COVID-19 and the virus of violence – by Maria Chr. Alvanou

These couple of months the world has been facing a whole new reality. The epidemic of Coronavirus became a global problem of dimensions that go far beyond the medical struggle to save lives. In the shadow of deaths, coffins and funerals there are also lockdowns and governments deciding strict police measures to control the spread of the virus (not always without criticism about constitutional legality). But along COVID 19 threatening us with death, there is also the virus of violence ready to spread in our societies.

Fear can paralyze people, but it can also lead them to do unbelievable acts in order to stay alive. Sometimes these are not acts of bravery and resilience. They are violent acts of cruelty and hostility towards others. The video of women fighting inside a supermarket just for toilet paper[1] is an example. More than that it is a sad preview of what worse could happen in case of future scarcity of basic, necessary for our survival goods, or even protective gear against the virus. How far will people go for a loaf of bread, or masks and disinfectants?

Additionally, there is the problem of viewing others as a direct threat to one’s health and life. While it is essential to follow government rules decided in order to stop the transmission of COVID 19, images from Spain have been quite shocking. Bystanders not only show lack of empathy when a female runner who broke the rules is violently arrested by the police, but they also curse her[2]. How far can we really go due to our (without doubt just) frustration against those few unruly who don’t follow the bans? Moreover, if this disease escalates beyond control, how far can we go in order to protect ourselves from catching the virus? What behavior shall we exhibit to keep the infected (or those we think are infected) far from us? In reality can this virus serve as an alibi for hate and racism? An Indian-origin man, mistaken for a Chinese, was brutally beaten up in Israel[3]. In London a young Singapore man of Chinese ethnicity sustained facial injuries, after been punched and kicked by four men[4]. Similar events have taken place also in the US, with even Asian- American children been beaten up[5]. Behind such attacks racist motives are evident, often kept alive, fed and exacerbated by fear.

The dynamics of violence in the context of Coronavirus regard also possible civil unrest and the state’s response to it. We cannot predict how long bans and restrictive measures will last for. And we don’t know the extent to which technology and surveillance mechanisms will be used by governments to ensure their decisions are enforced. Hope, trust, respect and gratitude towards the medical community (that carries out superhuman efforts) make persons stay at home and bear an unprecedented restriction of liberties. But how they could react in the future- especially should such measures stay in force for too long or not halt the virus- is unpredictable.

The matter of conflict and tension between citizens and state due to the measures taken to stop COVID19 is more complex actually. Pre- existing grievances come in to the picture, with racial discrimination (usually against the poor and unprivileged) potentially characterizing police behavior. Already in Miami the police are accused of targeting selectively certain racial groups during a violent incident trying to enforce COVID 19 measures.[6] Even if this is not the case, what matters most is the injustice perceived by people who have been treated for years with discrimination and will interpret in this way police activity related with the virus bans and curbs. Law enforcement must reflect the rule of law without discrimination or prejudice. This is mandatory during a period that can make governments look authoritative because of strict policies. The measures taken maybe necessary, yet they are hard and Western population is not used to them. Extra tension created by police brutality will create further problems states cannot afford to deal with now.  

It is also the time for citizens to show responsibility and solidarity, thinking about the needs of others too. Without doubt stories of self-sacrifice, like the one of father Giuseppe Berardelli, an Italian priest who gave up his ventilator to save the life of a younger person, [7]will always be an exception; they cannot be the rule. However, during this turbulent period we can all refrain from antisocial behavior that can do no good. Not now, not in the long run. To resist breaking the social fabric is the only way we can survive as a whole. Buying more goods than we need, depriving fellow human beings the chance to survive and cope with this situation will backfire. The same extreme expression of survival instinct will make others attack us, rob us, even kill us in order for them to stay alive. Showing antisocial behavior is not just a selfish act, it is mere stupidity.

During the outbreak in China individuals were caught on camera wanting to infect others by rubbing their spit on elevator buttons[8]. It was an absurd- but not unheard of- act of hate against those still healthy. Moreover, FBI is reported to be on alert, due to threats by extremists to spread bodily fluids carrying the virus to cops on the street and Jews anywhere they can be found.[9] Infected persons as perpetrators of criminal transmission of the Coronavirus use it as a weapon. These cases pose an extra difficulty for law enforcement to prevent and thwart.

COVID 19 is of interest to doctors and scientists, fighting to save our lives. Undoubtedly their task is the most crucial. However COVID 19 is of interest also to social scientists. The challenges posed as the disease spreads, as it alters our lives and affects our behaviour need to be met also. This is pivotal for the existence of society as we know it. It becomes more and more evident that this virus is more than a medical issue. The way we address it and react to it as organized societies and individuals is of enormous importance. While waiting with anticipation for the good news of a therapy and a vaccine, we have to preserve also the social fabric under attack by another virus, that of violence.