How coronavirus became a propaganda tool for Matteo Salvini and Italy’s far-right

Fake news and narratives about the Italian-Chinese community, migrants and refugees as disease carriers have surged since the outbreak, giving way to more extreme anti-immigration sentiment

Angelo Boccato
Friday 28 February 2020 12:21 GMT
Two more people test positive for coronavirus ‘passed on in Italy and Tenerife’

Almost a month after the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) suspended all flights between Italy and China on 31 January, the country has found itself at the epicentre of the European outbreak of the coronavirus.

The situation has temporarily halted tensions political tensions within the coalition government, but disputes are still breaking out across party lines, including within the far-right opposition led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, leaders of the League and Brothers of Italy respectively.

Attilio Fontana, president of Lombardy and anti-immigration League member, notably clashed with Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, over the management of the coronavirus in Lombardian hospitals earlier this week, after Conte suggested the blame for the spread of the virus laid at the feet of a specific hospital in the region. While Luca Ceriscoli, Democratic Party member and president of the Marche region of Italy, unilaterally announced the shutdown of schools and universities until the beginning of March, criticising Conte’s approach to the issue, in a move potentially linked to his own uncertain future in the wake of the upcoming regional elections.

According to data from the Italian Health Ministry this week, 650 people have been infected (including 17 people who died from the virus and 45 people who were treated successfully) in 11 of the country’s 20 regions. Worrying news indeed, but in many circles, an attractive tool for propaganda. A troubling amount of uninformed and fear-mongering headlines, articles and front pages have effectively dominated the vast majority of the Italian media, while virologists and medical expert voices are hardly featured as frequently in 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, declared.

Nevertheless, Salvini has been using the spread of the coronavirus in Italy to attack the Conte government over the arrival of migrants and refugees in the country, recently sharing a video on his social media channels against the arrival of an NGO Ocean Viking ship with 274 rescued migrants aboard outside the port of Pozzallo in the province of Ragusa, Sicily.

The Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders is currently in quarantine for 14 days. Predictably, Salvini has been pushing his rhetoric to close the borders to contain the virus, while the Brothers of Italy’s Meloni has so far kept a slightly more moderate approach.

It’s worrying, given the fact that League still registers more than 30 per cent of electoral support in the polls. The only thing standing in the way of this fear-mongering is Salvini’s upcoming trial over charges of holding migrants at sea on the Italian Coast Guard Gregoretti ship. Luckily for him, and unfortunately for those who belong to communities targeted by his party, a senate vote on authorising yet another trial for Salvini, this time on charges of multiple kidnapping and abuse of official acts in the case of Open Arms, was recently narrowly avoided. Initially expected on 27 of February, it had to be rescheduled as a League senator put himself in quarantine due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since the recent outbreak, the Italian-Chinese community in Italy has found itself targeted in a disturbing rise of sinophobic sentiment with attacks, insults and boycotts of businesses all over the country. With news of more cases and spreading panic by the day, the community may become even more vulnerable. ​

As much panic surrounds the outbreak, it has given the Italian far-right an easy platform to relaunch its agenda in preparation for upcoming regional elections. Fake news and narratives about migrants and refugees as disease carriers are growing in popularity.

As journalist Eleonora Camilli of Redattore Sociale has reported, a humanitarian flight from Niger organised by the Catholic association Caritas and the UNHCR that was expected to land in Fiumicino, Rome on 25 of February had to be cancelled due to precautionary measures, despite the fact that the passengers were screened and checked accurately.

At the time, there were no reported cases of the coronavirus from the African continent. But among the Italian far-right, and the European far-right in general, those details don’t seem to matter. What does, are opportunities to exploit the situation. As a Twitter thread put together by journalist Daniel Trilling points out, for example, the “Greek government is now citing the coronavirus as a reason to press ahead with its pre-existing plan to build detention centres for migrants in the Aegean.”

General attitudes towards migration are hardening as we speak. In this climate of post-truth and fear, the Italian far-right, and more broadly the global one has found its own patient zero to rebrand and relaunch a campaign of hate.

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