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To Slow the Coronavirus, We Need Messages of Egoism—Not Altruism

(ANTONIO MASIELLO/GETTY)

In the time of a silent but dangerous virus, we need to rely upon the individual’s self-preservation instinct to save other lives.

Despite recent demands by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for everyone to stay at home, many Italian citizens are not paying attention. Judging by the data at handsince the national lockdown was imposed on March 9th—Italian authorities have now fined more than 40,000 citizens for breaching the Prime Minister’s order. In the city of Aosta (located in the north of Italy), for example, a patient did not communicate that he was experiencing symptoms of a Coronavirus-like infection to the hospital and underwent a plastic surgery. He was later diagnosed with Coronavirus, and he is now responsible for having infected a surgeon, a nurse, and an anesthesiologist.

Politicians, especially in the south of Italy, have reported numerous groups of people behaving irresponsibly. The mayor of Bari, Antonio Decaro, spotted a group of young people hanging out together in a park; he had to ask them to avoid gatherings and to respect the security measures. Gianfilippo Bancheri, the mayor of Delia (in Caltanisetta in Sicily), lamented that people were going to the grocery store too often, getting gas for their vehicles, and having barbecues together. 

In Lombardy, the most affected region in Italy, data collection from the tracking of citizens’ phones pointed out that more than 40% of residents were ignoring the government’s appeal to stay in the proximity of their homes. On March 18th, the regional president of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, once more had to ask citizens to stay at home. Otherwise, more stringent and aggressive policies would have to be applied.

Unfortunately, individuals need to sense acutely the risk their behavior carries to their own lives—and not just to the lives of others.

Indeed, on the evening of March 21st, Lombardy authorities had to enact these more restrictive measures. All unnecessary business activities are now banned; citizens can only perform individual outdoor fitness activities in the immediate vicinity of their apartments, and now it is strictly prohibited to form groups of more than two people in public places. These measures, in Lombardy, will apply until April 5th; however, the government is already working on extending the period of quarantine for the entire country. If extended, this will most likely apply until April 18th. Right now, however, we are unable to predict whether these stricter lockdown policies will, indeed, work.

All of this raises the suspicion that the messaging that has been used by Italian politicians, thus far, has been of no use—when the intention is to convince people to stay at home. As such, I would like to analyze one of the latest appeals by president Fontana to the people of Lombardy. What follows is an English translation of his Italian words: “Friends, nobody is asking you to make sacrifices in vain. We are asking you to make a sacrifice to save human lives. Perhaps, you haven’t understood it yet. But any time you leave your apartments, you put your life and the life of others at risk.”

The messaging is clear. Doubtless, it is even commendable. Unfortunately, however, it is grounded in a rhetoric of altruism that does not appear to be having a hold on the Italian people. Everything is communicated from an altruistic perspective: 

  1. “We are asking you to make sacrifices” or “We are asking you to make a sacrifice to save human lives.” In a broad sense, to sacrifice means to give up your life, property, or convenience for others, all of which denotes altruism. 
  2. “Any time you leave your apartments, you put your life and the life of others at risk.” Even though Fontana’s wording touches upon the possibility of putting at risk the life of the person who chooses to leave his apartment, Fontana does not explain why. Again, his stress is upon the need for altruistic behavior.

Will altruistic rhetoric convince people to stay at home? There are two main reasons why I believe it will not (and has not). The first is because of the symptomatology of the Coronavirus infection. The second one is due to the individualistic behavior of people.

As I have already discussed on another occasion, the symptoms of the Coronavirus are not distinctive. They are not special; they resemble the symptoms of common diseases, such as the seasonal flu. Given that the Coronavirus does not cause physical aberrations or malformations—and given that it is not as horrifying a disease as some of the plagues of the past—individuals struggle to associate their behavior with the onset of the infection in a friend or relative. This is all the more true when it comes to a passerby they encounter once in their life. In other words, they don’t feel guilty for having infected another person—or for having participated in indirectly causing their death. The symptoms are, more or less, mundane rather than ghastly. 

As for the point on individualism, the dominant narrative that has been so far adopted by Italian politicians is deeply anchored in Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine is largely grounded in the concept of mercy: “the feeling that pushes individuals to help people in need.” However, it is also true that the Church has been losing appeal over time in Italy. Statista reports that in 2018, 14.3 million Italians attended religious services at least once a week—4 million less than did in 2006. These numbers become even more significant if we consider that in 2018, many attendees were over the age of 75 years old—and that those between 18 and 24 years were least likely to attend. Perhaps this decline in religiosity in Italy might, in turn, suggest the declining resonance of these sorts of altruistic appeals. 

A political discourse that focuses on the need for reducing the spread of the virus is doomed to failure. The only effective solution politicians are left with to convince individuals (especially younger people) that it is better to stay at home is instead an “individualistic” or “egoistic” rhetoric. Such an alternative—if adopted by Italian politicians—might sound as follows: 

“Please, don’t leave your apartments. If you walk around, you exponentially increase the odds of killing yourself. This is suicidal behavior. If you hang around, you may eventually contract and spread the virus. You may develop a flu-like condition and be lucky enough not to develop severe symptoms. However, all the people you may have infected are now spreading the virus. Among them, vulnerable subjects have been hospitalized. They are growing at an unprecedented number. What would happen to you, if you suddenly required hospitalization for other reasons? You may not find a bed in the nearest hospital. The healthcare system is already overloaded. In the best case scenario, you will suffer permanent damage. In the worst case, you will die.” 

Unfortunately, individuals need to sense acutely the risk their behavior carries to their own lives—and not just to the lives of others. As a basic principle, we always care most about our own safety, security, and health. In the time of a silent but dangerous virus, we need to rely upon the individual’s self-preservation instinct to save other lives.

Simone Redaelli is a molecular biologist working on his PhD at the University of Ulm in Germany. He is Vice-Director at Culturico, where his writings cover literature, sociology, philosophy, and science. He can be reached at simred@hotmail.it 

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