Coronavirus in the media. The overexposure of virologists and the absence of a humanistic approach

Has the narrative of this pandemic overexposed virologists and lacked a humanistic approach? Some food for thought on the topic.

A couple of examples. The first is from last March 29, on the program Che tempo che fa: according to virologist Roberto Burioni, on the day when the health emergency ends and we can finally go outside, “we will all have to wear a mask every four hours.” The second is from yesterday’s, April 4, Corriere della Sera interview with virologist Andrea Crisanti: “it will be better to use mask and gloves even at home. And, above all, limit the use of shared home environments to the indispensable.” If tomorrow someone happens to write a book on mainstream communication during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, probably a chapter will be devoted to the media overexposure of virologists, epidemiologists, infectivologists: there is no talk show that every day does not have its technician who, punctually, repeats approximately the same information. Certainly, it has benefited our knowledge of the subject: we probably all, now, know better than before how diseases are born and spread and how to avoid them, and hopefully this knowledge will translate, in the future, into a greater civic sense on the part of everyone and a greater inclination to trust science more and quacks less.

However, the continuous and massive presence of virologists, epidemiologists, and infectiologists on television and in generalist newspapers has perhaps also negative consequences. It should not be forgotten that these experts are first and foremost technicians who analyze the coronavirus emergency often from a theoretical perspective and with the air of the specialist who observes the situation focusing, as a matter of course, on the aspects of his exclusive relevance. Thus, to Burioni, who would like to impose the use of masks on everyone, it would serve to point out that in China the amount of production in normal times touches twenty million pieces per day, a figure that has risen to one hundred and twenty million in the midst of the emergency, and that therefore, given the numbers, it is totally unrealistic to think that every Italian could have an endowment of masks such that they could change them two or three times a day. Instead, it would be Crisanti’s turn to point out that, of the 24.5 million households recorded in the last General Census of Population and Housing, there are 14 living in houses with an area of less than 100 square meters: and even if we want to overlook the results in terms of alienation that a forced domestic separation would entail (much to the chagrin of Kundera and those like him who think that the desire to sleep together is the main way in which love manifests itself, much to the chagrin of child psychologists who would be horrified at such a prospect, and generally much to the chagrin of those who are scarcely inclined to consider themselves automatons moved solely by physical instincts), for millions of people this would be an impractical option.

We are talking about two extremes, but they demonstrate the risks involved when there is a lack of journalism that intervenes to bring the theory back down to the plane of reality, and in any case they fit into a narrative that, having turned trust into fideism, beyond the obsessive “stay at home” little or nothing gets us there. And the result is to fuel apprehension: add to that a press that has often failed to shine in terms of accountability and a policy that would still seem to have no defined plan and would seem to be sailing by sight with decrees that follow one after the other and that sometimes also appear tremendously confused (despite the sense of prudence suggesting that the greater the restrictions on personal freedoms, the clearer and more precise the measures must be: and it is precisely scientists who insist on the importance of clarity in this situation), and the effect is what we have all experienced. That is, a climate of uncertainty resulting in constant anxiety on the part of the population, in the attitudes of so many mayors who have turned into relentless sheriffs, in the paroxysmal scapegoat hunting, in the balcony delusion, in the widespread resignation, in the inclination of some to look with a certain benevolence even at authoritarianism.

Was an alternative narrative of the pandemic possible? Meanwhile, from the broader space of mass information I think the other specialists are missing to begin with: we rarely see psychologists, cardiologists, pediatricians, immunologists, nutritionists, and others looking after those at home. That is to say: yes, we stay at home and we are willing to do so because we have grasped why (although there are administrators who continue to treat us as if we were a population of 12-year-olds), but how should we behave inside the home? There are millions of us, and maybe it would be helpful for us to see someone more frequently to point out some best practices that will help us maintain our physical and mental health. And there was also little room to reflect on those who do not find an idyllic dimension in their homes (victims of violence, large families living in small spaces, or families in financially or emotionally precarious situations) or those who do not have a home.

Also, a humanistic approach is almost completely missing: no (or little) reflections, for example, on the impact of the emergency and its consequences on our relationship with others or with our surroundings or our habits, and involving artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, poets, critics and so on (the highest artistic moment of mainstream communication, I think, was the string of pop artists who, last March 31 on Rai Uno, simply played us songs from their repertoire strummed from home at the least worst). Or, another example: we read appeals to stay at home and “read a good book” (despite the closure of bookstores, which are considered non-essential activities, as if our existence is limited to the mere maintenance of biological functions, and despite the fact that the emergency is also causing publishing a serious crisis), but lacking from the mainstream public space is any in-depth discussion on the subject. And also considering the fact that almost 6 out of 10 Italians do not read even one book in the course of a year, some TV program of invitation to reading would have been very useful.

Genova, Parte della Riviera presa dal Lazzaretto
Genoa, Part of the Riviera taken from the Lazaretto (engraving from the first half of the 19th century). The lazaretto is the building seen in the center of the composition, on the shore.

Then, to try to provide an example of what it means to cultivate a humanistic approach to emergencies, it will be useful to go back and browse through art treatises, and one will find that one of the greatest art theorists and critics of the eighteenth century, Francesco Milizia (Oria, 1725 - Rome, 1798), in his Principj di Architettura civile published in 1781, had posed the problem of how to make a period of quarantine less burdensome for those who found themselves forced to undergo it. The Principj include a short chapter on lazarettos, identified by Milizia as “vast buildings far from the inhabited area, destined to execute quarantine to people coming from ’places suspected of plague, or plague victims.’” As a humanist, even before he was a theorist, Milizia was concerned to understand how a lazaretto could be made as comfortable as possible for its inhabitants, given that the risk of negative repercussions for both the individual and the community was as real then (and it is useful in this regard to reread the pages of Rousseau’s Confessions in which the Genevan philosopher describes his quarantine in Genoa in 1743) as it is today. But not only that: the more onerous the quarantine, the greater the problems of public order would also be.

Milizia wrote that it was necessary to dispense the quarantined from the obligation to pay tribute, and that it would be counterproductive to avoid constricting “the narrowness, uncomfortableness and insalubriousness of such buildings,” because it would be “an invitation to those unfortunates [i.e., the quarantined, nda] to disappoint the vigilance, and to escape from the expense, and from a kind of prison [...]. At the mere sight of the port the sailors recreate themselves, and shall we then also mortify them with avanches and prisons?” Lazarettos therefore “for every reason must be free, comfortable, healthy, hilarious, and even pleasant, with beautiful gardens, adorned with the only property.” Finally, Militia concluded his chapter on lazarettos by stating that “public safety can be obtained without detriment to private good.”

The current situation is apparent in its diametrically opposite dimension to what Militia desired. Of course, one does not want to question the fact that restrictions on freedom of movement are at present, in the opinion of physicians, the only way we have to stop or reduce the advance of contagion. Nor is it intended, of course, to deny or underestimate the seriousness of the emergency. However, one has to wonder whether better things could not have been done in order to allow us to live with more serenity, and within a more human dimension, the restrictive measures that have been imposed on us. If the “iorestoacasa” was supposed to be a moment of broad reflection, will an opportunity have been missed?

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