A public health emergency like the one that disrupted the world, cancelling out all differences between East and West, cultures and countries, had been expected for some time. We were not absolutely sure whether the virus would belong to the SARS strain, or whether it would have the shape of a spiked crown – a feature linked in our minds with royalty, certainly not disease. But we knew that a minuscule virus, the size of a few microns was destined to plunge the world into chaos, forcing us to adopt lifestyles no longer familiar to us and that younger generations could not even imagine.
“Of all the tragedies visited upon the human race thus far, the great epidemics are remembered most vividly”. These words by author Elias Canetti are quoted in a seminal essay by Mario Ricciardi1 that I have drawn on amply for this brief editorial.
Canetti’s words are worth citing: “Contagion, such an important aspect of an epidemic, makes people isolate themselves from others. The best way to protect oneself is not to approach anyone since everyone might be carrying the infection. Everybody avoids everybody else. It is remarkable how the hope of surviving isolates all men: before each person stand the hordes of victims2”.

In citing authors from Canetti to Thucydides and the epidemic that struck Athens during the time of Pericles, Ricciardi pointedly highlights how, instead of invoking the supernatural or man’s wickedness, man started making scientific investigations into causes and effects, searching for the factors that can lead to an epidemic3.

Like other catastrophic events, epidemics have been a recurrent feature in the history of mankind. But epidemics differ from natural calamities in that they are very closely linked to the urban context, to trade, communication and exchange among men. It is almost as if an epidemic were the most artificial of natural disasters, forged by human activity.
The COVID emergency and the measures to contain and fight it imposed completely new ways of working and living on both the healthcare sector and society as a whole. The result was a series of completely new criticalities. From the standpoint of doctors and healthcare workers, society should not expect the enormous, potentially devastating workload to fall on just a few.
Scientific research has continued even when the emerging problems were neglected by public authorities and the press. Pursuing work started before the epidemic, the various sectors of scientific research continued their work, effectively furthering understanding of how to prevent and treat the disease. Even if not everything worked at its best, the commitment and the results of that commitment can be judged as positive4.

It should be remembered that the French historian Fernand Braudel talked pointedly about “le grand renfermement5.  The expression recalls the concept of the “great lockdown”, very pertinent to studies into the reaction to epidemics. Lockdown has also had inevitable repercussions for each country’s economy and system of production. It highlighted the need to make a choice between directly safeguarding the health of individual citizens and indirectly maintaining the status quo by sustaining productivity and consumption.
It was again Elias Canetti who said: “Every country has shown it is more willing to protect its production than its people”. For Canetti, production and consumption are the two activities before which the basic tenets of life become less important, almost to the point of being irrelevant. If Canetti is right, we should be concerned. Yet, the social distancing measures necessary during the critical phases of the spread of the infectious pathogen are without question incompatible with many forms of manufacturing and consumption on which the prosperity of our countries rests.
For many, the way the pandemic was managed was yet another indication of the perilous move towards ‘state of exception’ policies, in other words, the suspension of the legitimate political system with the ultimate aim of setting up a crypto-authoritarian regime. This argument of course needs further debate, but the basic idea is that a ‘state of exception’, or state of emergency is unable to guarantee justice6.

However, a state of emergency is not the same as a ‘state of exception’: governments are charged with making social coordination possible while at the same time ensuring rights and freedoms. This means curtailing certain rights and certain freedoms in order to ensure that every individual will as far as possible be equally protected, for emergency conditions must not equate with any relinquishing of justice.
Finally, much has been said about quarantine and its psychological and substantive impact. This does not, however, mean that quarantine should not be imposed. The psychological effects of not implementing quarantine, and so allowing the disease to spread, could be much worse.
We have to remember that the play-off between freedoms and the public good is a controversial issue and must be managed most carefully. However, those in power need to take into account issues of tolerability, understanding and solidarity.


Fabio Roversi-Monaco
President Genus Bononiae. Musei nella Città

[1] M. Ricciardi, Il ritorno del Leviatano: paura, contagio, politica, Il Mulino 2020, III.
[2] E. Canetti, Massa e potere, Milan, 1981.
[3] E. Canetti, op. cit.
[4] I refer also to the article by Gilberto Corbellini published in Sole24Ore’s Domenica of 20 September 2020.
[5] F. Braudel, Civiltà materiali, economia e capitalismo, Vol. 1, Turin, 1982.
[6] F. Saraceno, L’economia europea tra lockdown e Fondo per la ripresa, Il Mulino 2020, III.