Diasporic Cassandras: time, space, and ethos among transnational Chinese and Italians at the time of COVID-19

This piece explores the Cassandra complex experienced by diasporic Chinese and Italian individuals as they grappled with their host communities’ seemingly passive approaches toward averting a COVID-19-related public health crisis. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prescience, a talent that turned into a burden when a curse caused all others to disbelieve her. Accordingly, the Cassandra complex is the experience of isolation and anguish that occurs when justified concerns are met with indifference, denial, and the inability or unwillingness to take proportionate measures in the face of a looming threat. For diasporic Cassandras, the burden of “prescience” comes from their vicarious knowledge of their home communities’ ordeal. This is a partly auto-ethnographic piece. The authors are nationals of countries hit early on in the currently unfolding COVID-19 pandemic (Italy and China) who reside in countries that are currently witnessing steep increases in cases (the United States and the United Kingdom). They also conduct research in other as yet minimally affected countries (Russia and Mongolia).

Since the news of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China, seeped through levels of censorship and bureaucracy, overseas Chinese have been closely following the situation: keeping track of the developments in the media (Pratitya et al. 2020), showing care and concern to their family and friends in endangered zones, and self-organizing ad hoc assistance groups to fundraise and procure medical supplies for shipment to China. For the last two months, the virus has been weighing heavily on diasporic minds, as they vicariously live through the progressing of the epidemic and epidemic governance back home. On 11 March 2020, the WHO upgraded the level of emergency from Public Health Emergency of International Concern (declared on 30 January 2020) to a pandemic, reflecting COVID-19’s global spread and damage. While the situation seems to be stabilizing in China, the table has turned on the diasporic Chinese in Europe and North America, where the number of cases is quickly escalating (Wang 2020). The perceived lack of resolve among the Western elected politicians to take decisive and appropriate actions for the public good deeply disturbs and enrages the overseas Chinese, who understand the virus’ severity after months of closely observing China’s experience.

The déjà vu moment was similarly experienced by the Italian diaspora in Europe and the Americas. Coinciding with the start of a nationwide total lockdown implemented to contain the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 in Italy, report began circulating in the Italian media of members of the Italian diaspora in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, expressing strong concern about the looming prospect of COVID-19 outbreaks in their host countries, and incredulity at the perceived slowness and inadequacy of the health measures introduced therein. Such feelings apply to both government policies and the public’s everyday behaviours. Paying close attention to news of the quarantine back home and awareness campaigns about the necessity of taking draconian measures, Italian citizens abroad started to share with journalists and institutional actors their dismay at the perception that in their host countries, “things are business as usual,” “people carry on with their normal lives,” and “the situation cannot be safe” (Mirenda 2020; Sala 2020; Ziniti 2020). These reports have struck a chord with the Italian public: by putting Italy’s under-preparedness and early errors in perspective, they soothed some of the country’s collective wounds. There is no doubt, however, that overseas Italians’ dismay and worry are genuine: the daughters of the mayor of Bergamo, the epicentre of the Italian outbreak, deemed it safer to fly back home rather than stay in a country whose COVID-19 response appeared ambiguous (Giuffrida 2020).

A great number of Italians and Chinese who live abroad – henceforth, diasporic Cassandras – have been viscerally aware that their family members and close friends are, or have been until recently formally restricted from leaving their living quarters except for strictly necessary reasons. They also know that people in their home countries by and large have understood and embraced quarantine measures despite the sacrifices they entail. At the same time, diasporic Cassandras find themselves in settings where, despite growing health concerns, social gatherings have been taking place until recently, bars and restaurants remained open, university campuses did not close, gyms kept operating, and children went to school – while public figures reassuringly compared COVID-19 with the seasonal flu. Diasporic Cassandras’ worries were, and in some countries still are, met with vague optimism, dismissiveness, or a generic unwillingness to contemplate the problem’s scale and possible solutions (Mirenda 2020; Sloat 2020; Tufekci 2020). This apathy was compounded by public voices misrepresenting or even deriding the responses taken by the worst-affected countries (e.g. Christian Jenssen’s remarks on the Italian lockdown as a “siesta”; Guerrera 2020); official guidelines encouraging individuals to stay at home only when ill (although SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted before infected individuals show symptoms); and world leaders denoting the virus as “foreign” to deflect responsibility or gambling with the lives of thousands with cynical herd immunity strategies (Hanage 2020; Little 2020). In addition, they risked (in some settings they still risk) being targeted by xenophobia and racial prejudice in the host environment (Sloat 2020). To many diasporic Cassandras, such attitudes among state officials, media actors, and the public appear inexplicable and frustrating. Diasporic Cassandras were more likely to proactively and precociously adopt behaviours in line with their home communities – robust social distancing, household self-quarantine, and withdrawing children from schools – without waiting for the (inevitable) official implementation of such measures in their host communities.

