Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the west read reports from China as if this was something that would never happen here. From a Wuhan wet market in December 2019 to the present day where the cases of COVID-19 in Italy are half of what they are in China but the death rate now exceeds China’s, we are in serious hot water.
Between the media which has sent out conflicting stories as to the severity of what is now a global pandemic, to the spread of fake news and WhatsApp fictions spiraling throughout Italian towns, and a stream of conspiracy theories, the actual information of this virus is being deterred by the social media and major media circus sideshows. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has had to post a “myth buster” page because of all the nonsense being spread about.
On the ground in northern Italy, we are seeing how the harsh reality of this virus goes hand-in-hand with media hysteria where tweets are shared of one medic’s story in Bergamo who recounts something out of a wartime situation. We also get a glimpse of the rest of the world from our laptops, watching videos through our VPN (virtual private network) of people in the United States running off to shopping centers in a buying frenzy for toilet paper and groceries. Then we hear updates that Netflix will have to reduce its streaming quality in the EU due to an internet overload to prevent the internet from breaking. The threat of disease and death are measured by our ability to stream movies and resist making conspiracy theories.
In Italy, as the deaths surpass that of China despite our having half the COVID-19 cases of that nation, we are living in a state of suspended animation in a county with the second highest elderly population per capita on the planet.
Ten days ago we were separated from the rest of the EU by the other governments’ willful denial of what was about to happen in their territories. It was clear to me then that what separates our disparate realities was only a matter of time. Now we are all in the same “boat,” with each country’s politicians attempting to do something which is profoundly contradictory in nature: to both inform and calm the public. Indeed, there is nothing calming about what is going on here.
While all of Italy is locked down, both children and adults are tiring of being inside, many of us in our fourth week of quarantine. Yet, we are in the midst of a transnational learning curve of how to handle a pandemic and every day many Italians, who a month ago were screaming obscenities at owners of Chinese restaurants, are now begging to be saved by the Chinese doctors who arrived earlier this week.
If we are going to survive social isolation we must let go of our western sense of individualism and innate desire to break the rules by understanding immediately this: from inside the bubble of quarantine there is no normal. There is fear for the health of family and friends, there is panic and uncertainty about everything from finances to food access, and there are the thoughts which punctuate most of our days such as: “When will this end?”
Yet, this is the wrong question to ask given that we likely will be at the mercy of governmental agencies, statisticians and hard science for the near future. We must avail ourselves of the information provided and follow the rules if we wish to have playtime later.
While some claim China’s methods for controlling the spread of this virus are “Draconian,” The New York Times’ health and science reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr., intimates that China’s approach is the model to emulate. Clearly UK prime minister Boris Johnson didn’t get that memo as thousands of British parents expressed concern all weekend on social media debating which was worse: paying the fine for not sending their children to school or sending their children into a potentially dangerous situation.
As the number of coronavirus cases heads towards 200,000 worldwide with most European countries showing almost double the number of coronavirus cases reported from Friday to Sunday, we must think twice about dismissing social distancing strategies or offering “herd immunity” solutions that would seriously tax any healthcare system. We also need to stop pretending that any one politician will be able to calculate an end to this nightmare.
British singer Sam Smith is in full “quarantine meltdown” as the internet is replete with conspiracy theories like this because that’s just what “rich, older men conspired” to do—to create a virus that largely kills older males. As we used to say in the 1980s, “Let’s not and say we did.”
Looking at the media circus from Europe’s ground zero it is quite clear that COVID-19 has marked the end of identity politics, firmly placing the metaphorical and literal nail in the coffin of millennial victimhood, preferred pronouns, and narcissistic callout culture. As people are struggling with issues of isolation, most of us are worried about how we can afford rent and food in the coming months. Indeed, COVID-19 is becoming that great divider firmly demarcating an era of material-based reality from identitarian narcissism.
Even entertainment media is taking part in the “theatre of suffering” as celebrities bizarrely seem to think that during a pandemic anyone really places any importance upon their lives. And here’s the rub to those celebrities who previously thought their every thought mattered to most: nobody cares that Bono has created a song for Italy. Even less do we wish to see non-singer, multimillionaire actors belting out a John Lennon tune from kitchens the size of most people’s flats and yards that resemble national parks.
Our realities are vastly different and COVID-19 is firmly exposing the difference between the idealized dreams of capitalism and wealth versus the realpolitik of a disease that kills at-risk groups as millennials tweet joyously wishing for the deaths of the elderly under the hashtag “boomerdoomer.” There is no emotional space to take in conspiracy theories any more than there is to see has-been (and about to be has-been) celebrities clamoring for attention.
COVID-19 is the great equalizer of our lifetime, and to echo the ominous words of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant dystopic film Brazil (1985), “We are all in this together.” Our survival will depend upon what The Guardian has referred to as China’s “Draconian” methods or Italy’s “Draconion rules.” Here’s a news flash, dear reader: we are only going to survive this by living for a suspended moment in time a new Draconian order. We must learn from the citizens of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore and repress our western arrogance to think we know it all. We simply don’t.
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