How fear of Covid19 and irrational regulations are killing democracy: an Italian Story

The campaign (#iostoacasa) enforced by the Italian government will be remembered as a textbook example of how in a very short time, ignorance and fear can cancel the mutual pact based on reasons and trust between citizen and institutions. Faced with the threat of the virus and the risk of the collapse of the health system, the government has proceeded, starting from March 9, with a quarantine (based on the hashtag #iostoacasa), convincing millions of Italians that to stay as long as possible inside their houses with as little as possible access to the outdoor world is the only possible way to stop the advance of the virus.

This is obviously false. Other catchphrases, much more precise and detailed, such as keeping social distance and personal hygiene, would have been much more honest and, to the extent that they would have been more sustainable, they would also have been much more effective. Most countries in the world are applying various form of “intelligent lockdown” that allow people to do many activities that are compatible with the containment of the virus infection. Unfortunately, the Italian government has opted to center its campaign on an approximate and harmful diktat – “stay indoor inside your home at all costs”.

Staying imprisoned at home is neither necessary nor sufficient to fight the outbreak. First, it is obvious to anyone who has any remains of common sense how being indoors with one’s family is not sustainable forever and requires at least access to supermarkets and other essential services. As a result, the Italian lockdown is doomed to fail and therefore vain and counterproductive. But it is equally clear that this is not even a necessary measure, because the point is not staying at home but avoid risky social contacts. It would be enough to stay at a distance and follow the rules laid down by the WHO (masks, hand washing, etc.) as it has been suggested in many other countries where the results are a lot more encouraging.

However, in Italy there are psychological and cultural reasons as to why the government asked the citizens to sacrifice themselves. In a scientifically weak culture as the Italian one, the appeal to personal sacrifice has an immediate ideologically efficacy. Staying at home has overnight became a superstitious gesture, which people follow either because of superstition or because in doing so they feel they belong to a community that suffers together. Nobody really wonders about the transmission mechanisms of the virus. Such technical – and indeed vital – details and information are entrusted to experts, as in the past times they entrusted to priests the task of interpreting the sacred scriptures. The population is happy to entrust their fate to others, experts or authorities, trusting in the ancient principle that it is more important to belong to a community, whether a flock of sheep or a Lemming torma, than to have factual knowledge.

On media, virologists are not asked about the mechanisms of transmission of the virus. Such transfer of knowledge would require people to have a critical-scientific understanding of the problem and to trust themselves and the others. In such circumstances, Italians reveal a deep mistrust for their peers. Nobody here seem to trust anyone else, so more coercive rules are invoked (only to immediately try to sidestep them). The rules are always for the others, everyone always believe to be the good one.

The threat of the virus, from a concrete problem to be addressed with the tools of reason, has been transformed into a witch hunt of the moral faults of the people. At the same time, it has legitimized everyone in the alleged affirmation of their moral superiority. Paternalistic and moralistic attitude in all respects similar to the superstitious submission encouraged by the religious tradition. Who will be saved from the various? Surely not the most skilled who trust their intelligence, but rather the most righteous who sacrifice themselves and, together with the other righteous as their equals (or just less), deserve a place on the floating ark. Or that’s what people believe. Let’s all suffer together. Even if we don’t know why. Redemption from the virus requires penitence.

This salvific-moralistic drift explains the bitterness and the moralistic hatred (the “shit-wave” that is regularly cast against anyone who does not conform his views). Difference in opinion is immediately associated with the defender’s moral unworthiness. Those who claimed the importance of physical activity outdoor (runners, anyone who wanted to continue a healthy lifestyle) has been immediately laughed at or associated with morally inferior traits (narcissism, egoism, selfishness), while sedentary life, the overindulgence in the carbohydrates-rich Italian food, smoking and alcohol-consumption are seen with indulgence and generally with real sympathy (particularly alcohol and food).

If you go running your are fingered as a selfish individualist who has no respect for the deceased, while you stay home drinking and eating are a righteous hero who sacrifices himself for the greater good.

It is obviously irrational to think that those who have a healthy lifestyle lack respect while those who churn out cakes and pizzas and gulp down wine are penitent monks, but it is consistent with the ideological framework according to which the virus must be defeated by sacrifice and submission to authority and not by intelligence and tenacity.

