree in force from March 8 (Gazzetta Ufficiale 2020b), locked down the Lombardy region plus additional 14 provinces in the North of Italy. In this chaotic flow of information, some regional and local government representatives supported the restrictions while some others continued to complain about the too severe measures.

Despite these conflicts, the lockdown of Lombardy (economic core of the country) coincided with the raise of a collective voice. Policymakers, politicians, scientists, celebrities and social media users collectively started to ask people to respect the rules despite huge sacrifices. However, to contain the internal conflicts and preserve the image of the country, on March 10 the government was forced to lock down the entire country (Gazzetta Ufficiale 2020c)

In terms of attribution of responsibility by external actors, the Italian mismanagement soon became responsible for the spread of the virus. A member of the WHO, Walter Ricciardi, claimed that Italy should have stopped flights that could arrive from China through multiple connections (Berberi 2020; La Stampa 2020). Moreover, the fact that the WHO started an investigation into the management of the first cases of Covid-19, increased the external perception of a chaotic management. An article published by the New York Times identified the Italian “furbizia” (capacity to break the rules in a clever way) as the cause of the Italian failure in managing the crisis (Horowitz and Bubola 2020). This is also connected to a second point related to the raise of conflicts.

Raise of Conflicts

Not only the management of the crisis was conditioned by political rivalry, but also by debates related to football and investigations into illegal acts and fake news. Football teams and supporters questioned the necessity to suspend football matches by accusing some teams (e.g. Juventus) to pollute the Serie A results. The internal conflictual situation and the impossibility of controlling the flow of information created an image of fragmentation outside. This progressively contributed towards limiting movements of people inside and outside the country and imposing quarantine for Italian citizens in foreign countries. This hostility was further inflamed by discriminatory statements released by some institutional voices. The governor of Lombardy advocated a stricter control of immigration flows in the future; some areas denied access to Chinese tourists; the president of Veneto, Luca Zaia, asked to stop people arriving from the countries that did not accept Italian people; Zaia also held China responsible for the global disaster because, he stated, “we have all seen the Chinese eat live mice” (https://video.repubblica.it/dossier/coronavirus-wuhan-2020/luca-zaia-president-of-veneto-region-we-have-all-seen-the-chinese-eat-live-mice/354888/355455).

Another critical aspect related to the Health care system. In 8 days, the intensive care unit in Lombardy increased its capacity from 50 to 244 beds. Additional 150 spaces were also created in the Lazio region. on March 8, the Lombardy region was forced to move some patients to other regions. Hospitals suffered from a lack of personnel and protective equipment. Doctors and healthcare personnel started to release statements, video and interviews about the unbearable conditions in the hospitals in Lombardy. The Chinese Government and several Chinese enterprises donated equipment to help manage the crisis (The Straits Times 2020). By contrast, some countries such as France and Germany suspended the export of protective masks (Guarascio and Blenkinsop 2020). Therefore, even though Italy immediately became a case study to produce knowledge about the virus and how to manage it, the government had to repeatedly request support from the EU to the point that the director of the EU crisis management commission, urged EU countries to cooperate and to “put solidarity above national interests” (Associate Press 2020).

Therefore, these internal and external controversies caused consequences in both economic and human terms.

Economic and Human Consequences

In economic terms, on February 24, Milan bourse closed 5.4% down. On the 28th, the spread between Italy’s 10-year BTP bond and the German Bund raised to 180 basis points. The President of the Italian Federation of Public Exercises estimated a loss of 2 billions of euros in the first 4 months of the year. La Repubblica reported that the tourist sector (that represents the 13% of the Italian GDP) lost 200 millions in March. The agricultural consortium Coldiretti announced a decrease of 27% in demand of “made in Italy” agri-food products. On the March 9, the bourse of Milan plunged 10.8%. The bond spread to 216 basis points.

