Since 9 March Italy has been under full lockdown: for the past two weeks and continuing, citizens have been told to stay at home, with the exception of grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy and practicing some limited outdoor exercise. The police patrols the streets and people who are found outside the house without justification or a self-certification can be fined or, in the worst case scenario, arrested. While Italy has been the European ‘precursor’ of this strict isolation, this scenario is either being put into place or will certainly be enforced in most European countries and beyond in a matter of days.
Overall, the rules are simple and the message clear: don’t leave your house unless necessary. Despite a shared feeling of claustrophobia induced by the sudden forced confinement, most citizens are adjusting fast to this new way of living. But as the days pass and the regulations tighten, new concerns over the safety of all citizens are inevitably raising. Staying home doesn’t equal safety for everyone.
The data made public from Telefono Rosa—an Italian organisation that provides a range of support and help for women and children victims of domestic violence, sexual and psychological violence, stalking or mobbing—shows that compared to the same period last year, in the first two weeks of March the calls to their help-centre have dropped by 55.1 per cent: from an approximative 1,104 calls they have only received 496 so far.
In any other situation, such a drastic decrease in numbers would’ve been interpreted as an accomplishment, but in this specific scenario, these numbers indicate an alarming situation: victims of domestic abuse usually call if their abuser isn’t in near proximity. Being stuck for 24 hours, seven days a week, with a violent individual not only means higher risk of violent episodes, but it also stops victims from seeking help.
If just for a moment, and it already feels absurd to do so, we put aside the state of financial precarity that a huge chunk of the population is facing because of the economy’s current stall, and focus on the social and psychological conditions in which some citizens are forced to live during this quarantine, the spectrum of inequality that looms over this newly imposed set of rules would appear in all its prominence.
The struggles of confinement do not only affect those whose domestic environments are threatening, but they’re taking a considerable toll on the people whose lives are directly managed by the state. During the first week of isolation, there have been over 8 prison riots throughout Italy. Some inmates violently responded to the government cancelling all family visits in a short term attempt to prevent the coronavirus from entering the prisons.
The Italian government tried avoiding what could potentially turn into a catastrophe: overpopulated prisons (with 61,230 inmates over the official capacity of 47,231 places) and a weakened sanitary system budget meant that all the isolation requirements applied on the outside would be unattainable inside Italian prisons.
In Spain, someone wrote the message ‘The romanticisation of the quarantine is a class privilege’ and hung it on a white sheet from their balcony. The image widely circulated on the internet, mainly and simply because it was astoundingly true. The bigger the house, the bigger the windows, the bigger the gardens, and the more pleasurable this quarantine will be. Having access to the necessary means for a healthy quarantine is without a doubt a class privilege, but I’m afraid we’re just realising that it is way more than only that.
The ultimate paradox of this quarantine is that the virus itself has no barriers when it comes to infecting. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between gender, class, or race—it can get us all. And yet, the conditions in which people navigate this state of emergency and will eventually emerge from it are profoundly different. “We could say that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of falling ill, losing someone close, living in a world of imminent threat,” wrote American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler in a piece published on Verso a few days ago titled Capitalism has its Limits.
“Social and economic inequality will make sure that the virus discriminates. The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism,” further explains Butler. And she couldn’t be more right. As we all experience this unsettling lifestyle, at times even romanticising the surreal changes it is bringing into our lives, some are left with little rights and even less hope.
As the spread of COVID-19 grows exponentially and as the magnitude of the health, economic and social consequences that this pandemic will have on society are still incalculable, one thing remains certain: the flaws of our socio-economic structures are violently revealing their fallibility, flowing from the cracks that were left uncared for and that are now opening wide.
The cases mentioned above are Italy-based, and surely each country will respond to the emergency according to its own legislation, but what is happening in Italy is exemplary of what worsens during a state of emergency: the vulnerable inevitably get more vulnerable.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking to give up on the desperate irony, the memes, and the mood-lifting online group gatherings most of us are enjoying in order to cope with the situation. New forms of digital aggregation and solidarity are coming out of this, and we should by no means disregard them. This unexpected shift of rhythm has to be cherished and made the most out of, but as we do so, it is worth keeping both eyes open on what these restrictions might mean to those of us whose experiences aren’t worth any romanticisation.
