One of Italy’s top virologists said in an interview with CNN that fears of being accused of racism may have played a prominent role in the Italian government’s initial refusal to close the borders to China during the coronavirus outbreak.
Dr. Giorgio Palù is one of Italy’s most prominent virologists, having served as a former president of the European and Italian Society for Virology and currently a professor of virology and microbiology at the University of Padova. He believes that the Italian government put political correctness before the health of the Italian people, which led to the “current devastating situation” in the country.
“There was a proposal to isolate people coming from the epicenter, coming from China,” Dr. Palù said in his interview with CNN. “Then it became seen as racist, but they were people coming from the outbreak.”
Dr. Palù believes that this border control failure led to the devastating situation that Italy is currently facing, with over 4,825 deaths and 53,578 infected.
According to Dr. Palù, he believes the Italian government lagged in its efforts to fight the coronavirus, saying the government was “lazy in the beginning… too much politics in Italy.”
Italy’s first confirmed coronavirus cases were Chinese tourists
To better understand Dr. Palù, it is not only important to understand China’s connection to Italy but also the way the media has covered the coronavirus crisis.
What has already been established is that Italy’s first two confirmed cases were a Chinese couple who arrived in Milan’s airport from Wuhan on Jan. 23 for a lunar new year holiday. The couple traveled across the country on a tourist bus with 100 other Chinese tourists before health authorities in Rome confirmed their diagnosis.
Only a week later, on Jan. 31, did Italy implement a full travel ban with China, but by then it was too late.
Italy is also home to 300,000 Chinese immigrants, the largest population of Chinese in all of Europe, with the majority located in Northern Italy, which now serves as the epicenter of the outbreak.
Besides the 300,000 Chinese living in Italy, 5 million Chinese tourists also visit Italy every year, making Italy the most popular destination for Chinese tourists in all of Europe.
Given the high volume of Chinese nationals too and from Italy, many believe, including Dr. Palù, that restricting China’s access to Italy much earlier would have prevented the spread of the disease in Europe or at least slowed its transmission.
The media attack Italians for ‘racism’ during Italy’s coronavirus crisis
Dr. Palù’s claim that Italy may have feared closing its border to Chinese travelers due to accusations of racism may have also partly arisen over the media’s overage of the issue. For example, the Guardian excoriated Italians who demonstrated concern about coming in contact with Asians after Italy’s first two recorded coronavirus cases were documented as Chinese tourists from Wuhan, with the article mostly discussing “incidents of xenophobia and calls to avoid Chinese restaurants and shops”.
Other liberal publications, such as the Daily Beast, claimed “hypochondriac” Italians were overreacting to their fear of Chinese out of “racism”.
China’s own state-owned news networks were also pushing a narrative in Italy about racism as well. The organization Associazione Unione Giovani Italo Cinesi, which is funded by the Chinese government, produced a number of videos before the coronavirus took hold in Italy.
In one video, posted under the hashtags #ImNotVirus and #ImHuman, features a Chinese girl runs around Milan with a placard that reads, “Hug me! I’m not a virus.” In another, a Chinese man in Florence encourages passersby to hug him while he wears a face mask. The first videos was posted on the Youtube channel New China TV, which is run by the Xinhua News Agency, the official state-owned press arm of China. The second was posted by the China Global Television Network, another state-owned broadcaster.
Some Italians took up the call from China, including Florence’s mayor, Dario Nardella, who launched a nationwide campaign to ‘hug a Chinese person’, which was featured in a video posted to China’s People’s Daily, which is also run by the Chinese government. Nardella said he was running the campaign to “stem the hatred”.
Now, as the death toll has skyrocketed, Italians and people around the world are encouraged to use social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. Hugging of any type between strangers, whether they are Chinese or not, is now out of the question in all of Italy.
Calls to close Italy’s border were attacked by the media
Other politicians in Italy voiced their concern early about China, but were attacked for their position.
The Guardian claimed that Italy’s former interior minister, Matteo Salvini had “seized on the panic to plug his anti-immigration message and attack rivals in government.”
“Every day dozens of flights arrive in Italy from China: we need checks, checks and more checks,” Salvini warned.
Salvini also said after the crisis took hold in Italy that “we were accused of racism because we asked for checks and quarantines. Talking about isolating those who came from areas at risk seemed like a dirty word in January, now according to virologists it is the only way to limit the problem.”
In another piece attacking the Italian hardline immigration politician, NBC News wrote that despite Salvini’s demands to close the Italian border, “the World Health Organization has warned that trying to restrict border security probably won’t work — and might even hinder the global fight against the virus and the COVID-19 disease it causes.”
Since NBC’s report and the WHO’s warning that “border security probably won’t work”, dozens of nations have shut their borders around the world after consulting with health authorities.
Other European leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have made a direct link to migrants and the spread of the virus in Europe. In Hungary, the first two cases were from Iranian students who disregarded university advice to self-quarantine. Since then, a total of 15 Iranian students with coronavirus infections have been deported from Hungary and the EU for violating Hungary’s quarantine rules and behaving aggressively towards medical staff.
“We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” said Orbán.
“We have seen that it was mostly foreigners who brought in the disease, and that it is mostly spreading among foreigners,” Orbán added. “It’s no coincidence that the virus first appeared among Iranians.”
China’s authoritarian communist government has a track record of hiding disease outbreaks
Italy has long maintained close ties with China. It was the first European country to begin offering direct flights to China 50 years ago. More recently, it was the first G7 country to sign on to China’s controversial One Belt, One Road project.
