Second World Problems: Transnational (Mis)communication in a Global Pandemic

I’ve done my bit of shitting myself. I’ve done my bit of raging. Call it ironic; now that shit is about to hit the fan here in Scotland, I’m the calmest I’ve ever been. We saw it coming. We’ve been watching it hurl itself towards us for two whole months. We knew its exact trajectory, velocity, shape, and consistency. We could have whipped up a biodegradable poop bag the size of Uranus this whole time, but we didn’t. And now we’re here.

I’m not here to point fingers. From government officials, to panic-buyers who accused others of panic-buying, we all have something to learn from this pandemic. Not least is that you risk infection if you don’t stop touching your (door) knob with your filthy, filthy hands.

Everyone turned into a SARS-CoV-2 expert overnight. But, since I’ve already spammed Facebook more than your mom did your family group chat, I consider myself the expertest of the experts. And, as the expert, I would like to direct our attention to something else other than our failure to contain the disease. I’d like to talk about why many failed to take it seriously.

Some have mentioned the neo-orientalist othering of the Chinese experience. With racist attacks on the rise since the start of the outbreak, I do believe there is truth to this idea. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has hijacked this narrative and framed itself as the victim in an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ contest. So, out of spite, I am going to looking at other ways that communication might have broken down. In other words, why didn’t information translate into awareness?

With that in mind, I had a (virtual) chat with three Italians living here in the UK and asked them what they think about this. Please note that the interview started before nationwide quarantine was announced in the UK.

 

Q: How do you think the UK Government and the public reacted to the crisis?

GC: I think the UK should have acted faster. I think they had two weeks of advantage compared to other countries. They knew what they should have done, and they could have done it faster to avoid the now unavoidable death of a lot of people. On the same note, up until last Friday people were still taking the tube in London as if nothing was going on: sneezes and coughs were flying about and people did not realise the importance of the global health emergency because the government did not do anything. Whilst at the same time more than a thousand people had already died in Italy… I tried to talk to my friends here, tried to explain the importance of the problem. Not a lot of people took it seriously because they just thought that we were being paranoid (when in reality we were just closely observing what was happening in our home country).

I still feel quite frustrated about people’s reactions as some are continuing to only follow the government’s guidelines to a certain extent (e.g. they do wash their hands but they do it for less than 20 seconds, or they still go out to shop even though they have a cough because they are in denial – most people who have a cold these days tend to say that it’s not COVID-19, whereas statistically its really plausible that it is).

SZ: To be honest, I think it’s cruel and downright foolish how Johnson has advised people to stay home but refused to close down pubs, cafes and other hospitality services so workers and owners won’t be able to claim insurance and many of them will have their main source of income cut off abruptly. I think it’s going to be extremely damaging to small businesses here. I’m glad everybody has finally been urged to stay home now, but I do wish they would implement stricter measures (aka at the very least closing down all public spaces and non-necessary shops, even without completely limiting people’s freedom of movement). I was enraged and so, so worried when I first read the government wasn’t going to implement any kind of restrictions a few days ago. I was quite open about how distressing it all was, and people were very understanding, I have to say.

GP: I’ve talked with friends, but it was kind of difficult to find the right words and also ten days ago very little was being done outside of Italy. And when other EU countries started taking strict measures it was sometimes a bit frustrating for me to hear people talk about it because it was fine but too late!

I have to say, I went to Lidl this morning and it’s super annoying how here people don’t seem to care about keeping distance. It’s really risky. The way people discussed the situation in Italy here with me is usually good. People usually want to make sure my family are ok and are genuinely interested in trying to understand why it got so bad in Italy. But I guess what is hard for them is to realise that it is going to be the same here, too.

Q: What do you think made the UK government and the British public react in such a way and not realise the severity of the pandemic?

GC: I think more individual responsibility needs to be taken – however this comes with information and a lot of people are really ignorant on the topic, which is a shame because the government should have made its people more aware given what was already happening in other countries. I think the UK wanted to follow its own policy and trust its own (wrongfully formulated) science rather than taking advantage of the knowledge from other countries. I think this is the consequence of the right-oriented and nationalistic, pro-Brexit government that is in place here right now.

And, of course, since the government was not advertising the severity of the pandemic because their science suggested that it was going to be OK, people were consequentially unaware of everything, hence their shallow reaction. I think people are less to blame. Rather, the government should have strongly advertised the severity of the problem and established serious measures earlier.

SZ: At the end of the day I can’t entirely blame many people for not grasping the gravity of the situation immediately because I did exactly the same. I think in these cases denial is often the first coping mechanism people jump to and we’ve all done it, even my family and friends back home.

 

In the end, it’s all too easy to blame other people for going out while still going out ourselves. No one wants to be the weirdo who cancels plans and stops shaking hands with folk way ahead of the curve. Still, in these stressful times, I’d just like to mention all my fellow international students who may have already witnessed this happen once in their home country, who are now watching the nightmare unfold once again. When people around them fail to listen, the frustration that comes with it can easily pile on existing trauma. This is something that has been happening to refugees and asylum-seekers even before the pandemic. Now, as COVID-19 threatens to tear through refugee camps at the EU border, we must learn to pay attention and act early.

[Ka Leung – she/her]

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