On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, also commonly referred to as coronavirus, a global pandemic. And while there are plenty of important facts about the coronavirus we should all be aware of, I will leave the technical information to medical professionals, which I advise you all to keep up with. Looking at social media during these times and more specifically at how it affects us begs the question: is being online making us more panicked?
The world has faced serious epidemics before, be that the 2009 flu pandemic, AIDS, which is still ongoing but somehow dismissed by the masses, Ebola or even the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. All of these have had, or still have, serious impacts on our society. But one significant difference between these and the COVID-19 outbreak is the fact that the coronavirus is happening at a time of mass social media.
The problem with social media being a significant source of our news intake is the fact that it is hard to regulate and not always entirely accurate. In times of crisis, the panic that most people feel makes it especially difficult to regulate. In the case of the coronavirus, it seems that it is all we talk about, and yet everyone appears to have a different opinion. This results, in large part, from people gaining their news from very different sources, some valid and accurate, and others not so much.
Another important thing to point out is the fact that our exposure to and reliance on social media is what causes mass hysteria in the first place. It is crucial for us all to be vigilant, responsible and cautious right now, and anxiety around this outbreak is understandable. However, the many ways in which we deal with this anxiety can be harmful. Take for instance, the current shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, soap and dry pasta happening in grocery stores, with companies such as Tesco in the UK implementing a purchasing limit (5 of the same items maximum) in order to ensure that everyone has a chance to get their hands on what they need. If that doesn’t represent panic buying, then what does?
Social media carries significant responsibility in panic buying, or in this case, panic-hoarding. Scrolling through Facebook, so many posts portray people stockpiling on these items—I’m talking twenty hand sanitizers, mountains of bottled water or copious amounts of toilet paper, either accompanied by a distressed caption, or worse, laughing emojis and some tone-deaf comment about how funny they’re being for over-purchasing loo roll. These types of posts, along with empty shelves, set people off to panic and buy even more, making it harder for others to get their hands on these items.
TikTok is another prime example of social media’s influence on mass hysteria. New gens have a well-known tendency to deal with hardships through humour and memes, and coronavirus-themed TikToks are currently going viral, with the #coronavirus hashtag accumulating over 9.6 billion views on the app. One of the most current TikTok trends involves users posting videos playing the ‘It’s corona time’ tune. In some, teens express their concerns about the virus or joke about having it, while others depict themselves buying pasta en masse and other items we would never think would have become so coveted in 2020.
Don’t get me wrong, memes can be a great way to relax and have been an outlet of laughter at a time of distress. But when it comes to memes that touch on a sensitive subject, people need to be responsible and cautious of their audience and the kind of message they might be promoting. Social media can already be a source of anxiety for many, so adding pandemic content on top of that, be that news or memes, isn’t exactly calming.
Taking precautions such as self-isolating to protect yourself or those vulnerable around you, thus buying enough resources to last you in this period is not adding to the mass hysteria—buying enough to last you a lifetime certainly is.
While some of these platforms are trying their best to stop false information from spreading, the amount of data shared online means regulation is near impossible. That’s why we all have a part to play in downplaying the panic on social media while ensuring we don’t spread any false information. Think twice before you post something, share accurate information from reliable sources (WHO or your country’s health service website is a good call), try to avoid speculation and let’s all try to take it one day at a time.
In the meantime, if you’re stuck at home self-isolating, don’t panic just yet. While having many negatives, social media can also offer some uplifting content. Accounts such as @tanksgoodnews and @upworthy are documenting how strangers are helping each other, whether by giving to those struggling financially or by inspiring other people to check up on the elderly in their communities and do their food shop or walk their dogs.
Wash your hands, try to stay at home and remember, we’re all in this together.