The psychological, political, and economic reasons underpinning denialist attitudes warrant examination but are not the focus of this paper. Here, we focus on three fault lines – temporality, spatiality, and ethos – along which diasporic Cassandras struggle to reconcile what they know about their home communities and what they see in their host communities.

1) Temporality. Scientists are still researching SARS-Cov-2’s temporality. What we know is that it surreptitiously seizes upon human sociality for self-propagation: it incubates for an average period of 1-14 days, during which viral shedding occurs even without clear clinical manifestations, then inflicts symptoms upon a relatively small percentage of carriers. The latent period allows the virus to multiply unnoticed, eventually generating an overwhelming surge in COVID-19 cases, some life-threatening conditions requiring critical care. Despite the relatively low fatality rate in areas with sufficient medical resources, SARS-CoV-2 is still amply capable of causing major disruption to the normal rhythm of healthcare providers.  

As the pandemic unfolds across the globe, we have learned to think about geographical areas in terms of being “behind” or “ahead” of the outbreak curve. Given their transnational affective connections, diasporic Cassandras are especially immersed in multiple stages of viral temporality. Their host communities, faced with a looming exponential increase in cases, are experiencing pre- or early-viral temporality. Meanwhile, their home communities are either in the midst of mid-viral temporality – marked by states of emergency and strict quarantines – or post-viral temporality – as in the case of China, where most travel restrictions were lifted as the country transitioned to the tail end of its outbreak (Davidson 2020). Diasporic Cassandras have not just witnessed, but vicariously experienced, the impact of viral temporality on the rhythms of their co-nationals’ everyday lives.

While earlier international reporting about the epidemic in China fixated on the peculiarities of the Chinese case – the authoritarian political system, poorly regulated wet markets, exotic dietary habits and so forth – they intentionally or inadvertently dismissed its relevance to the rest of the world. Most importantly, international media ignored the dangers of ‘political response latency’. In the early stage of the epidemic in China, publication of accurate vital information about the virus was delayed, social events during the lunar New Year such as the baijiayan or wanjiayan (large neighborhood potlucks) took place as scheduled, and testing was limited in scale, which directly exposed citizens, and particularly health workers, to the risk of infection. This all occurred before late January, when stringent and effective containment and mobilisation measures started to be implemented on different scales.  

Although ad-hoc studies will be needed to clarify the picture, a comparable delayed political response seems to have been present in the Italian case. The unexpected discovery of COVID-19 cases in a provincial, affluent town in Lombardy (21-22 February 2020) was followed by an early phase of anxiety and fear, which triggered prophylactic measures (local lockdowns) and behaviours (masks, handwashing, limited social distancing). Nevertheless, a lull followed when the perceived urgency of the threat decreased. For several days, both members of the public and prominent politicians adopted or even promoted high-risk conducts in order to “combat fear” and preserve businesses. The leader of the far-right opposition weighed in on the emergency and issued a call to “keep Milan open,” while the governing centre-left party organized “anti-panic” aperitifs on 27 February 2020 (the centre-left party leader later came down with COVID-19). Subsequently, the number of cases suddenly rose, segueing into an all-out-war phase of the outbreak, characterized by a healthcare emergency and the rollout of increasingly more sweeping and aggressive social distancing measures (a general quarantine and mass awareness campaign, from 7-10 March 2020).  

Diasporic Cassandras experienced, vicariously, the all-out-war phase of this pandemic while, at the same time, living in societies traversing different stages of the latent phase of political response. This discrepancy equipped them with a sort of viral prescience that is at the core of their Cassandra positionality (see Italian YouTube videos “from the future” intended to warn international audiences – Lakritz 2020). They read the writing on the wall at a stage in which public figures in their host communities indulged in denialism of the COVID-19 emergency and sectors of the public resist a radical change in habit. However, diasporic Cassandras experienced difficulties reconciling this awareness with the prevailing mood in their environment. To repurpose Marx’s famous dictum, diasporic Cassandras discern tragedy fast approaching just beyond farce.  

