Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Inequalities – The Butterfly and the Cocoon: The Chinese Community of Prato (Italy) during COVID-19
Laura Leonardi, University of Florence, Italy. Giulia Marchetti, University of Western Australia
This paper examines how COVID-19 is reframing social relations between the Chinese and the Italian communities in Prato, Italy. Here the unexpected and voluntary adhesion of the Chinese community to the rules of self-isolation in times when the alarm was not yet high in Italy, raises questions as to whether some behaviours should be obtained with measures that limit the individual freedom of agency, or whether individuals are motivated to adopt them even without their freedoms being limited by external institutions.
Despite its biological origin, COVID-19 is, without risking misuse of the term, a total social fact . It is a global fact illustrating the "Butterfly Effect" metaphor, where local events can have global effects that can in turn stimulate profound changes in social relations in other local contexts . We suggest considering the local context as a cocoon for a new social formation, a result of the reframing of meanings, forms of communication, and recognition among different subjects at individual and collective levels.
With the virus spreading beyond the Chinese borders, it was immediately clear that two orders of authorities were needed: the medical authority and the political authority. The strategies that are put in place to slow down the contagion are based on the temporary suppression of physical contacts, entailing the suspension of civil rights such as the right to freedom of movement. The draconian measures put in place by the Chinese government have proved to be successful, causing in Western democracies a review of the role of the state and the limits that can be overcome or not.
Today, in our everyday lives, we are witnessing quantitative methods taking a leading role. People’s lives are marked by daily statistics releases regarding the spread of the pandemic, the death toll by age group, the number of tests carried out, and the availability of beds in intensive care. Meanwhile, social distancing has prevented social researchers from using qualitative methods that require physical interaction. The novelty of this situation requires non-traditional literature references like newspaper articles, TV programmes, and social media. A combination of participant observation and these empirical materials are the sources of this short paper.
The Chinese community in Prato: From scapegoat to saviour
The textile city of Prato in Tuscany is home to one of the most concentrated Chinese communities in Europe, with about 25,000 Chinese immigrants making up almost 13% of the total population. They are largely from Wenzhou (Zhejiang), and began immigrating in the mid-1990s. Prato also has around 6,000 Chinese-owned companies, mostly in the fast fashion sector. There have always been challenges to the integration of the Chinese community, as its presence has provoked strong anti-immigrant sentiment, which has not been deeply explored yet. It has been scapegoated for the decline of the city’s primary economic sector, the textile industry, a decline based on international economic dynamics, but whose beginnings coincided temporally with the first arrivals of Chinese people   .
Shortly after Chinese authorities reported the novel Coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province at the end of December 2019, Chinese diasporic communities around the world began experiencing verbal attacks, discrimination, and even physical aggression. In Prato, the Chinese community immediately attracted scrutiny from both national right-wing parties in the media and Prato natives in everyday life. At the end of January 2020, around 2,000 Chinese were returning to Prato after celebrating the Lunar New Year in China, and many expected Prato to become the Italian epicentre of the virus outbreak.
Chinese residents in Prato are often stereotyped as people who do not respect the law. They have been accused of flouting tax and labour laws, enabling their economic success. Yet with the COVID-19 crisis, they are now being praised as models of responsible behaviour. The mayor of Prato has publicly thanked them for enabling Prato to be one of the Italian cities less vulnerable to the virus in terms of contagions and deaths. “Once scapegoats, they are now held up by authorities as a model for early, strict adoption of infection-control measures and among Chinese residents in Prato there isn’t even one case of COVID contagion”.
Prato’s Chinese community went into lockdown starting as early as the end of January, almost one month before February 21st, the date “patient one” was identified in the Codogno outbreak. While the native population of Prato still believed that the novel Coronavirus was akin to a tough flu, the Chinese community disappeared. Prato’s China Town streets, usually teeming with people at any time of the day, were deserted. Chinese restaurants and takeaways closed their doors. Electronics stores, small supermarkets, pastry shops, wedding planners, and even slot machine businesses were also closed. The Chinese Buddhist temple that organises annual Lunar New Year festivities, instead of flying its dragon along the streets of Prato, kept it lying on the floor. The temple rallied its community to collect 10,000 medical face masks for those affected by the virus in Codogno.
During the period we are writing this paper, Italy is one of the most affected countries in the world and Prato’s people are finding in their mailboxes face masks donated by their Chinese neighbours. The envelope has a hand-drawn rainbow and the words Forza Italia!!!. And almost naturally in these days of self-isolation, posting the gift given by the Chinese has become a new social media meme.
The reasons for self-isolation
Why, in the absence of strict authoritarian constraint, did the Chinese in Prato adopt self-isolation? How have they organized themselves to implement it? What has changed within their community and with its relations with Prato’s “natives”?
