This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
On March 21, Guinea’s government declared an outbreak of the Ebola virus. According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) the following day, more than 140 people had already died, with a total of 208 clinical cases of Ebola registered throughout the West African country. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general, described the situation as “one of the most challenging Ebola outbreaks that we have ever faced”.
Despite health officials stressing that Ebola is not an easy virus to catch, Italy — a main point of entry into Europe for African migrants — promptly freaked out. On April 4, an official statement from the Ministry of Health declared "the activation of appropriate measures of surveillance at all international access points to Italy."
This document highlighted the need to monitor all the "official and non-official" arrivals, especially on the island of Lampedusa, a renowned transit point for immigrants trying to enter Europe, and the location of controversial refugee camps that have been criticized for their mistreatment of migrants. In response to the statement, Pietro Bartolo — the healthcare coordinator in Lampedusa — told Italian press that the latest immigrants to be rescued off the island’s coast were mainly from Libya, and therefore unlikely to be Ebola carriers.
Conspiracy theorists aren’t the only marginal group getting involved — another contingent is made up of people who just flat-out don’t like immigrants.
Several reassurances arrived from different parts of the country. The refugee center coordinator in Bolzano, a city in northern Italy, stated: “We took all the necessary precautions. What is more, the migrants coming from nations considered ‘at-risk’ left their countries way before the epidemic outbreak. Ebola has a 20-day incubation period. The refugees [who recently] arrived in Bolzano [had] been traveling for a long period of time before arriving in Lampedusa.”
Authorities in Pisa, Tuscany, also reassured their residents that there was no need to be alarmed about an Ebola outbreak in the city, where 40 immigrants arrived on the day the Guinean government released their statement.
This is what’s been happening in the real world. Unsurprisingly, the internet hasn’t taken such a rational approach. A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of conspiracy theory websites reissued the Ministry of Health’s statement, claiming it was meant to be confidential and something the government were trying to hide. Of course, being inherently paranoid, some of these conspiracy theorists started to suggest that Italy was now at the mercy of plague-spreading illegal aliens, the government intentionally keeping mum to avoid widespread panic.
UNICEF distributed 12,530 bars of soap, 4,800 bottles of chlorine, and 220,000 gloves to protect 1,700 hospital workers and their families in Guinea. Photo via Flickr.
One solution to prevent this invasion of infected immigrants was offered on the Facebook page of Catena Umana (Human Chain), an anti-Euro, anti-migrants, anti-bankers, anti-Islam group that relays bullshit to anyone dumb enough to think that caps lock and exclamation marks are universal symbols of truth. Their illuminating status reads: “STOP ALL ARRIVALS, CLOSE ALL BORDERS OR KEEP [THE MIGRANTS] IN QUARANTINE ON THE SEA. DO YOU WANT TO GIVE THE CITIZENSHIP TO EBOLA AS WELL?"
Even Morocco, they claim, “has closed its borders,” while Italians remain slaves to the “politically correct."
An anonymous letter from "an Italian Mother" (shared on a load of blogs and by thousands of Facebook users) claims that it's already too late for salvation and that the apocalypse is near. She also explains why Italy is an easy target: “We have an EXCEPTIONALLY EFFICIENT overseas taxi service, and with our DECRIMINALIZATION of the crime of illegal immigration we're the most [attractive] destination for immigrants. We offer food and a place to sleep to whoever brings us adorable presents, like tuberculosis!"
The ideal conditions for a pandemic, explains the presumably fictional mamma, are all here: “While on the boats, the immigrants are crammed one on top of the other for hours and hours, and the exchange of fluids, in those conditions, is at high risk. YOU ONLY NEED ONE INFECTED PERSON to lead us to a catastrophe."
Of course, conspiracy theorists aren’t the only marginal group getting involved, another large contingent is presumably made up of people who just flat-out don’t like immigrants. People like Alba Dorata — Golden Dawn’s Italian counterpart — who tweeted: “All everybody does is talk about useless things the truth is that Ebola is here… and we’re turning into Resident Evil… as they predicted.”
This is all complete bullshit. The only thing being spread within all this is fear — fear of immigrants and fear of the 'other.'
According to Vox News, the contamination has already crossed the Alps. This prompted a member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (known for their racist farmyard promotional material) to ask to control the border between Italy and Switzerland to protect the health of his population. The article’s closing statement couldn't be more clear: "If we carry on with the Mare Nostrum operation [the initiative launched to save the lives of migrants whose boats have capsized while trying to reach Italy], it won't be long before other European countries — the mentally healthy ones — put us in quarantine.”
The peak of this hysteria was reached a few days ago, when CorriereSalute.org broke the news of Lampedusa’s first Ebola case, claiming that police had quarantined the island. After receiving over 20,000 likes in a number of hours, the article was removed at “the insistence of the national security.”
The website now states: “In the island of Lampedusa, there is no sign of contagion,” which has more than likely been the correct information all along, but is bound to have all those chemtrail theorists salivating for the next couple of weeks.
This week, another website — VNews24 — alerted readers to the “curious case of San Rossore”, a first aid centre in Pisa that “completely locked down due to 40 immigrants showing strange symptoms.” They’re the same 40 migrants I mentioned earlier, and the “strange symptoms” were actually just a fever. You can generally expect that kind of thing when you haven’t slept or eaten for days, which — according to a local council member — was exactly what the 40 migrants had gone through before arriving in Pisa.
The news of the virus making its way into Italy has also been reported by foreign websites. “With the likely arrival of Ebola in Pisa, Italy,” says one, “the European continent is now at severe risk.” Apparently not even Americans are immune, since “the virus could make its way to US shores via hundreds of international flights.”
Obviously, this is all complete bullshit. The only thing being spread within all this is fear — fear of immigrants and fear of the “other.” Ebola, unfortunately, does lend itself well to the situation; there’s no known cure, stirring up maximum alarm, and it’s seen as an “exotic” disease — one that can easily be pegged to other “exotic” stuff, like foreign people who speak a different language to you.
If there's anything to take away from this weird outbreak of pseudo-science paranoia (other than "continue to ignore conspiracy nuts"), I suppose it's to google something that scares you before sharing your reaction. Because — as is evident from the social media updates concerning the non-existent Italian Ebola pandemic — make that mistake and you look like a tool.
Follow Leonardo Bianchi on Twitter: @captblicero
Photo via Flickr