Governments of the West have declared through their unprecedented restrictions on life that what matters most is only that people merely live, and not how people live.
Since March of this year, Italians have endured a degree of hardship and distress that will likely scar the remainder of their lives. Many of their jobs and businesses have been ruined; their personal liberties have been violated like never before; their families have been separated for long periods; the education of their children has been blighted; and their physical and mental health has considerably deteriorated. All of these are the consequences of policies deemed necessary by a government that claims to act in the name of public health.
Do these developments not reveal a deep shift in our sense of proportion? Governments of the West have declared through their unprecedented restrictions on life that what matters most is not how people live, but that they merely live. What is important is not the quality of life, but only its quantity and duration. They have raised public health to the position of supreme value. Sociability, family life, work, economic stability, education, culture, and other sources of happiness and fulfilment are thus considered to be ‘non-essential’, to be removed at will from our existence like sugar from coffee.
This view suffers from two fundamental flaws. Firstly, it is a profoundly anti-humanistic conception of man and society. Its crass utilitarianism, which sees human beings not as a complex entities possessing higher needs and aspirations, but as objects of executive policy-making, poses a structural danger to our natural way of life. Prime Minister Conte’s decision on October 26 to close all theatres, concert halls, cinemas and arenas clearly highlights this view.
The decision rested on dubious scientific and factual grounding. The Italian General Association of Performing Arts (AGIS) had indeed revealed that between June 15 and the beginning of October, only one person was found to have tested positive to Covid-19 out of 347,262 audience members at 2,782 shows monitored through the Ministry of Health’s tracing app. Not only that, but most theaters, cinemas and other venues have been rigorous in applying government rules on social distancing, face-masks and limitations in audience size, which has led to insolvency for many small and independent acts.
This wanton gesture of cultural and human insensibility sparked outrage among many representatives of an industry which is a vital source of livelihood for many thousands of people, and a necessary form of escape from the artificial and dehumanizing condition in which our societies reside. In the words of Maestro Riccardo Muti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the arts are necessary during crises because they offer “food for the soul without which society blackens.”
The Maestro wrote these words in an open letter to Conte, urging him to rescind his decision. As one would expect, Conte was apologetic but unmoved. He justified his actions by appealing to the standard line of defence that these measures were necessary to protect the health-care system from being strained.
But this is not the first time we have been faced with such risks. During the 2016/2017 season, for example, almost 25,000 excess influenza deaths were recorded in Italy, and many hospitals in the North were severely overwhelmed. Although the situation may be worse, the very idea that such a reasoning should be presented not merely to limit, but to deny the freedom to seek psychological comfort in a time of crisis negates the humanistic principle on which liberal democracies are based.
The second fallacy in the government’s position is its formulation of a false dichotomy between public health and everything else. How is it possible not to recognize that a functioning, adequately-manned and stocked national health service is only possible within the shell of a flourishing and stable economy? An economy, that is, where all sectors and industries are essential. Instead, the government seems to think that a weaker tax base due to higher unemployment and lower productivity, increased public debt and recession constitute a necessary evil to maintain a healthy society.
In the same way, how is it possible to forget that the safeguarding of public health can not be limited to a single disease? According to the Italian Association of Medical Oncology, the first 5 months of 2020 saw 1,5 million less cancer screenings due to the lockdown, the health-care system’s focus on Covid-19 and people’s fear of going to hospital.
Furthermore, between March and May, 50,000 cancer operations were delayed and 600,000 surgeries in general were missed, including those to treat heart-disease and diabetes. These three ailments still cause many more deaths every year than Covid-19, and those numbers are likely to rise over the following years.
The Italian government has, along with many others, arrogated to itself a task that is quite beyond its power. It is the task of steering every aspect of the lives of 60 million people around a virus whose risk differs according to individual circumstance. It is an enormous responsibility, and one that can not conceivably be held by small group of ministers.
In carrying this heavy burden they have been overcome by its weight, lost their footing and are now attempting to regain their balance. How much collateral damage our society will suffer in the process should be feared as much as the danger of the virus itself.
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