2) Spatiality. Although we do not know the exact behaviour of SARS-CoV-2 in spaces, preliminary research suggests that the virus mainly transmits via respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing, contaminated surfaces, and perhaps other airborne vectors, bodily fluids, and excreta (Khan 2020). By placing (self-)isolation measures on infected patients and people at risk, human spatiality can be modified to efficaciously contain the viral spatiality. The same applies to keeping physical distance among the general public, through measures such as school closures, work-from-home, and sheltering at home policies.

Time and further research and modelling will tell epidemiologists how to determine the reasonable scale of lockdowns and adequate forms of social distancing; meanwhile, it seems obvious that coronavirus effortlessly bypasses the boundaries of “ordinary” human spatialities, whether horizontal (national borders) or vertical (class divides). The efficacy of travel bans alone appears limited as a preventive measure, unless coupled with robust testing, tracking, and social distancing. And although wealthier groups are, as always, better equipped to weather the pandemic’s economic fallout and more likely to access health care, it seems clear that the upper echelons are not less exposed to infection than anyone else (Aljazeera 2020).

Diasporic Cassandras are physically immersed in the pre-viral spatialities whilst vicariously exposed to viral spatialities of their home countries. Through transnational connections, they become socialized into a new way of interpreting and negotiating spaces. Weeks before the crisis hit their host communities, they started to perceive their surroundings – human bodies, surfaces, and the deceptively “empty” volumes in which aerosol lingers – as potentially hazardous and unsettling. They felt increasingly ill at ease hanging out with friends, gathering in public places, attending events, or working out in crowded gyms. They shifted out of touch with their host countries’ predominant social conventions and sometimes had to apologize for it. In numerous UK and US cases, diasporic Cassandras changed their spatial habits through physical distancing between one and two weeks before their host communities (Sala 2020). Many diasporic Chinese and Italians left their host countries for home, deeming the regulated spaces of the latter, under lockdown, safer than their adoptive cities (Giuffrida 2020; Ziniti 2020; Zhou 2020). As the pandemic develops, Cassandras’ worries about international friends and acquaintances (and research participants) do not abate, for a hesitant, high-risk attitude remains (as we write) predominant in a number of communities from Eastern and Northern Europe to Latin America (Mirenda 2020).

3) Pandemic ethos. Quarantines are an ordeal and a major collective sacrifice. Both the cases of China and Italy, despite the two countries’ very different governmental styles, suggest that even though social distancing measures are implemented top-down through a curtailing of liberties enforced by state apparatuses, large swathes of the public are willing to engage in collective action and “do their part.” In other words, quarantined societies cohere around a) the cardinal objective of snuffing out the virus and b) a shared experience of endurance.

Framed otherwise, a general anti-pandemic lockdown approximates really a total social fact.

Although it is too early for a comparative study of how different types of societies respond to lockdown and how response patterns change over time, it appears that during such events, vast parts of normally loose or even fractious human assemblages redefine themselves as tight(er) moral and affective communities, kept together by a shared biopolitical vision, an ethos of self-denial and mutual help, shared self-discipline, and a justified, for once, determination to eradicate a common enemy. At the exemplary core of this reimagined tightened aggregate, doctors and nurses stand as embodiments of selfless heroism. Others partake in the collective endeavour by stoically enduring isolation, accepting economic disruption, following pandemic guidelines, and doing whatever they can to help each other – which includes active social media participation to entertain, inform, and console their fellow quarantinees. This pandemic paradigm’s effect on individual subjects can only be further illuminated though more ethnographic and historical research. It does appear to equip individuals with an ethical orientation, a motivation to exercise self-discipline, and the resources to withstand greater discomfort than in normal times. It is also evident that despite their grim circumstances, people derive a sense of worth and purpose from emergency-time subject reorganisation.

Diasporic Cassandras, despite their physical distance from home, are profoundly connected with lockdown-generated moral communities and partake in their ethical reorientation, which inevitably affects them as subjects. They appear to experience an urge to change their behaviours and adopt a pandemic ethos earlier than others in their host communities. The above-mentioned cases of diasporic Cassandras who autonomously self-isolate or adopt prophylactic conduct before orders are issued by institutional actors in their host environments can be interpreted as manifestations of this ethos. Sharing experiences of self-imposed quarantine with fellow expats and the public at home further reinforces affective closeness within a “heroic” transnational moral community.