In Italy, people are not allowed to run, to go to the beach, to take a walk in the country, to trial in the mountains. Such activities are forbidden not because they have any objective relation with the virus, but because Italians conceive of themselves as not being trustworthy, mischievous, morally right – we are sinful and thus we must cleanse ourselves of our sins, suffering all together. We are imprisoned at home not to avoid the virus, but to purify us. It’s not a measure against the virus, it is a form of moral education.

The justification for the ban on being outdoors alone is analogous to what is given in countries where customs impose sexual repression, because women have to cover their bodies and faces: because if they all did, men would be tempted by violence. And therefore, since human beings are unworthy of trust, even those who are not guilty (women) must live segregated. Not surprisingly, in these countries, home and clothes play a role similar to that of the home in these quarantine days, a private space removed from the alleged external danger (which instead is only internal).

We Italians are not allowed to go to the beach, not because there is a real danger in the beach, but because our government (and indeed many of us) believe that, if we went to the beach, we would not follow the anti-Covid regulations. This is the end of a civil society.

In the irrational Italian zeigeist, made it possible by the traditional lack of scientific culture, the application of diktats quickly transmogrifies into an article of faith, often imposed more by the faithful ones (people spying other from balconies, here mockingly nicknamed balconies-sheriffs) than by the authorities themselves (police and police). Parks, naural reserves, outdoor trails and beaches are closed nation-wide, drones are sent to identify dangerous lonely walkers, helicopters are sent to flush out swimmers and divers (this is not an exaggeration, watch this

The fact that, according to WHO, the viral load does not survive outdoor under sun rays is inconsequential to the definition of regulations. Against all good sense, the external environment is prohibited to everyone because it is associated with freedom. An Italian philosopher,  Massimo Recalcati, recently wrote, “hatred is not enduring the freedom of the other”.

As in Orwell’s 19884, people are isolated from each other and subject to a continuous imposition of news by screens installed in their homes. The only difference with the famous dystopia is that in the Italian case the LCD screens are paid by us rather then being installed by the government!

Family eating dinner

The culprit of this propaganda machine in search for a culprit are either runners or families with children, both the targets of a vicious media campaign. The lone runner does not jeopardize the physical health of citizens, but questions the salvific value of their alleged morality: “if I am at home suffering, everybody should”. And so everybody have to stay at home mostly to avoid questioning the authority of the government to which many scared people have entrusted their safety. For the sacrifice of everyone’s freedom to be effective, it must be shared. Questioning publicly the words of the government is seen as a lack of respect for the deceased – one must not speak in church. The dark side of society reveals itself: fear and ignorance. It is a mechanism that many have outlined; from Chomsky to Benasayag, from Canetti to Foucalt, from Hobbes to Machiavelli. Their works is well known but, in these weeks, is taking place in front of everyone. Ignorance and fear suggest to scarify one’s freedom to the authority of government in the hope of salvation.

The worst aspect has manifested itself in all those forms of intolerance and human misery that are amplified in “balcony racism”. People are spied on because others are no longer perceived as human beings, but as a potential danger. The rigid application of the law becomes the pretext to vent envy, rivalry, inferiority complexes, parochial bodies.

Another Italian philosopher, Felice Cimatti, in a recent interview said “there are the reasons for medicine, but there are not only the reasons for medicine. […] To claim that it is not time to discuss individual philosophy and freedom, which is now the time of an emergency, is exactly the type of response that does not promise anything good”.

When individual freedom is suspected of selfishness, when the prevailing ethical-political principle states that the only true freedom is sacrificing oneself for the universal good (which is never universal, but always the expression of a part of the society which is strong enough to propose and, indeed, impose itself as universal), when all that happens, people are in danger, because people are defined by their individual, unquestionable, unjustifiable, indominable, unredeemable personal freedom.

Accepting the diktat of staying at home without reason is not only a health risk but above all the failure of the pact of reason between state and citizen.

On the one hand, Italians do not ask the government to provide rational motivations for regulations and, on the other hand, citizens are not asked to behave responsibly. Everyone breaks his obligations and both parties (government and the people) deal with each other with the typical indulgence of immature people. The social pact is no longer based on reason and mutual trust, but on self-interest and fear fueled by superstition and ignorance. The Italian campaign #iostoacasa risks to become a serious failure for freedom and democracy.