From Italy: anthropological reflections on coronavirus COVID-19

About the Author

Roberta Raffaetà

Roberta Raffaetà is Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Free University of Bolzano, Faculty of Design and Art. Marie Curie and Fulbright Fellow, she has obtained a PhD in medical anthropology at the Université de Lausanne and has worked as researcher and lecturer at various universities abroad (UCLA, Monash Melbourne, Lausanne) and in Italy (Milano-Bicocca, Trento, Verona). Her research explores how to live together in an entangled world, in a planet made of human and more-than-human beings. Through this perspective, she has studied diverse but interrelated topics at the intersection between health, technology, ecological politics and migration studies. A monograph about her long-term ethnography among microbiome scientists in Italy and US is forthcoming (April 2020). She is currently interested on how art and design can collaborate with science, as she is participating in two projects at the Free University of Bolzano: SPASS (Studying, Portraying and ASSessing examples of good scientific practice in interdisciplinary work) and PPE (Praxis, Performativity, Embodied Knowledge).

Audio transcript

Hallo, my name is Roberta Raffaetà and I am an anthropologist working at the Free Uni of Bolzano in Italy. I would like to share with you some thoughts I am having in these days about coronavirus by witnessing what is happening here in Italy and also inspired by my current research on how scientists produce knowledge about microbes. 

Until Thursday, Italy was deemed free from Coronavirus, with the exception of two cases of Chinese tourists. Three days later, we counted more than 150 people infected and three deaths. The count is today, Wednesday, of more than 400 infections and eleven deaths. Schools, offices, public events are closed. Some places are in quarantine and social panic is disseminating. 4 points are helping me to think through what is going on:

  1. Why Italy has more infected people than the rest of Europe (first in Europe and third in the world after China and South Chorea)? Conjunctural and cultural reasons have been listed such as the time lapsed from the first contagion and the fact that Italians are prone to hug/kiss others. However, I think that an important aspect consists in Italy having a strong public health system compared to the rest of Europe and this is permitting broad and fast identification of infections. This teaches us that epidemics are hard to be handled in a privatized healthcare regime.
  2. Identification of people infected cannot be considered the only measure to be taken. Currently, the evaluation of the situation is based mainly on how many cases have been detected and not on the global and dynamic processes such an epidemic is entailing. The virus travels fast and probably it arrived in Italy, as in other countries, weeks ago. This, however, was neglected until genetic testing turned this into ‘evidence’. While genetic evidence is crucial both as a prevention and as a cure, focusing just on that may restrain our ability to handle current and future epidemics. Many people, in absence of genetic evidence, felt not at risk and safe. This is also why many people awakened with surprise and panic once genetic evidence started to blossom.
  3. Hygiene is key now but on the medium-long term is not enough. Masks and cleaning hands are good tools but not enough to prevent an epidemic happening again. Viruses and microbes are all around us and within us, therefore the issue is to understand how to maintain this co-habitation peaceful (microbial antagonism). In these days, I could find only a slight trace, and often trivial, of debate about why the intraspecies contamination may have happened. Why the virus left animals and jumped into humans? Which may be our role and responsibility as human beings in intraspecies co-habitation? While humans and non-humans co-habitation is a very popular issue at the level of rhetoric, those days I am hearing few voices about the virus’ social life and its entanglement with animal, environmental and socio-political conditions. The consideration of these entanglements, at the moment, appears to be important only to safeguard human health from disease and death. But the problem may lie exactly here: as long as we will continue to only care for our health and go on by uncritically relating to other non-humans or exploiting them, pathological reactions may occur with increasing frequency. This is just a hypothesis, but one to be taken into consideration and debated, also in this moment of emergency. To open a debate about this not only may help to prevent epidemics in the future but can also give insights now about the life and dynamics of this specific virus.
  4. Finally, to re-state the obvious: statistics should always be contextualized. Viruses change while traveling. Usually, they become less virulent but there is not yet certainty about this trend in this specific case. Virus mutations will intersect with local socio-political and material conditions such as healthcare conditions and infrastructures, climate and social habits. 

To sum up, I think that Italians and, in general, the citizens of this 21st century world of technological wonders are more afraid about the rising awareness of not being able to know and master everything, than of the virus itself. This vulnerability should, instead, encourage us to face and try to give an answer to the disturbing questions and issues coming with it.

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