Early in the morning of Feb. 23, an aircraft took off from Vienna carrying 25 metric tons of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, to China. The city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged, had been in lockdown for a month. Nearly 2,500 people had died across the country. Moved by the crisis, EU member states had donated 56 metric tons of supplies to China in February.
Meanwhile, four regions in northern Italy were in the early throes of a deadly outbreak. Despite assurances throughout January and February that Europe was successfully containing the virus, it had silently taken hold of the continent and officials were beginning to realize that a larger crisis was looming.
Just three days after the flight to China, Italy asked the European commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, for masks. The situation was becoming increasingly urgent, and hospitals in the region were at risk of being overrun. But its call for help was met by silence. There was no PPE to give.