Diasporic Cassandras risk being a short-lived phenomenon. Viral temporalities, spatialities, and ethos may soon become prevalent in their host countries, thereby annulling the discrepancy experienced by individuals like us (it is already happening in the US and the UK as we write). We hope other countries, such as those where we conduct research, will not experience severe and paralyzing outbreaks. But the rapidly evolving circumstances suggest that the pandemic is still rearing its head and draconian measures might soon be rolled out in many other countries and regions: heeding the Cassandras is the most reasonable course of action, along with aggressively campaigning to raise awareness among the population, and pressuring institutional decision-makers into avoiding political response latency. Looking toward the future, we hope that a post-viral humankind will be prepared to correct the systemic weaknesses that have made us so vulnerable.

Note: We would like to thank Rachel Davidson and Derek Ha for their feedback on earlier drafts of this contribution.

Works Cited

Aljazeera 2020, Coronavirus pandemic: Which politicians and celebs are affected? (24 March 2020).

Davidson, H. 2020, China to lift travel restrictions in Hubei after months of coronavirus lockdown, The Guardian (24 March 2020).

Giuffrida A. 2020, Italian mayor flies his student daughters out of ‘unsafe’ England, The Guardian (23 March 2020).

Guerrera A. 2020, Coronavirus, dalla “siesta” del comico al governo Johnson quando diceva: “misure italiane inutili” [Coronavirus, on the comedian’s “siesta” and the Johnson government’s claims that “Italy’s measures are useless”], La Repubblica (24 March 2020).

Hanage W. 2020, I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire, The Guardian (15 March 2020).

Khan, A. 2020, Doctor’s Note: Can coronavirus spread through the air? Aljazeera (24 March 2020).

Lakritz T. 2020, Italians share what they they’d done 10 days ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, from staying inside to listening to their moms’ advice, Business Insider (17 March 2020).

Little, B. 2020, Trump’s ‘Chinese’ Virus Is Part of a Long History of Blaming Other Countries for Disease, The Time (20 March 2020).

Mirenda C. 2020, Si salvi (solo) chi può. L’arrivo del coronavirus a Città del Messico [Every men (only) for himself. The arrival of coronavirus in Mexico city], Il Manifesto (24 March 2020).

Pratitya et al. 2020, Wuhan 2020-timeline (a compilation of news, reports, and citizen media). Github repository.

Sala C. 2020 (video), Coronavirus, gli italiani all’estero: “state esagerando, ci dicevano” [Coronavirus, Italians abroad: “you’re exaggerating, they told us”], Il Messaggero (24 March 2020).

Sloat A. 2020, Cologne Sanitizer, Boxed Wine and Bidets: How People in 68 Countries Are Coping with Coronavirus, Politico (22 March 2020).

Tufekci, Z. 2020. It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong: America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem, The Atlantic (24 March 2020).

Wang, F. 2020. Haiwai huaren da quanchang beihou de wunai yu buyi [Fighting on two fronts: behind the helplessness and unease that overseas Chinese are feeling], Deutsche Welle Chinese website (21 March 2020).

Ziniti A. 2020, Coronavirus, gli italiani bloccati all’estero: “fateci tornare a casa” [Coronavirus, Italians stranded abroad: “get us back home”], La Repubblica (12 March 2020).

Zhou, V. 2020. Coronavirus: Chinese overseas head home to safe haven under Beijing’s tough quarantine regime, South China Morning Post (18 March 2020).

Teo (Matteo) Benussi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow jointly based at the Universities of California, Berkeley and Ca’ Foscari, Venice. Teo is a social anthropologist specialising in religion in post-socialist Eurasia. His doctoral project (University of Cambridge) dealt with Islamic piety movements and the politics of virtue amongst Muslims in Tatarstan (Russia). Previously, Teo carried out ethnographic research into vernacular Orthodox Christianity in post-Chernobyl Ukraine.

Ruiyi Zhu is a PhD student at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research focuses on the labour question in Sino-Mongolian relations through socialist and post-socialist periods. Prior to her doctoral project, Ruiyi explored post-socialist terrains and memoryscapes as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow and conducted historical research into the making of Chinese cuisine in France.

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