Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19: Italy holds firm despite troubles back home

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This edition of Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19 features the Italian Consulate, which is bravely attempting to be ‘Business As Usual’ in Hong Kong while soliciting donations for Italy’s fight back in Europe. 

Italy is the country worst hit by the virus in Europe, with the death toll reaching over 20,400 deaths as of 13 April. Since March, the Italian consulate has been soliciting donations from Hongkongers on behalf of the Italian Red Cross and Italian Civil Protection Department to fight the epidemic in Italy.* Despite the grim situation back home, the Italian consulate tries to ‘keep business running’ to support its nationals stranded in airports and abroad.

Clemente Contestabile is the current Consul General of Italy and has served since 2018. He began his political career dealing with Asian relations in 2000. He first served in the Department for Asia and Oceania in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 2006 was posted to the Italian Embassy in Beijing. Four years later, he left Beijing to serve in the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations working primarily in development, environmental and financial affairs. His most recent position before returning to Asia was again with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Head of the Secretariat for the Department of Human Resources, Budget and Innovation. 

Consul General of Italy to HK, Clemente Contestabile
Consul General of Italy to Hong Kong, Clemente Contestabile. Source: The Consulate General of Italy to HK

What functions have you stopped or slowed in your office on the consular, trade, immigration or other fronts?

We have tried so far to keep business running as far as advisable, due to these exceptional circumstances. We have reduced front desk consular services and business meetings to minimise the risk of infections. We have boosted online activities instead, providing more services on our digital platforms and arranging video conferences. Visa applications have not been accepted (with limited exceptions) after the EU banned non-essential travel to the Schengen area for 30 days. These exceptions include emergency cases for humanitarian reasons, applications made by family members of EU citizens, diplomats, staff of international organisations, military personnel and humanitarian aid workers in the exercise of their functions. Trade promotion activities have been affected by the cancellation of fairs and conferences. Cultural events have also been suspended as public venues are closed.

What kind of outreach measures has the office carried out to make services accessible to your nationals? Were any additional resources created to accommodate for the virus situation?

The spreading of the virus disrupted everyone’s lives, including Italians living in Hong Kong and Macao. Since January, we have been providing consular assistance to Italian citizens 24/7 through our emergency hotline. Relevant information on the situation in Hong Kong and Italy is uploaded every day on a special section of our website and on our social media. We work in partnership with the Emergency Unit of our MFA, providing advice to residents and travellers. For urgent communications, we have reached out to them by SMS and email. 

What activities have increased?

Consular assistance has increased dramatically. We are dealing with people who are stranded at the airport, rejected at the border, or put in mandatory quarantine. The demand for passports and other travel documents has increased. Besides, we are supporting emergency sourcing for critical medical equipment by the Italian Government. 

How do you reconcile work from home measures and security?

Security is a priority for the Consulate General. We make sure that all staff working from home are abiding by the security rules regarding social distancing both in and out of the workplace as set out by the Italian Foreign Ministry in line with WHO guidelines.

Has your home office asked you to do anything differently?

The Consulate General is implementing a “work from home” arrangement right now. We have a skeleton staff in the office and all others stay home and work on our business platforms. This has led us to reduce front desk consular activities, shifting the focus to telephone and online interactions with nationals. Video conferences are now the standard way to share internal information and assign tasks. 

Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than previously? Were numbers up because of the protests? Did they spike again as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread?

According to Italian law, Italians living abroad for more than 12 months must register to the Register of Italian Citizens Resident Abroad. The registration is a right and a duty for Italian citizens and it is in the interest of the citizen to abide by the law for a number of reasons such as the right to vote abroad and contact during emergencies. Registration is also required in case the person needs their passport or certificates to be issued by the competent Embassy or Consulate in the place where they reside.

Also, if the person is registered in the Register of the Italian citizens Resident Abroad and therefore his/her habitual abode or his/her centre of business, economic and social interests is formally set abroad he or she does not qualify as tax resident for Italian tax purposes.

This policy makes things easy in case of an emergency, since we have a pretty clear idea of who our residents are, where they live, and how we can reach them. Over the past six months, their number has remained steady, with a slight overall decline.

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