Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Media, miscellaneous

New article published on MCS Journal: Responses to health risk and suffering: ‘China’ in the Italian media discourses during the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic

Maria Paola Pofi

I am delighted to announce that the article I wrote with my supervisor Dr Wing-Fai Leung has been published in the Media, Culture & Society (MCS) Journal and is available to download for free here (link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/01634437211053770).

Media, Culture & Society

The opportunity to start this research project arose during my PhD fieldwork in Rome (in February 2020), which was disrupted by the unexpected spread of the Covid-19 disease across the country. Being in Italy in that period, however, enabled me to witness not only the development of the epidemic – and the resulting political, media, and public responses to it – but also the spread of xenophobic discourses and acts against the Chinese community in Italy. We have therefore decided to take this opportunity to start investigating the discursive strategies used by the Italian media to report the events related to the Covid-19 pandemic in China and then in Italy.

The Italian case is of particular interest because Italy was among the first European countries that saw the surge of Covid-19 cases, after the beginning of the outbreak in China in January 2020. Within one month, Italy assumed the role that was previously assigned to China, moving from the role of spectator to that of a major actor within a global health emergency. In our article, we focused on the early stage of this pandemic (January – March 2020) and examined the discourses around ‘China’ and ‘the Chinese’ as the focus of the Italian political, media and public debates. Employing the theoretical frameworks of Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, and other thinkers on biopolitics, racism, and emergency, the results brought to light the persistent ideologies behind the media representations of an imagined Other, which reflect existing discourses toward the Chinese community in Italy. 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/01634437211053770

The topics identified, through a critical discourse analysis of 230 Italian newspaper articles, have been arranged into three main themes: the origin of the pandemic (food markets and hygiene), the management of the pandemic (suspicions on Chinese Government), and the national responses to the pandemic (national security and biopolitics). What emerges overall from our analysis is that the media’s depiction of the events in the PRC led Italian readers to compare the country and its government (the Communist Party of China and its leader Xi Jinping) to the civic and democratic values that are attributed to the Global North. Furthermore, the labelling of the virus as a Chinese disease, the attribution of blame for the spread of the virus to Chinese disinformation, and the identification of the contagion risk from China have encouraged xenophobic acts against the Chinese and East Asians in Italy. These negative views reflect the status of the Chinese in Italy, who are welcome as economic contributors but distrusted because of their perceived lack of social and cultural contributions. The results explain why the production of knowledge about the Covid-19 pandemic as a distant event did not lead to processes of identification and emotional engagement in Italy with the challenges facing China.

Our case demonstrates how the mediation of a distant emergency fails to engender a space for the emergence of cosmopolitan empathy and transnational emotional bond; rather, it reinforces biopolitical power relations. The Italian Government’s protective measures, which at the beginning targeted Chinese people and their movements, can be seen as an extraordinary mechanism of state power legitimized to pursue Italian public health security. A sense of shared vulnerability only arose within the Italian population when the Covid-19 emergency struck Italy. The Italian response is an exemplary case in which the mediation of a humanitarian crisis appeals to the spectators only in so far as it is articulated to their community of belonging. Our study ended at a stage when these nationalistic sentiments were overtaking the narratives that justified the vilification and the elimination of the contagious Other. Italian media stories in Italy, as they pertain to the imagery of China and the Chinese, serve to remind us of the significance of the longstanding discourses of discrimination and prejudices against the Other among many nations of the Global North. While the challenge launched by a global emergency would require a collective response through the recognition of shared humanity and transnational cooperation, our analysis shows how it has conversely introduced mechanisms of national protection without leaving space for the rise of a common commitment aimed at promoting global healthcare.