THE VIRUS OF FEAR

– Aurelio Porfiri

People are sometimes very difficult to understand. But this does not make us think that it is their fault. Indeed, it may be very well our own fault. Our lack of understanding of some dynamics that influence their behavior and a level that is deeper than our common knowledge. One of the clear indicators of people’s behavior is fear. And what can be greater than the fear of survival?

This can be clearly seen these days, thanks to the outbreak of coronavirus, or COVID-19. This coronavirus has its epicenter in China. I will not talk about numbers in this regard, because in the days between this article’s writing and its publication these numbers would have changed significantly. But we also need to consider the economic impact, how this will affect the jobs of many people working with airline companies, hotels, manufacturers…. As the director of the World Health Organization has said, a virus can have a much bigger impact than a terrorist attack.

We may think that people’s behavior can be different if they are far from China, and in certain regards it is. But we live in a time of globalization, where we have the world on our phone, so for everyone, it is easy to be quite well informed of things happening on the other side of the globe. Here in Italy, at the moment of my writing (mid-February) there are only three confirmed infections and all of the three came from China: two are Chinese tourists and one of them is an Italian who was infected when he was in Wuhan. There are other people under observation, but at the moment, as observers here have said, the virus is not going around in our country; but the fear of the virus, yes.

I have many contacts in Hong Kong and Macau, I am also connected with family ties. A few days ago I wanted to buy some masks in case they may need them. I toured several pharmacies but there were no masks available here in Rome, some pharmacies even put a notice on their entrance saying “no mask.” Talking with the people working inside, they told me that a lot of masks were acquired by Chinese living in Italy in order to send it to their relatives in China. I also saw other people, even Italians like me, buying masks for the fear of a danger that, at the moment, in Italy is basically nonexistent.

This does not mean that we need to be indifferent to this issue. Indeed the Italian government has taken some strong measures to avoid the spread of the virus here, like suspending all the flights to China (including Hong Kong) for three months and implementing quarantine measures for all those who are returning from China or those who were in contact with infected people. Indeed, the two Chinese who I had mentioned earlier were visiting Italy from Wuhan are presently admitted in the Spallanzani hospital in Rome.  Their health is somehow precarious but stable at the moment. Before their sickness they were staying at a Hotel in Via Cavour, not far from the main train station in Rome. As soon as it was confirmed that they had COVID-19, all the people who came in contact with them were scrutinized to look for possible infections. This was certainly a measure that had to be taken but also has raised fears among people whose behavior, in certain circumstances, as I have said at the beginning, may be difficult to predict. Some others may say that indeed the reaction to fear or panic is not so difficult to understand.

Let us take the case of a virus, something that you cannot see but which can infect you without knowing it. In the case of this virus, there is also information (confirmed first, but not fully) that people may be infected by others who do now show any signs and symptoms. So, this means that you can get infected through other people who carry the virus that is still in the incubation stage (the last days of incubation, as for the latest news I heard). The fear and anxiety are much greater because the enemy cannot be detected. So the fear targets what can be seen and detected as a form of protection. And this fear targets the Chinese people (or Asians, because sometimes for Europeans it is difficult to recognize who is Chinese and who is Japanese or Korean, as for Chinese it is difficult to tell who is Italian and who is Spanish or German). The Chinese community here were targeted by some people with acts of aggression, acts that certainly have to be condemned and put down by the police, but that can be understood (not justified) in the general atmosphere raised by this new infection.

A few days ago, 20 tourists from China were quarantined at the Spallanzani Hospital (that is the Roman hospital specialized in treating infectious diseases and that is at the heart of the efforts from the Italian government to react against this virus) and were discharged because they were not affected by the virus. Still, according to what was reported by the news, they had to wait one more day because there were no taxis or hotels that wanted them. You may say: but if they were healthy what is the problem? The problem is fear, it is not necessarily trying to be rational. Fear sometimes is really irrational. And also there is somehow a strange relationship we have with China, which is still considered by many, as something mysterious.

The famous Italian writer Marcello Veneziani, in a very interesting recent article (La Verità, February 9), has said: “China still holds world records for pollution, the death penalty and totalitarian communism. China is always exaggerated. After SARS, the acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus now arrives from China, accompanied by disturbing news, death and silence, plus snakes, bats, viruses born in military laboratories and other urban legends collected and magnified by the internet. With all these precedents, the range of options available to us is narrowing: surrendering to the Chinese and handing over Europe to them; declare war on China but they are too many, they escape from all sides and you can’t cope with them. Or more modestly run away as soon as you see a Chinese, albeit with a mask, or as soon as you hear a lethal sneeze. Barricade yourself in the house, don’t go to crowded places, live as a hermit far from the Chinese out of fear. Many do it. I say all this is not to justify fear or as it is improperly said, racism towards the Chinese, nor to curse China, but to say that from now on we are not afraid of the Chinese, of Chinese communism, of Chinese contagion, of Chinese violence, Chinese trade, Chinese overcrowding, Chinese pollution. The Chinese nightmare. Moral of the story? There isn’t: I wanted to play down the Chinese danger but in the end I made it worse.”

With his provocative style, the writer has said something that is in any case important: this virus is showing us that “China” for many people here is seen as something very far, sometimes also threatening. But you may say: but there are no Chinese living here? Yes, there are many. And they have not integrated with other people in Italy? Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago, I was in the jury for a choral competition in northern Italy. At dinner, I sat close to the mayor of the city who hosted the competition, and while we were talking, I mentioned to him that I was living in Macau, China (at the time). So I asked him about the Chinese presence in his city and he told me that there was a consistent Chinese community but they were on their own, they didn’t mingle with Italians. I heard the the same phrase while I was in Macau too, from a quite important member of the Macanese community in a TV interview: Chinese, famously, don’t mingle with foreigners. I think in Italy this may be one of the causes for misunderstandings and fears (that also may be irrational and unjustified, but are certainly real). It is difficult to cope with something you cannot see (a virus) and so you need a visible target (the Chinese) even if the reaction is completely exaggerated.

I think that this time when we are living with the fear of the virus will give a better occasion to sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists to understand the way we live in this world and react with, or against, each other.

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