News of the outbreak reached me when I was in the UK with my son for his 21st birthday. A significant rise in the number of cases of coronavirus was reported in Lombardy. Milan’s mayor ruled that schools and public buildings should close as a precaution.
My son studies literature and film at the University of Warwick. The university is in fact closer to the city of Coventry than it is to Warwick. It was Coventry that inspired the 1981 song Ghost Town by The Specials, reflecting the rise in unemployment at the time.
My flight back to Milan last night was three-quarters empty. And I landed in another ghost town. The streets quiet. The Duomo closed. The supermarket shelves depleted. (I had stockpiled my muesli but, catastrophically, had no milk.)
From what I know of the coronavirus, it is a bad variation of the flu, leading in some cases to the onset of pneumonia. It started in China, but its highly infectious nature has resulted in its spreading internationally, with Italy seemingly worst hit in Europe.
The virus appears to have a low mortality rate and most fatalities are among the elderly, with victims in their late seventies and eighties. The spike in Italy is at least partly due, as the prime minister has admitted, to the amount of testing being done.
Roberta Siliquini, former president of Italy’s health council, is quoted in The Guardian as saying: "We have found positive cases in people who probably had few or no symptoms and who may have overcome the virus without even knowing it."
So, perhaps the high figures in Italy reflect the high rate of testing rather than the reality of the disease’s spread. What is certain is that a sense of fear has gone viral, generating a collective hysteria in the media and a second contagion in social media. The issue is clearly an emotive one.
Given that the virus seems a particularly virulent strain of the flu – from which thousands die every year anyway – why the extreme measures, including lockdowns and closures? The answer, of course, lies in the course that my son is pursuing, and has to do with narrative.
Logic might dictate that, because many more die from smoking-related diseases in Italy and from bike accidents involving cars, and given the known impact of pollution on the health of the population, the mayor might prefer to act and save more lives by banning smoking, introducing designated bike lanes and taking drastic action to curb pollution.
The trouble is that smoking-related deaths, pollution and climate change – whatever the statistics may say – are less vivid and do not lend themselves to apocalyptic drama, while a virus can frighten people with the sensationalist tropes of a horror movie.
The idea of a foreign disease easily transmissible, spreading across a population, holds people captive to a primitive fear of the plague. The image of people with face masks collapsing in the street, the urgent search for a cure, the prospect of doctors in hazmat suits and zombie-like patients is compelling in the way that other more chronic problems are not.
The coronavirus represents a crisis because it preys on people’s emotions. Politicians feel they have to act, to show they are responding, especially with elections looming. Fuelled by fake news and rumour, a corresponding fever pitch is generated in the media.
No one writes to me about how the pollution in Milan threatens thousands of lives, or about all the deaths from smoking or bike accidents. But the moment the virus hit, I received dozens of emails and messages, including a text with the emoji of a mouth mask.
Statistically, there is little logic to it. Even if people know what they should think, they might feel very differently. Whether you’re a politician or a school principal, it is easy to deal with rational arguments, but much more difficult to respond to irrational fears.
Such is the immense power of narrative. The antagonist is not a factory or a cigarette or speeding car. The antagonist is an invisible menace made in China – a postmodern version of the 19th century’s "Yellow Peril", with all the inherent prejudice that attends it.
Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief when the crisis is over. And we can go back to the relative inaction on bike lanes, lung cancer and the slow but inexorable heat-death of the planet. This is not to belittle the effects of the virus, merely to put them into context.
We will of course follow advice, but if it were my choice, I’d be opening schools, not closing them; teaching children the difference between facts and opinion, reason and emotion; and educating students about what really matters when it comes to a nation’s health.
On the escalator in the airport last night, I saw a young couple, both wearing mouth masks, kissing. How wonderful that the ghost town can also host new romantic possibilities. This might be the iconic image to complete whatever narrative unfolds. We shall see.
As it is, I returned home to listen again to The Specials, and to await further news.
Dr Chris Greenhalgh is principal and CEO of the British School of Milan