Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Italy Under the Coronavirus Attack: the Return of the Plague Spreaders


This post is about how Italy is reacting to the diffusion of the COVID-19 epidemics that arrived during the past few days in the Northern regions of the country. Among other effects, it generated a wave of hate on social media comparable to what had happened in Italy at the time of the bubonic plague, in Milano during the 17th century. That epidemics was widely attributed to evil plague-spreaders ("untori"), so much that a "column of infamy" -- shown above -- was erected to commemorate the execution of two of them.

(Italian version of this post)

Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) was one of the greatest Italian writers in history, known also outside Italy for his novel The Betrothed ("I Promessi Sposi"). Manzoni lived well before the existence of social media and, in his times, even newspapers were something new. But he was a fine observer of society and I would go as far as to say that he could be seen as one of the early creators of the science we call today "memetics," the science of the diffusion of ideas ("memes").

In The Bethroted and the later historical essay "A History of the Column of Infamy," Manzoni told the story of the bubonic plague that struck Milano in 1629-1631. Hitting a society already weakened by a previous famine and by the disaster of the 30 years war, the plague took a toll of nearly 50% of the population. Those who experienced it fell prey to a delusion that led them to think that the plague was caused by the actions of evil people termed the "untori", a well-known word in Italian but hard to translate into English. Literally, it means "greasers," and it refers to people who would spread poisonous substances over people and things in order to spread the infection -- the term could also be translated as "plague-spreaders." The greasers were supposed to engage in infecting people because they were possessed by the devil, maybe for political or economic gains, or simply because they were evil.

The novel and the essay by Manzoni provide an amazing account of how the untori meme spread among the citizens of Milano to the point that several innocent people were lynched in the street. Others were accused, tortured, and forced to confess their pretended crimes. Then they underwent trials that were nothing more than witch-hunts (in this case, greaser-hunts). Several were executed and, in one case, a stone column ("The Column of Infamy") was erected to commemorate the execution of two of them.

In this story, we can immediately recognize our world: the existence of the evil greasers is a classic example of fake news. The aggressive reaction of the public is something we see every day on our social media where, fortunately, people are not lynched for real (so far). An especially interesting touch by Manzoni is the fictional character of Don Ferrante, a mediocre intellectual who finds a moment of popularity when he starts declaring that the plague doesn't exist or that, in any case, it is not contagious -- rather, it is the result of a weird astral conjunction. We recognize in this character some of our modern climate-deniers who maintain more or less the same thing about climate change. Eventually, Don Ferrante catches the plague, too, but up to the last moment he keeps denying that it exists. He dies cursing the stars!

Certain things are timeless and don't depend on the existence of the Internet or even of the printed media. But, today, for sure the Web can spread hate and fake news at an unbelievably fast speed. In Italy, the COVID-19 epidemics arrived just a couple of days ago and the social media are already exploding in a wave of hate against the current untori, supposed to be the Greens, the Government, the Communists, Immigrants, Africans, and in general the "do-gooders" (in Italian, buonisti) who did nothing to avoid the spreading of the pandemics when it was still possible to stop it.

Overall, the coronavirus is a threat that can't be even remotely compared to the bubonic plague, but the reaction of many people is about the same: they want blood. They are stating that clearly in their comments (just one example I read yesterday: "I am a mother, if my children catch the coronavirus, you Communists will die first!). Curiously, these are often the same people who accuse climate scientists of being "alarmists."

In the beginning, the leaders of the Italian Right seemed to be willing to ride the issue and use it as a tool to make the current left-center government fall. But it seems that they are now somewhat backtracking, leaving the task of fanning the flame to their overexcited henchmen. So, cool heads may still prevail and we won't see people lynched in the street accused of being untori (but we did see physical attacks on people looking Chinese -- fortunately without victims, so far). The situation is rapidly evolving and we'll see what happens in the coming days.

One thing that's already clear, anyway, is that the current political system, polarized as it is, makes it impossible to face emergencies without exaggerating the threat or, conversely, denying it. In every case, one of the two sides is tempted to ride the issue to gain traction in the political game. That's a disaster that leads nowhere. We are seeing it well for climate change and not just in Italy: with this decisional system, we can't control anything. We can only hope for the best (a concept expressed in Italian as trusting "lo stellone" the great star of Italy).