In terms of human consequences, the stigmatisation was increasingly inflamed inside and outside the country. Some Italian regions discriminated people arriving from the affected areas. In the same way, foreign countries restricted or stopped connections with the country. In some countries, cruise ships were no allowed to dock due to the presence of Italian passengers. Moreover, foreign media contributed to stigmatisation. For example, a private French tv canal (Canal +) mocked the Italian situation and the CNN identified Italy as responsible for the global crisis (https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/03/05/coronavirus-la-cnn-pubblica-una-mappa-in-cui-litalia-e-il-principale-focolaio-del-mondo-di-maio-visione-distorta-della-realta/5726671/).

Discussion and Conclusions

Following Reynolds (2005), the Covid-19 crisis communication in Italy failed in several directions. A first weakness can be identified in the communication of mixed messages from multiple sources. To answer QR1a related to the management of the crisis, formally the government implemented all the measures recommended by the WHO and those that helped slow the crisis in China (e.g. lockdown of areas and quarantine obligations, see She et al. 2020). However, these efforts were undermined by a lack of coordination between scientific and governmental messengers. In turn, the media reported multiple and competing versions of the events causing a public polarisation between “believers” and “sceptics”. The literature review highlighted that the Covid-19 presents similarities with previous health crisis, however, this outbreak caused a shock in the global system and needed a quick reaction by governments at all scales (from local to global levels). Therefore, a first lesson learned relates to the failure of a “step by step strategy” adopted by the Italian government, which led to a spread of the virus in the entire territory. However, the Italian government was eventually forced to adopt draconian measures to contain the outbreak. In fact, the conflicting information reported by multiple messengers, plus the spread of fake news, caused a lack of respect of rules. People struggled to change their habits. Some bars and shops did not respect the restrictions and people underestimated the importance of reducing their social contacts. This public reaction resulted from an institutional miscommunication, which in turn undermined the credibility of the recommendations provided by the government (Holmes et al. 2009). Neither the government nor the scientific community provided coherent explanations. Therefore, to answer RQ2a, scientists provided mixed messages that contributed to chaos (Zoeteman et al. 2010) and triggered opposite public responses. The second lesson learned from the Italian case supports the necessity to replace these competing messages with a consistent narrative to successfully resolve the crisis (Sellnow et al. 2019).

The delay in releasing information is identified by Reynolds (2005) as a second weakness, as well as the need for outlining specific patterns of action and providing accurate information (Glik 2007). The delay in implementing the decree that locked down the Lombardy region, and a leak of its content, caused chaos and panic. This chaos pushed people to flee outside the region. This is directly connected to RQ2b related to the flow of information between institutions and the media. The Italian case shows that the management of the crisis was conditioned by a need to respond to some public reactions that were generated by a chaotic media communication. The mainstream media reported a polarisation in both political and scientific terms by giving space to both contrasting voices and social media disputes between politicians and government representatives. Moreover, social media offered a fertile ground for political disputes that fostered distrust in government and scientists. Therefore, social media increased exposure to multiple and competing messages and made it difficult the creation of a dominant narrative (Sellnow et al. 2019). However, as highlighted by Keil, Schönhöfer, and Spelsberg (2011) in analysing the H1N1 crisis management, the media alone cannot be considered responsible for spreading panic. In fact, both traditional and social media combine information provided by several sources (including scientists, government and global agencies). In the case of Covid-19, even though the media contributed towards increasing confusion by e.g. emphasising potential catastrophic consequences or, by contrasts, underestimating the problem, they mirrored internal conflicts and external pressures. Therefore, a third lesson learned is that, while an “interpretative pluralism” is vital to understand a crisis, collective efforts to reconcile these differences should also involve the media. In fact, the media actively contribute towards the definition of crisis narratives (Sellnow et al. 2019). By contrast, in the Italian case, the lack of collaboration between governmental agencies, politicians, health organisations/operators and the media undermined the public trust (Covello 2003; Holmes et al. 2009).

