Graeme Wood: Iran can’t handle the coronavirus
Part of the problem is that the danger cannot be seen: “A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream that will end,” Albert Camus wrote in The Plague. This, of course, very much describes the current situation: Many people cannot bear the idea that something invisible can change their plans. Published in 1947, The Plague has often been read as an allegory, a book that is really about the occupation of France, say, or the human condition. But it’s also a very good book about plagues, and about how people react to them—a whole category of human behavior that we have forgotten.
In the novel, a part of the quarantined town “continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debates?” Their modern equivalents in the city of Milan have already launched a #Milanononsiferma—“Milan doesn’t stop”—hashtag campaign. Other cities have followed. Social media is full of Italian business owners and hotel managers denouncing the government for its unnecessary precautions.
But invisibility also creates uncertainty, and uncertainty can be manipulated so that it serves other ends. One of Camus’ characters is a priest, for example, who uses the plague to increase his flock: He tells his congregation that the epidemic is God’s way of punishing unbelievers. In modern Italy, the first person to seek to manipulate the anxiety created by the coronavirus was Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right leader who immediately called for the government to shut the country’s borders, stop all public meetings, and keep people home.
Salvini would no doubt have pressed this point further had it not begun, almost immediately, to backfire. The virus first appeared in Lombardy and Veneto, the two Italian provinces where his party, the Northern League, is strongest. When Salvini realized that a shutdown would inflict the worst economic damage there, he switched to a different argument: a call on the government to “defend Italy and Italians” from African refugees. There is no evidence that African refugees are carrying the virus, but the bigoted link between foreigners, impurity, and disease is a very old one. Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, has also called on France to shut the border with Italy, even though that, too, is nonsensical, as the first French cases seem mostly to have come from elsewhere.
I am due to fly to London in a few days, and have been carefully watching the British right-wing tabloids, to gauge their level of hysteria. So far, it has been relatively low—they are distracted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s engagement to his pregnant girlfriend—which means that the planes will continue flying. Once they focus on the virus, I am certain that there will be calls to block all contact with Italy, and I am certain that this tabloid-dependent British government will heed them.