Note: Manzoni was not a prolific writer. Apart from poems, he left us one novel, two tragedies, and one long essay. All are absolutely worth reading. In particular, if you have time, read Manzoni's Adelchi. The story of this Longobard prince is written in a style that for us is a little unusual, but it is a powerful story, truly epic and human at the same time. It prefigures our modern fascination with the Middle Ages. More on this subjec on my blog "Chimeras"


  1. As with most challenges we face today, the risk of human response is greater than the actual risk itself...

    1. 'Our principle problem is the psyche of man'. Jung.


  2. "Interestingly, in the past, U.S. universities and NGOs went to China specifically to do illegal biological experimentation, and this was so egregious to Chinese officials, that forcible removal of these people was the result. Harvard University, one of the major players in this scandal, stole the DNA samples of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens, left China with those samples, and continued illegal bio-research in the U.S. It is thought that the U.S. military, which puts a completely different spin on the conversation, had commissioned the research in China at the time. This is more than suspicious."


    Obviously, Manzoni's fiction became reality in our time. "Untori" are reality.

  3. This all reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut's SF novel "Cat's Cradle", published in 1963, the year I was born. This is all about misuse of science. USA, The Empire of Evil, is such threat to the free world that it must be destroyed by any means necessary. Including nukes. The world will be much better place without disgusting USAians.

    1. They are disgusting, I fully agree, the pitiless manipulators and killers.

      But the world will never be a nice place:

      'A beautiful, but very dangerous, planet' Doris Lessing.

      Reading about Stone Age-level people, I have been appalled, and rather depressed, by the stupidity and everyday violence they exhibit. Like a bad TV show on common dysfunctional families.....

      And that, my friends, is simply Nature.

  4. Point of view from Mario Cavalo, family from the Basilicata region of Italy, born in New York, living in China for last 2 decades...

    "When the United States 2009 H1N1 swine flu emerged, it eventually infected 60 million and initially killed a minimum of 18,449 cases that year. But the final story of the H1N1 global pandemic was far worse than that, with close to 300,000 deaths, according to the final tallies in 2012 reported by the CDC...

    During 2009 H1N1 outbreak, I don’t recall xenophobic anti-America attacks across the globe, do you? In fact, do you recall it took six months for the U.S. to declare a national emergency? Did any government from the onset in April 2009 through the end in April 2010, including the month of June, when H1N1 was declared an international emergency global pandemic, then send out a notice to its citizens that they should leave the United States? Close their borders to American travelers? Nope, not a peep...

    So during the 2009 outbreak, was anyone accusing the American medical and government authorities of hiding the numbers? Were Americans with hidden cameras strolling into the Mayo Clinic to PROVE how many people were really dying?

    Something’s not right here folks. The world should be applauding China’s unprecedented, broad, aggressive response. (WHO officials and many other government and healthcare officials across the globe are.) I am on the ground here in China READ IT HERE watching with my own eyes and it is quite incredible by any measure, not to mention an enormous economic sacrifice...

    And here’s the mic drop for you: “The CDC researchers estimate that the H1N1 2009 pandemic virus caused 201,200 respiratory deaths and another 83,300 deaths from cardiovascular disease associated with H1N1 infections.” Total: 284,000 deaths. Shocking, isn’t it?

    Was there a travel ban for any length of time to and from the United States?

    Did China, Germany, Japan or any other country close their border to American travelers?

    Today I noticed in the updates that following the United States Department of State policy suggesting U.S. citizens leave China, the United Kingdom embassy just released the same recommendation to subjects of the kingdom.

    In 2009, did UK subjects in America get a notice from their kingdom to leave America? No.

    Did the world suggest we isolate from America? Close the U.S. borders!? No.

    Did Americans get xenophobically attacked and targeted by anti-American sentiments like the Chinese are experiencing now? Um, no....

    Its impossible not to marvel at China’s broad and aggressive domestic response directed by the provincial level governments to restrict movement, restrict transportation, restrict business for a period of time combined with the voluntary dutiful cooperation of its 1.3 billion citizens who are in the majority quietly staying at home these weeks to let the virus pass; this model response is already being hailed by the international community as a remarkable unprecedented response setting a new standard in understanding what is possible for future outbreaks in whatever country they may occur. Is it inconvenient and costly. You bet...."