Moreover, paternalistic attitudes, represented by a simple request of not panicking (Reynold 2005), promoted opposite reactions. Repeatedly, local authorities questioned central government decisions without providing alternatives. Reynolds suggest that a reasonable amount of fear is inevitable. However, the fourth lesson learned is that this should be channelled in a specific course of actions. In fact, as Leslie (2006) suggests, in uncertain conditions, people might react instinctively, and, in the Italian case, this caused assaults to supermarkets, shortage of masks and overprice of sanitising products.

Following Reynolds, not responding to rumours in real time might reinforce the impression that multiple interpretations exist. Moreover, if fake news or conflicts persist on social media, the mainstream media will be likely to report these rumours unless they are quickly demonstrated to be false. The spread of fake news and the disputes triggered by some political actors caused this confusion, which in turn was often reported by national television and newspapers. This is also connected to RQ3a related to the attribution of responsibility, which was both internally and externally attributed to the national government. At the same time, all decisions were strongly criticised by specific agents. Therefore, the fifth lesson is that internal conflicts (such as those created by Salvini and Renzi, plus the decision of some regional governors not to follow the national guidelines), severely undermine the management of the crisis, increase confusion, and create an image of chaos outside. Several times, the government was forced to adjust in relation to these controversies. For example, the decision of locking down Lombardy resulted from the imprudence of people who did not respect the government recommendations to keep social distance and respect the rules. This is also connected to the sub-question related to the controversial aspects that caused conflicts. The leak of information about the imminent closure of Lombardy caused that people fled to the south and islands. In addition to this, the lack of respect of the roles (e.g. self-quarantine) forced the lock down of the entire country.

Finally, a sixth lesson relates to the misalignment between the central government and regional authorities, which promoted people distrust. The importance of public communication has become clear in the management of health crises (Koplan 2003; Prue et al. 2003). For example, the West Nile virus risk communication management by New York City showed that the misalignment between some city’s decisions (spraying pesticides) and different advises given by health and environmental experts promoted mistrust (Covello et al. 2001).

The mismanagement of the preliminary phases of the Covid-19 crisis produced consequences in both economic (RQ3c) and human terms (RQ3c). The National Association of Italian Industries (Confindustria) predicted a loss around 7.4 billion in the trimester March-May only in the tourism sector (https://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2020/03/01/news/coronavirus_in_italia_aggiornamento_ora_per_ora-249954540/). The chief economist at the German bank stated that the measures adopted by Italy and potentially by other European countries in the future would produce global impact (Baynes 2020). On the one hand, the global economic consequences will be negative but still uncertain, on the other hand, the human consequences in terms of stigmatisation of people are concrete. The attribution of responsibility to Italy for spreading the virus by other countries, such as in the case of the French canal and CNN, triggered stigmatisation processes that might last even after the crisis. In a similar way, stigmatisation of people also happened during SARS (Person et al. 2004). The literature highlights that fear associated with health problems, such as e.g. in mental illness (Schulze and Angermeyer 2003), HIV/AIDS (Chesney and Smith 1999; Herek 2002) and other chronic conditions, causes stigmatisation. This in turn undermines public efforts to tackle the problem. In fact, to prevent stigmatisation, people at risk of either being affected by or transmitting the condition, might avoid voluntary testing (Person et al. 2004).

In conclusion, the Italian crisis has been conditioned by a mismanagement of communication (Rodríguez et al. 2007) at different. This case study suggests that governments need to direct the communication process in a more univocal direction. All five weaknesses identified by Reynolds characterised the management of the preliminary phases of the crisis in Italy. This case suggests that the inherent uncertainty of health crisis should be supported by political and scientific cohesion (Sellnow et al. 2019). However, in the first phases of the outbreak, the country’s political dysfunction, plus a “scientific war” (Ferraresi 2020), caused the failure of several government efforts to tackle the problem. Matteo Salvini’s call for elections in a moment of national crisis, in addition to other attempts of some members of the government to destabilise the political asset, shows that several Italian political actors are ready to sacrifice international credibility and internal safety to prioritise individual political gains.