Don’t Be Fooled: European Populists and Coronavirus

Don’t Be Fooled: European Populists and Coronavirus

More than 3,000 people have died from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, with the overwhelming majority of deadly cases reported in China. At the same time, the health crisis has extended far beyond Chinese borders: parts of northern Italy are on lockdown, Australians are panic-buying supplies, and even the insular Iran is battling an outbreak. 

Adding to fears is the recent announcement from the World Health Organization that the global mortality rate for COVID-19 has hit 3.4 percent. For comparison, seasonal flu tends to kill fewer than one percent of those infected. 

In a few short months, COVID-19 has grown into a frightening public health crisis of global proportions. It is, and continues to be, a story of human resilience and personal tragedy. What COVID-19 isn’t, however, is a political opportunity. 

That’s what makes the recent calls from Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, so despicable. 

“If [Prime Minister Giuseppe] Conte is not able to defend Italy and Italians, he should step aside,” Salvini demanded at the end of last month, “The infection is spreading. I want to know from the government who has come in and gone out. We have to seal our borders now.”

At the same time, an influx of fear mongering and uninformed headlines, articles and other online media have come to dominate the majority of Italian media. Expert medical voices are rarely featured on talk shows and TV programmes. 

“Uncontrolled flows of scientifically unfounded or completely false claims, irresponsible statements by politicians, incomprehensible measures by local authorities and obsessive information on the coronavirus have given rise to a shameful wave of sinophobia in our country,” Gianni Ruffini, general director of Amnesty International Italia, announced this morning.

In recent weeks, Salvini has been blatantly exploiting the COVID-19 outbreak to attack the Conte government over inflows of migrants and refugees to Italy. On 24 February, he shared an alarmist video on Facebook against the arrival of the non-profit Ocean VIking ship with 274 rescued migrants on board outside Pozalla port, Sicily. 

Operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, the Ocean Viking is currently under 14-day quarantine. Salvini has so far used COVID-19 as a political argument to call for the closing of Italy’s borders under the guise of containing the coronavirus.

In a similar vein, a humanitarian flight from Niger organised by Catholic organisation Caritas and the UNHCR was cancelled on 25 February for “precautionary” reasons in spite of the fact that no coronavirus cases had been reported on the African continent at the time. Of the sixty-six people readying to board the flight, many had endured time in Libyan prisons and, despite being cleared to fly to Rome on amnesty grounds, their paths to new lives have been delayed until further notice. 

In Greece, lawmakers have already leapt on COVID-19 as an anti-migration opportunity. In a move that came as a shock to many, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week upgraded border controls to the “maximum deterrent” level to apparently curb migrants affected with coronavirus from entering the EU. 

“Migration is now taking on a new dimension, as flows to Greece include people from Iran- where we have had many cases of Coronavirus- and many passing through Afghanistan,” Mitsotakis said of his decision, “Our islands, therefore, already burdened with public health issues, need to be protected twice.” 

Salvini’s open hostility toward migrants- regardless of their origin or circumstance- was a hallmark of the League’s time in government. Last month, the Italian senate voted to strip the politician of his legal immunity in an abuse of power investigation tied to an episode in 2019 where Salvini blocked 131 migrants from disembarking a coast guard boat in Sicily. 

At the same time, Salvini has been shamelessly campaigning for fresh elections since his party was pushed out by a surprise coalition between the Five Star party and center-left Democratic Party last August. It appears he views COVID-19 as having been served to him on a silver platter. 

“The very nature of the crisis we are witnessing plays into his narrative,” says Cecilia Emma Sottilotta, a professor at the American University of Rome, “it’s about controlling the movement of people, which is what he’s been arguing for in the first place.” Even though migrants travelling to Italy through the Mediterrean have a low risk of suffering from COVID-19, Salvini is pursuing a seriously tenuous link between the movement of people and the spread of virus. 

Even those who have long built a life in Italy are at the receiving end of distressing sinophobia in the form of attacks, insults and business boycotts nationwide. Near the Trevi fountain, a bar posted a notice banning “all people coming from China”, while a music school in Rome told East Asian students to stay home from class to avoid incidents of racism. In Bologna, a 15-year-old Chinese Italian boy was punched and kicked in the face, accused by his attackers of carrying COVID-19 to the country. 

COVID-19 is already an international tragedy, and cause for fear for most of the global population. That the European populist movement would see the current public health crisis as an opportunity to sow further fear and discord is nothing short of revolting.

Joanna Eva is a London-based analyst and contributor with a range of clients in the risk consulting industry. She specializes in Asian political and economic analysis, having lived and travelled extensively in the region for close to a decade. She holds a Master of Law from the University of New South Wales and received her Bachelor of International Studies from the University of Sydney. She is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese.

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