  5. Michel Foucault's text about the plague might be an interesting read on many levels right now:

  6. Human nature is, after all human nature.

    But, you know, the Left have a lot coming to them: years of contempt for ordinary, sensible unideological people, calling for the elimination of white culture, the cult of sexual perversion, denying the obvious reality of civilisational decay and the rise of immigrant crime.

    They have, through arrogance and imbecility, done a great deal to build their own gallows.

    One can say this, of course, of the career political class in general, Left or Right; also scientists, who have lost nearly all the credibility they once enjoyed through promiscuous espousing of fads and subservience to the pharmaceutical industry.

    And just look at the immense damage done to the credibility of the WHO in their handling of this crisis! I used to know top people there, in Geneva, and they are political, ideological and corrupt through and through (their field workers of course are far better as human beings and often noble medical professionals).

    Ugly, but all predictable.

  7. "Its impossible not to marvel at China’s broad and aggressive domestic response directed by the provincial level governments to restrict movement, restrict transportation, restrict business for a period of time combined with the voluntary dutiful cooperation of its 1.3 billion citizens who are in the majority quietly staying at home these weeks to let the virus pass; this model response is already being hailed by the international community as a remarkable unprecedented response setting a new standard in understanding what is possible for future outbreaks in whatever country they may occur. Is it inconvenient and costly."

    Yea, OK, but one can't marvel at how it all got started with those in the know supressing the knowledge of the beginings of the spreading virus. We also must wonder did the virus escape from the level 4 bio lab that is very close to the first outbreak. I realize many are accusing the US of planting the virus in a Bio attack. I would not put it past some rogue elelments in the deep state but I doubt it. The reason I say this is because China is perfectly capble of determining a bio attack so if it were we would likely be in a WWIII situation now. The Chinese leadership have been very secretive probably for a reason and the reason could be a BIO lab coverup.

  8. It's no secret that many countries have bio-weapons labs. If you know that your enemy has it, and that he plans to attack you, you will, of course, react and try to develop something similar for retaliation. That's how USSR developed nuclear arms. To protect itself from USA attack. But the culprit is always the one that started the race, not the one that reacts.

    There is no doubt that China prepares for the reaction to USA attack, but as I said, they have no motive to attack neither their own population nor foreigners. The one that has motive and long history of criminal behavior is USA, not China.

  9. As for the reaction, the one who is attacked can choose the timing of the reaction. The reaction doesn't need to be immediate. Chinese first must fight the epidemic. May be they need time to develop some nasty bio weapon to retaliate.

  10. "The one that has motive and long history of criminal behavior is USA, not China."

    China has a long history of criminal behavior but it was mostly internal. I guess that is not important to some people. These days China is increasingly engaged in criminal behavior outside its borders. This behavior is not as evident as the typical abusive US behavior of the years of interference in other countries. The new Chinese behavior is right now economic through its silk road. Countries are being trapped in dubious projects that are mainly a way for China to export over capacity of things and people. With this growth of China outside its borders is the increasing effort at control for their self-interest. This is nothing like the obvious American kind but it is increasing. The Chinese have few morals with stealing and stomping out trade adversaries because the Chinese mentality is China first. This is cultural for 1000's of years. How does this relate to the virus? The virus could set back China 20 years internally and externally. The west will suffer too but it has been in decline. Now globalism that China saved 12 years ago will have its biggest test and likely lose. Mix in populism, pandemic effects, and a declining China and globalism will now take on a new shape. That shape will be less productive and also less pervasive. It is still unclear if this transition can occur because globalism is brittle to change. We are not there yet but heading in this direction. Nothing in the recent past compares not even the 08 crisis.