Journalistic accounts have explained the relative success of the Chinese community in protecting itself from the virus as due to the process of “double quarantine,” both before departing from China and upon arriving to Italy, the respect of strict hygiene rules, community control via social media, its younger population, and the fact of Zhejiang having fewer cases. However, the reasons behind the behaviour of the Chinese community are deeper and manifold. The following contains results from participant observation in Prato’s China Town up until March 12th, 2020 during the first period of local virus transmission. Participant observation was carried out by Chinese-American writer Julie Chen. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for a creative non-fiction project on the Chinese community in Prato in 2019/2020.
In particular, some key aspects emerge, relating to the circulation of knowledge about the effects of the virus through narratives, risk awareness, and the adoption of forms of social control.
Access to firsthand knowledge of COVID-19 and SARS. Since the Chinese community in Prato is recently immigrated, many have family in China with first-hand experience of the virus and ensuing lockdown. The community uses Chinese media and social media – WeChat, Huarenjie – so horror stories coming directly from China circulated widely outside of family networks too. Furthermore, many have personal experience or a cultural memory of SARS. The Chinese community recognized the seriousness of the virus early on.
Higher risk of interacting with potential carriers travelling from China. In contrast to Milan’s, Prato’s Chinese community is insular, so despite Italian fears, the people most at risk of interacting with possible carriers travelling from China were Chinese themselves. Hence the caution, fear, and mistrust among the Chinese community of each other. Posters on doors of Chinese businesses and social media posts alike demanded all recent travellers from China to self-quarantine for 14 days. These behaviours were responsible but also self-protective.
Snowball effect of economic and social pressure. The Chinese community is not a monolith. Not every individual was inclined to take protective measures. What made the difference was the critical mass. When scared customers stopped coming to businesses, this placed economic pressure on businesses to close. Chinese businesses survive due to Chinese customers. When those customers stop coming, the businesses can only close because they do not have another customer base. Customer pressure could work alongside business leadership. For example, a Chinese school closed from February 6th to 14th, then again from February 26th onwards (shortly after the Lombardy outbreak began). It announced its closing was based on “conversations with students and parents, and on account of social responsibilities and student safety”. There was also social pressure, compounded in a tight-knit community: “If you go outside, people will talk”. This social dimension extended to helping each other actively limit outside contact, like shopping for supplies for each other.
Risk of being stigmatized if people became sick. The risk of increased racism if Chinese became sick may have been a motivator to be more proactive about virus protection. Chinese people who publicly objected to racism, who are mostly younger (1.5 or second-generation), stressed the importance of anti-racism, alongside advocating for virus protection measures. For example, the Florence-based organization of Unione Giovani Italiani Cinesi (UGIC), the association of young Chinese Italians, held the viral #IoNonSonoUnVirus performance in part fighting the stigma against masks. They have encouraged mask-wearing in other social media posts. On March 5th, UGIC circulated a petition calling for a lockdown of all cities with cases, citing how this policy had worked in China. The fights against racism and the virus could be intertwined.
Lack of faith in Italian government and Italian natives’ responses. In contrast to China’s powerful state and virus response, the Chinese community saw Italy’s notorious bureaucracy as likely to fall short. A February 25th article in the Chinese European newspaper New Europe, entitled “Prato’s Chinese Scared, Italy’s Outbreak Prevention Has Already Miscalculated”, describes the Italian government response as “negligent” and sure to lead to “frightening consequences”. Even before the onset of the virus, Chinese people had limited trust in a government that they generally could not vote in elections for, and whose failings they knew intimately through its long, convoluted residency permit process. They have since expressed that they also feel that Italian citizens do not take the virus seriously enough. Lacking faith in the state or local society to protect them, they protected themselves.
While in Wuhan a policy of close surveillance and severe sanctions was carried out by the Chinese government, the Chinese population of Prato has adopted self-isolation without external coercive intervention. In Prato’s case, individual behaviours are not only due to the effectiveness of social control mechanisms and internalized rules, in the Durkheimian sense. What has emerged is the importance of the increased reflexivity of the subjects involved, assumption of responsibility on an individual level, and changes in forms of communication, including symbolic ones, between the Chinese and the Italians, in which the proactive role of young Chinese Italians suggests fruitful considerations. These observations about Prato in the time of COVID-19 raise questions about new forms of transnationalism in diasporic communities, and the emergence of new forms of political action and citizenship that transcend the territorial and political boundaries of states  .
Are there foundations for a new fabric of social relations, inclusive of the Chinese population? A social change is under way. We will see if it will remain a cocoon, or instead become a butterfly that with its flapping wings can generate wider transformations.
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