A few days ago, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte declared a status of quarantine in Italy to fight the Coronavirus outbreak. This article aims to illustrate why this measure will not hold, and why Italian citizens might eventually come to break it. The Italian case serves as an example to illustrate how an average citizen in the Western world would cope with a condition of physical confinement.
On the 8th March 2020 the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte signed an unprecedented decree (dpcm 8 marzo 2020) to fight the recent Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak in Italy. This decree was replaced the next day by the dpcm 9 marzo 2020, which extended all dispositions reported in the dpcm 8 marzo 2020 to the entire Italian soil.
In the first article of the decree, citizens were asked to limit their movement both within and outside their place of residence. Movements were allowed in the case of work demands, health-related needs, and for citizens to return to their place of residence. However, the government soon more precisely specified the cases in which citizens are allowed to leave their apartments, officialising a sort of “quarantine status”. For instance, citizens are now allowed to go to the grocery store or to walk their dog, but they must respect a one meter security distance from others, and get back home as soon as possible. At any time, the police can ask citizens to justify their presence on the streets, through the appropriate self-declaration document. In the case of violations, citizens can incur pecuniary sanctions or even get arrested.
In absence of further notice, this situation will apply until the 3rd April, but it is likely to be extended.
The reason for these extreme measures is simple: due to the increased number of hospitalizations, the national health system is collapsing. Italy urgently needs to slow down the diffusion of the virus, and to limit the frequency of hospitalizations in the upcoming weeks.
For once in their life, Italian citizens are therefore asked to do nothing, and stay confined at home. They should wake up in the morning, sip a coffee, and look at the sky from behind the window. The whole day.
Unfortunately however, I do not believe this situation will hold until 3rd April.
For instance, in light of the prime minister’s decision to lockdown Lombardy on the 8th March, people had already tried to jump onto the last trains in Milan’s railway stations to escape the red zone. From the 29th February until now, it is estimated that more than 16,500 people moved from the north to the south of Italy, 1,500 alone during the night between the 13th and the 14th March.
I will now articulate my reasons in two sections and I will specifically refer to the Italian population, since it is the best example of quarantine applied in Europe so far. However, my reflection is likely to be valid for every Western citizen that may experience a condition of physical confinement. I will therefore generalize and speak of “citizens” from now on, whenever possible.
When the symptomatology does not help
Someone may argue that citizens will break the rules because they do not have any respect for other people’s health. However, I do not think this is actually true. I simply believe that they are structurally incapable of doing so.
It is known that Covid-19 infections can spread asymptomatically, or can cause only mild symptoms. The infection can result in common symptoms like tiredness, dry cough and fever. Thus, every citizen is virtually already infected and infectious, meaning that they could be a “tacit” and “unconscious” source of contagion and diffusion of the epidemic at any moment, simply because they are alive. They are living hosts for the Coronavirus. On this basis, given that Covid-19 does not result in severe symptoms in the vast majority of cases, the average citizen would not fear the contagion as long as either someone they love, or themselves, are not found to be infected. On the one hand, this means that citizens, as individuals, do not personally feel the danger of the contagion and its consequences, finding no instinctive or self-preservative reasons for which they should stay confined for their own wellbeing. On the other hand, in order to recognize their own danger to others, they should accept that simply hanging around, simply being alive as they are used to, is the highest threat to the wellbeing of others. The proposition “I am alive, therefore I should not leave my apartment”, cannot be easily rationalized and is therefore hardly comprehensible. This is the first reason why people will likely soon break out of quarantine.
When the world is revealed as meaningless
What is the psychological consequence of quarantine?
Most people in the world are blindly convinced that finding a job, getting a profitable pension scheme, paying taxes, walking from home to the office every morning and finally retiring, is the unique option they have for their lives. They believe that fitting into this world is the right thing to do, and thus they never question it. This is not because of stupidity. It is somewhat of a natural thing.
This way of living is however only one of the possible scenarios which human society has developed into – a way of living that did not apply to other civilizations, such as in ancient Greece, and may not last forever. But for most people, the specific scenario they are living in is an absolute, immutable truth: not one arbitrarily applied by the randomness of societal and historical events, but one offered by reality as its intrinsic feature. This is why they do not question it.
The truth is that a given lifestyle is just an invented superstructure. And the inventors are the social institutions.
Suddenly however, the same institutions that used to tacitly impose a sociological structure – a way of living – as if it was the only absolute truth, now ask people to mistrust it.
The institutions are openly declaring: “Look, you don’t have to work anymore. You don’t have to be productive and efficient. Stay at home. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
This statement, which is implicitly enclosed in Conte’s dpcm 8 marzo 2020, is revolutionary. The institutions are stating – against their interest – that the whole labour system is no longer necessary. People will survive its absence.
In philosophical terms, Conte officialized that the world is meaningless per se. We, Italian citizens, at home, lonely, have the duty to fill the void with whatever we like.
Now, imagine a slave that was born a slave. Imagine a slave that has always thought that being a slave was the only option for them. They feel, viscerally, their being slave. What would happen if their master set them free, abruptly, with no explanation? They would resist. They wouldn’t go.
Italian citizens are likely to be incapable of filling the void of freedom on their own. They are incapable of sitting in a chair by their windows, of holding a pen and finally drawing out their future.
They want their routine back, with no open questions, no silence. They want their “master” back.
This is why they will soon escape their prison of freedom: once more, not to think.