    1. China is being paid for the hard work of it's people with mountains of worthless US bonds. It's perfectly normal that it wants to put this junk to use, at least some of it. (there is too much of this junk in their reserves). Now, Serbia needs "investments" and Chinese are the ones that ask lowest interest. Serbia also needs higher GDP to get better economic rating so that it can pay lower interests on credit. And last, but not the least, Serbia is interested in silk road for strategic reasons. If Euro-Asia build these roads than sea routes loose it's importance and old hegemons which are enemies of Serbia,like UK and US, with their sea routes monopoly are "kaput". Of course, there is risk that Serbia will not be able to repay Chinese credit for infrastructure and that it will loose collateral agreed with Chinese. But the worst option for Serbia (and many other countries) is to accept malevolent and criminal US domination. Nothing of this has anything to do with my views about limits to growth. I know that the growth can not last forever, but at this moment the priority is to destroy enemy and the real enemy of the free world is US. US Americans are the most hated people on this planet. Not even their "allies" like them. In no time they accomplished to make enemies out of Serbs that were earlier friendly towards them. They are not only evil and arrogant, they are stupid too.

    2. Chinese grabbed the one opportunity and suddenly they are the bad guys, not the Westerners who were robbing the world for centuries! They are the ones who want to perpetuate the dreaded "industrialism"! From your comment it is obvious that you want them harm, that you want their economy to default. But if you wish them harm, how can you expect that they wish you well? What I see here is that US Americans don't want to pay the face value of the bonds that Chinese hold. They want to kill the Chinese before the bonds mature. The same thing that Italians did. They did not want to pay the oil to Gadafi, but they were not brave enough to kill him. They waited until others joined in this criminal enterprise, French and USAians. Italians proved to be great opportunists. Under the umbrella of other mighty criminals Italians got rid of the debt they owned to Gadafi.

      No my friend, although I am not especially fond of Chinese, they are not my enemies. But the Westerners are.

  11. "A wave of hate against the current untori, supposed to be the Greens, the Government, the Communists, Immigrants, Africans, and in general the "do-gooders"...

    In America we have this from our religious right echo chamber:

    “We say to that virus that the hands of the Lord have come to clap against you and destroy you, and we say that it shall be quarantined by the mercy of the living God....And we say, ‘Lord, Let the angels of the most high go forth to be commissioned, to walk, and to benefit those that are heirs of salvation.’ ”

    My way or the hi-way in Jezzus talk.

    I hope with you cool heads prevail but modern society has not know a pandemic. Madness and modern untori will do much damage and conspiracy finger pointing could ruin the learning of any lessons this experience teaches.

  12. Don't blame China for our current mess. Blame the CCP.

    It's grossly unfair to say China has been culturally an immoral nation for millennia. At least since the 10th century AD premodern China has left the rest of the world alone -- even though during the 14th to 15th centuries she was perfectly capable of subjugating the rest of the world and creating a world-spanning empire (like the Europeans did later). Also, China always had very little slavery (compare Europe). Scholar Junius Rodriguez said as much. Jewish communities also thrived in China for centuries without fear of persecution.

    It was the intrusion of the Europeans in the 19th century -- funded and instigated by, among others, a Jew named David Sassoon (so much for gratitude) -- that destabilised the premodern Chinese sociopolitical order, leading ultimately to its dissolution. Political opportunists arose, one of the most godless of them, the CCP, being the one eventually to seize power on the mainland. The rest is history.

    1. We are dealing here with "circulus vitiosus". Westerners are harming other peoples, and infecting them with their greed, so others react in the same way and the circle continues. Because nobody has unlimited tolerance to Western greed and evil. It's only a question of time when others will react. And how they will react. In the case of Russia, China and former Yugoslavia the reaction was in the form of Leninism.

      As I explained recently on local Serbian forum, Marxism has an addition which is called Leninism. When leftist of the late 19th century understood that Socialist Revolution will never happen in spontaneous way (as Marx fantasized) Lenin developed an idea that the war is ideal situation for leftist opportunists to seize power. That's how destructive opportunists (communists) took power in Russia, China and Yugoslavia. But note here that both ideology of Communism and Capitalism was created in the West (not in Russia and China). That's the paradox and tragedy of peoples that fell prey of these destructive ideologies. These ideologies are imported from the West.

  13. Plan Collapse,

    Great Chinese Wall is defensive structure. It was made to protect people inside from hostile invaders. It was not made to prevent Chinese from going out. It say a lot about character of Chinese people, that they are not much interested in invading others.

  14. More food for thought:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)