Italy is far from the only Western country that has embraced China in the last three decades, but right now, it is the one currently paying the most for this close relationship. China’s dangerous handling of the coronavirus crisis have revealed the threat the communist country inherently poses to the international community.
Throughout history, migration and travel have historically been tied to disease. Europeans, like any other group of people, were no exception. The most notable example being the incredible wave of death that greeted Native Americans after they were exposed to a range of diseases from European settlers. In turn, Native Americans introduced Europeans to other diseases, such as syphilis, that inflicted their own horrors on European, and later, Asian populations.
Perhaps the most famous disease in European history also had its roots in China. In 2010, genetic testing from researchers from Germany and France conclusively proved that the Black Death, which killed 30 percent or more of Europe’s population beginning in 1347 and routinely struck the continent for centuries, originated in China.
Those disease outbreaks occurred during a time before modern medicine, disease testing and tracking, and even the most basic understanding of what actually caused disease. Now, governments and scientists have significant power to influence the outcome of an outbreak. In modern times, China has been the source of some of the most deadly diseases to strike a globalized world, including SARS and bird flu, which both predated coronavirus.
While there are methods to reduce the risk of epidemics from taking off in the first place, including proper sanitation, minimizing contact with domesticated and exotic animals, and reducing the overuse of antibiotics — to just name a few — there is still always a certain element of chance regarding where a disease will arise and begin to spread.
What countries undoubtedly do have control over is providing accurate and transparent information about how a disease is progressing in their own country and then issuing warnings to other countries in the international community about that danger.
China has a horrendous track record in this regard. The country had already been criticized for its handling of SARS after it was accused of withholding information about that outbreak. As a communist and autocratic regime, China has no independent press nor a government with true accountability to its public in the form of democratic elections.
During the coronavirus crisis, China once again hid the severity of the virus and even silenced whistleblowers. Research from the University of Southhampton now shows that China could have prevented 95 percent of coronavirus infections worldwide if it had heeded the warning of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang—who first warned of coronavirus on Dec. 30—and enacted restrictive measures three weeks earlier than it did.
Instead, Chinese police punished Dr. Wenliang along with seven others for “spreading rumors” about the virus.
The evidence shows that China’s communist authorities stalled as long as it could to inform the world about the coronavirus and only did so only once they could no longer hide the severity of the disease to the international community.
In the United States, the Trump administration has been actively pointing to China’s failure to contain the virus. Former national security advisor, John Bolton, has also said that China is “responsible” for the coronavirus and that the world needs to “act” and take action against the communist nation.
“China silenced coronavirus whistleblowers, expelled journalists, destroyed samples, refused CDC help, and concealed counts of deaths and infections. It’s fact there was a massive coverup. China is responsible. The world must act to hold them accountable,” tweeted the former U.N. ambassador.
Some U.S. journalists have also been willing to take China to task for its actions. Shadi Hamid had this to write about China for The Atlantic:
The evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record. In suppressing information about the virus, doing little to contain it, and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks. More perniciously, the Chinese government censored and detained those brave doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm and warn their fellow citizens when they understood the gravity of what was to come.
Chinese migrants and tourists were already a concern during last SARS outbreak
Italian doctors have raised concerns about Chinese migrants in Italy before. For example, a report from the Journal of Emergency Infectious Diseases documented cases of malaria brought to Italy’s Lombardy province by Chinese illegal migrants—the same province currently serving as ground zero for coronavirus in Italy. In the same journal article, health authorities warned that illegal Chinese migrants posed a transmission threat to Europe regarding the deadly SARS virus, which also originated in China in 2002.
The authors of the article found clusters of malaria outbreaks among illegal Chinese immigrants, with the groups being exposed to the disease “during a prolonged journey to Europe (3–9 months) through a number of Asian and African countries.”
The report mentioned that illegal immigration from Chinese travelers posed a special danger at the time:
“Clandestine travel by air to emigrate from China, where sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is present, poses a threat for the African countries, where the introduction of SARS virus could have devastating consequences on their health systems with a potential overlap with the HIV epidemic. Other diseases could be spread or acquired by the immigrants in the countries of transit. While curtailing the huge, illegal immigrant system to Europe is difficult, we cannot overemphasize the need for a sound surveillance on imported infectious diseases in this continent.”
Although SARS only ended up presenting with four cases in Italy, in Toronto, the disease managed to spread after an elderly woman from Hong Kong, Kwan Sui-Chu, flew into Toronto after being infected with SARS. Before dying from the disease, she managed to spread it to others, which resulted in 316 infections in Toronto.
At the time, the news media was also focused on alleged discrimination of Asians in the city, but some Chinese residents expressed an element of understanding about concerns within the Toronto community:
“Since this disease has its origins in China, people have a right to be wary of us,” Jonathan Mah, a resident of Toronto of Chinese descent, told the Telegraph in 2003. “Some people say this is racial profiling but it strikes me more as prudence.”
Europe’s continued acceptance of immigrants and even tourists from communist China, a country that refuses to accurately report on the risks of pandemics that spread within its own borders, carries a bevy of risks. European decision-makers may have ignored those risks in the past, but with a disease as severe as coronavirus, it may no longer be possible to look the other way.
The current pandemic ravaging the world is only the latest import from China that has sent the entire country of Italy and the broader international community into a medical emergency that threatens to kill thousands more and financially cripple the global economy.
Only time will tell how countries like Italy and the European Union respond to China, but economic interests and accusations of racism are likely to continue to restrain leaders, journalists and policy-makers from honestly assessing the risk the communist country continues to present.