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March 7th, 2020

Trento, Italy


Call me insensitive, but I believe the coronavirus neither constitutes an emergency nor poses greater safety risks than the ones people have already been dealing with their entire lives. Consider this scenario: An inventor approaches you and says that he has come up with a revolutionary machine that will completely change the way people live; it will improve their lives to such an extent that almost every single person on earth will have such an apparatus. The only drawback of this invention is that it will kill over three thousand people every day; it will become perhaps the biggest pollutant of the environment and require a global annual budget of over five hundred billion dollars in peripheral expenses alone to cover the damage it causes.

What do you say to this inventor? Is he or she out of their mind? What kind of machine are we talking about here? Tesla’s death ray? Not exactly. Perhaps the more level-headed, rational reader will have by now realized that such a machine as the one described already exists and has been in use for over one hundred years.

Of course, we are talking about the automobile. Every day, an average of one thousand people under the age of twenty-five are killed on the world’s roads, yet people make no fuss about this. They calmly walk out of their homes every single day ready to face this challenge—some people, God have mercy on them—even continue to drive; honestly, I find all of this rather puzzling. Where are the companies trying to sell military grade helmets to drivers at insane prices? “If your airbag fails, rest assured that this titanium helmet will keep you safe—fully breathable comfort-fitting cotton polyester fiber on the inside assures total user satisfaction. Also works for pedestrians who do not drive for safety reasons but are in danger of being hit directly by a car as a result. Helmet comes in black and also black. Order now and receive a free bottle of hand sanitizer. Must take delivery by Sunday.” Why does this sound strange?

Furthermore, why are there reports put out in the US by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that give all kinds of statistics about vehicular fatalities, but not a single mention of how perhaps you should avoid driving a car altogether? Never in a million years, as they say.

Thus far there have been a total of 197 fatalities related to the coronavirus in Italy—that is over a period of roughly one month; however, the US State Department has for some reason or other deemed it wise to post travel advisory warnings urging their citizens not to conduct unnecessary travel to Italy at this time. In that case, why take halfway measures? Why not go all the way and solve this problem the way it should really be solved? The official memo from the State Department about avoiding Italy reads as follows—not: Traveling itself is quite out of the question, given the danger that flying involves—you are after all 40,000 feet in the air and should anything go wrong, even a cure for the coronavirus is not going to help anymore. All citizens are strongly advised to remain at home and contact their nearest Italian Embassy in the US to demand an immediate cure for the coronavirus.

In no way is this an attempt to minimize the problem. The tragedies which have beset people affected by this virus are certainly real and ever-present: 197 people are after all 197 people, and the fatalities will not stop today; this is just talking about Italy. However, is the coronavirus really the biggest problem facing our world today? In a world full of gun violence, hate crimes, environmental pollution, inhumanity against women, and the plethora of other problems that deserve a little more hysteria, it is coronavirus—the new kid in town no one can get enough of—that is getting all the attention. Why?

Really, this is not surprising. We live in a world which has no problem believing the fear-mongering frenzy of companies making huge money off medical masks but cannot come to grips with an ounce of hysteria coming from a seventeen year old climate change activist speaking at the UN—about issues which will require far greater “cures” and “solutions” to ensure that the future generation will inherit a livable world. Only the distant future is apparently too much to handle for some people. What happens tomorrow is more important.

But let us forget the world and its sentimental problems for a while. Let us talk about something else. For years, US families have campaigned on behalf of victims affected by gun violence for more stringent weapons laws—with little or no success. Even after El Paso and Dayton last year, there simply has not been much progress, which leads to the following question: Who is doing more—Italy about the coronavirus or the US about guns? Unlike automobiles, weapons are not essential, yet they too kill roughly as many people per year in the US as automobiles do, around thirty-five to forty thousand a year, which equals to about one hundred people a day, according to the Giffords Law Center. At 197 deaths over the span of roughly one month, Italy has the highest death toll in Europe related to the coronavirus, yet in a matter of weeks, lawmakers have taken decisive action to close schools and universities. What has the US done about its gun problem which kills far greater amounts of people every day? Pretty much nothing, you might assert.

Nevertheless, people will say this is a matter of apples and oranges—coronavirus versus gun violence; they are two different things. You can close schools for the former but not the latter; perhaps, but that is not really the point. Only two words are really needed: New Zealand. When on March 15th, an assailant targeted two mosques during Friday prayers, killing fifty-one people and wounding another forty-nine, lawmakers wasted no time: Within less than a week the prime minister of New Zealand put in a proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons. Only two weeks later, a formal introduction of the bill occurred. Twenty-six days after shooting, the bill passed by a vote of 125 to 1.

Compare that to the track record of the US: Within 5 weeks of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama signed twenty-three executive orders and made twelve congressional proposals regarding weapons. Consequently, the US Senate voted on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013; it failed to pass by a vote of 40 to 60. Additionally, the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which was supposed to improve background checks for gun sales also failed to pass by a vote of 54 to 46.

What conclusion can we draw from this? There is a fundamental difference in the way which the US interprets freedoms and safety, compared to the rest of the world. In other words, the freedom to have a gun is more important than bona fide safety even if that very freedom inhibits another person’s freedom to live a safe life.

Nevertheless, people in the US still leave their homes every day, living ordinary lives and tourists still flock to the country in great numbers. There is very little alarm. The market for bulletproof vests is still quite small—although the guns themselves (the things which cause the actual danger) are being sold at record rates.

