I arrived in Rome, Italy on January 6, 2020. On January 30, WHO (World Health Organization) declared the Coronavirus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. At this point there were 7,711 cases in China and 83 international cases across 18 countries. This number was quickly approaching the number of SARS cases from the 2003 outbreak which surpassed 8,000. As of February 19, the global total of global cases of Coronavirus is 73,332.
This global epidemic has been further amplified by the media, with almost every major network reporting daily on the rising death tolls or quarantined cruise ships. I have received multiple emails from both my University in California and in Rome, alerting me to advise health precautions. It has been both fascinating and terrifying to observe this epidemic and its rippling effects throughout communities.
Each morning I take the tram to school along with many other study abroad students who live in the same residence building. The tram is consistently packed to the brim, with all of us squished completely like anchovies. We try not to touch anything and use hand sanitizer vigilantly afterwards, huddling in a paranoid pack by the tram tracks. We bought face masks (after striking out at 3 sold out pharmacies) and wore them on our flight to Amsterdam and on the morning tram. Many people glared at us, the mask labeling us as the infected while we were attempting to avoid just that.
Then reports were released that the type of face mask we bought were virtually useless in protection and I stopped wearing the mask. It was claustrophobic, sweaty and unnerving to be so aware of my breath. It scared me to think that our future may consist of this face mask necessity, preventing us from even being able to breath fresh air. While in Amsterdam, we received an email alerting us of 2 cases of Coronavirus reported in Rome. People began scooting away from coughing old people on the tram. A kid with a runny nose and a man with a sneeze make everyone shift-eyed and nervous.
We were reassured that it was far less contagious than the flu and our fears were dampened. On February 18, CNN reported that new investigation revealed the Coronavirus to be both 20 percent deadlier and more contagious than the flu. In Hong Kong, the disease reportedly spread through the pipes to infect 2 other individuals.
Asian study abroad students began getting dirty looks– a small scale representation of the worldwide racist sentiment spreading hand in hand with the virus. This partly stems from the media’s manipulation of our primal fears as it frenzies to sell headlines. Our natural instinct is to pull facts that provide a rationale for ‘it couldn’t happen to me’. This often leads to distinctions between “us” and “them”, creating an “other” to critique and demean– in order to raise ourselves above worry.
This intense paranoia is born of rational fears and then raised to something more sinister through the disease’s prevailing presence in the media. It is hard to not be afraid. Pharmacies have plastered signs in the windows announcing they’ve run out of face masks, travel size bottles of hand sanitizer sell for € 4.5 and there are displays dedicated to precautionary products. Everyone is cashing out on the Coronavirus however they can. Italy’s economic growth, however, may decline with increased risk as the disease continues growing and spreading daily. This is no way comparable to China’s economy which has suffered drastically since the outbreak. Originally predicted to grow by 6.0 percent by Oxford Economics, it has since been re-estimated to be 5.4 percent.
This has also opened an interesting conversation about censorship policies in China. Doctor Li Wenliang was the first to report warnings regarding the arises clusters of the new virus. He was then arrested and forced to retract his statements by the Chinese authorities. He later contracted the virus himself and ultimately passed away. There has been a surge of citizens calling for internet freedom on various platforms, with the government officials removing the posts as quickly as they’re being posted. The heavy censorship imposed upon journalists and investigators has said to be a determinative cause in the development of the outbreak. Potentially, concealed information could have helped officials gather answers sooner, aiding in the prevention of the spread of coronavirus.
On February 23 Italy is declared by CNN to have the second biggest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia. At least 132 people have been infected, mainly centered in Northern Italy. Football games are canceled, schools are closed and some Milan week fashion week designers elect to have their shoes indoors, with no spectators. We limit our trips outside the house and wear face masks when we do– slowly pushing each other further and further away. NBC reports that the Iranian mayor has tested positive and the number of cases is souring in South Korea. Tokyo postpones Olympic volunteer training and they are all hoping to not be forced into canceling the games. It would be the first canceling of the Olympics since 1944 when the London games were canceled due to World War II. It seems, unfortunately, a darkly foreshadowing coincidence.