Vinay Lal, noted UCLA scholar wrote the following on his blog the day after the Route 91 Harvest shooting in Las Vegas, “There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.” That the day after, which is always the most difficult time for a country dealing with tragedies like this, also coincided with the International Day of Non-Violence was perhaps prophetic; however, on this occasion as well, the US missed another opportunity to do something more meaningful about its gun problem besides just infecting the public with endless hashtags of solidarity and spreading empty displays of consolation by the public at large; Lal, naturally, wasted no time pointing this out while the public continued riding the bandwagon of good fellowship, which is what it usually does when confronting big issues. On that note, I must ask why National Gun Violence Awareness Day is only observed on June 2nd when more than a hundred people die every day in weapons-related deaths?

Excuse me, but I digress. Full stop. Somewhere we seem to have gone off track. Ah, yes, we were talking about the coronavirus. What the above really confirms is how much more Italy is doing to combat the coronavirus compared to the US’s efforts on guns. Maybe New Zealanders can blame Italy for its slow response to the virus, but not the land of the free.

Speaking of the country which many love to call the greatest in the world, let us talk about climate change and pollution. As a US citizen, I am not proud of the fact that my nation is the second biggest polluter after China, where the coronavirus originated. When I lived in Los Angeles, my city had the dubious honor of having the nation’s worst air quality and this is still true today. According to Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in 2017 there were 145 days in which the smog reached such high levels that it became unhealthy for everyone; likewise, in 2018 the air quality violated federal standards for 87 days in a row; however, very few people in LA actually care about this because the media rarely reports it and even if they did on regular occasion, no one would be crazy enough to leave a great American city like LA, just like very few smokers in Europe gave up cigarettes when governments put the bigger warning labels on the packs. Smoking can cause a slow and painful death but so can smoking the air of Los Angeles.

According to the CDC, cigarettes kill approximately 1300 people per day in the US and unlike the coronavirus, cigarettes do not transmit diseases for free—you must pay for them, on average seven dollars per pack, unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to be standing next to a smoker who might give you some of the diseases at no charge. Although cigarette consumption has been on the decline in the US for years, with many restaurants and college campuses (such as my alma mater CSULB and CSUN) choosing to ban smoking altogether on their premises, Italy is a different story. It is not uncommon for many high school students to smoke, even on school grounds, where it is allowed.

So, why do individuals still smoke? Because they like it; because it is about living; because it is what they want to do. The dangers associated with smoking do not interfere—at least in the smokers’ minds—with the lives they want to lead. Call it reckless or call it human nature, but either the lack of hysteria with regard to smoking is wrong, or the excessive concern related to coronavirus makes no sense; it has to be either one or the other, but maybe it is both.

Having lived in the US but now studying at the University of Bologna (located in the Emilia-Romagna region, one of the areas most affected by the virus), I can honestly say that I feel much safer here despite knowing the virus is spreading and will continue to do so for a while; in the US, the thought of becoming a gun violence victim was always in the back of my mind. The daughters of my next-door neighbor almost did become a statistic at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, where fifty-eight people died; luckily, they survived. Incidents like this have become so common in the US that to be hysterical about them no longer makes any sense. In fact, surviving a mass shooting is almost seen as an initiation ritual into the culture of the greatest country in the world—something to take pride in, if you will. Otherwise, what is the point of stickers like these, which I have seen myself on a few cars while still living in the US? Besides stickers, other merchandise such as clothing and flags exist for survivors to buy and display proudly—all in the spirit of the free market.

So, ultimately, it may sound a little crude but it bears saying: You can cure the coronavirus but you cannot cure a bullet to the head. The world, unfortunately, is a dangerous place; it has always been that way—from the beginning when we were cavemen to the time of civilized society. Nothing has really changed. We are safer because we have more ways to protect ourselves from the wilderness today. At the same time, the modern world has brought dangers which are far greater than saber-toothed tigers and jaguars; it is clear, then, that we have the same uncertain relationship with our dangers as cavemen had with theirs.

Two wrongs do not make a right, but when the third wrong comes along and claims to be the only fault in existence, we should perhaps take the time to stop and reevaluate the world we are living in; coronavirus is that third wrong, but it has not made the world that much more dangerous than it already was before.

“I’m not scared of Covid-19,” writes Abdu Sharkawy, a Canadian Infectious Disease Specialist with more than twenty years experience. “I am scared that travel restrictions will become so far reaching that weddings will be canceled, graduations missed and family reunions will not materialize,” Sharkawy adds.

Indeed, the show must go on, if you will; there is neither a life prolonged enough nor a patience which has sufficient discipline to wait for the end of danger. Yes, by all means, look both ways before you cross the road but do not hesitate too long when the road is totally clear—the moment is short; for God’s sake, do go ahead and cross when the opportunity presents itself, no matter how dangerous people say that particular road is.

I have lived my life precisely with that philosophy and it is the reason why I am still here in Italy, refusing to seek refuge in the US, where I know—despite the fewer cases of coronavirus—I will be no safer from the world than in Emilia-Romagna. I think caution is the only sensible option in life, not hysteria. Currently, I am enjoying the mountain air of Trento and my lungs are happy about that. As Ovid said in Metamorphoses: “You will go most safely by the middle way.” The wine in this country is as good as before and the history is still here. Come over, but do not forget to look both ways before crossing. Italy is waiting.


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