Man does not live by bread alone: a bitter reflection on the emotional consequences of quarantine
This contribution was written before Phase 2 of the emergency began
My daughter lives in Baggio. I haven’t seen her for a month. The law is inflexible. Virologists, who every day talk to us from real and virtual media have no doubts: in this period of spread of the coronavirus, every human contact is dangerous.
Advertising message I certainly don’t want to make controversies. I have some doubts that a typical respiratory virus can be controlled with the classic measures of quarantine and search and contact isolation. However, I am not a hygienist and like every citizen I refer to the indication of the experts. Moreover, as Socrates said, it is our duty to always obey the laws (Plato, Critone).
In a desperate attempt to slow the march of the virus, the authorities have taken prophylaxis measures unprecedented in the recent history of our country. The fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution were quickly suspended: freedom of movement, religious freedom, freedom of demonstration, freedom of assembly and political activity. Elections are postponed indefinitely.
These truly draconian measures were greeted with an extraordinary consensus, indeed they were in some way invoked by the media and by vast layers of public opinion. Transgressions are relatively infrequent. No form of organized opposition emerged. Indeed, in some cases, law enforcement agencies had to intervene to prevent improvised pogroms of hypothetically infected citizens by the well-thought majority. We must conclude that the current restrictions on personal freedom represent and somehow express feelings that are widespread in our society.
The formulation of restrictive measures is presented to citizens as an expression of aseptic scientific data. In fact, the different strategies adopted in the various countries of the European Union show that the selection of prophylaxis measures involves choices. Society and politics have been called upon to set priorities, to identify what is truly vital for contemporary man. This exquisitely ethical and political hierarchy governed the times of the prohibitions and will soon govern the priorities in the progressive liberalization of activities and lifestyles, which will inevitably follow the emergency.
The coronavirus epidemic therefore represents a very powerful projective test. It informs us about contemporaneity more than any population survey or sociological study.
At the center we find, above all, physical life, and it could only be so. Healthcare activities have been authorized tout court. Law enforcement, civil protection and the army almost exclusively perform the function of ensuring compliance with prophylactic measures. The fight against the epidemic cannot do without them. Then comes the food sector. Food is necessary for survival.
But beyond the body? Culture, religion, politics? Above all, what space to give to the motivational forces that bind humans to each other?
The government, but I would say the Italians, had no doubts. Emotions, affects do not have a material reality. Indeed, in the perspective of a rigid materialistic reductionism, they do not exist at all. Consistently, the government stopped any visit to prison guests without the slightest hesitation. The result was a series of riots that cost the lives of 13 prisoners. While the nuclear family, married or cohabiting couples, parents with their children or teenagers, intergenerational interactions were erased with a pen line. Visits to adult children or grandparents have been banned. No social relevance has been recognized for the love between man and woman.
A strongly biological paradigm then governs the life of the sick in hospitals. The inevitable fear of us operators, as well as the epistemology that dominates contemporary medical culture, has dictated precise indications: no human contact.
Advertising message Interactions with patients are reduced to a minimum, to the minimum made necessary by body care. Unrecognizable faces wrapped in overalls and masks peek out briefly beyond doors that are always closed. Virological science, we are told without ceasing from the media, does not allow us to say goodbye to those who leave us forever: mother father, husband, wife, son and daughter. You die alone. There are no exceptions: And the ovens await the corpses without that last greeting that human civilizations have learned to recognize even the worst enemies.
I confess that I was dismayed and have some difficulty recognizing myself in a national community so indifferent to the bonds of blood and heart. But it’s not about romance or idiosyncrasy. As psychiatrists, and as psychotherapists, especially as men, we know well that love is necessary for life. As much as the flour that is snapped up in supermarkets.
In the 1930s, it was customary in the pediatric wards to remove any family members from the child. Too emotional presences slow down the work of clinicians and certainly involve potential infectious diseases risks.
The consequences were serious. Soon the children became sad, lost interest and vitality, got worse and sometimes died. René Spitz (1945) was able to interpret hospitalization syndrome as an expression of deprivation from the maternal figure. The experimental and ethological study of the mother-child bond then received an extraordinary boost from John Bowlby’s studies.
The British psychologist demonstrated that parental and couple bonds have a specific basis in genetically determined behaviors and are a prerequisite for the survival of all mammals.
After all, our old people knew very well that one dies from the heart, from a broken heart. And modern epidemiology has provided us with precise empirical confirmations: bereavements, separations, are followed by a significant increase in deaths. Social isolation leads to an increase in the morbidity and lethality of various diseases.
Man needs love. Man needs friendship. Psychic and physical health depend on a persistent network of human and social contacts. What damage is the social isolation that we are pursuing with such obstinacy producing?
The chronicles of the epidemic speak to us every day of spouses, brothers and children who die a short distance from a relative. Trivial statistical coincidences?
I’m afraid that the fear that grips us in this difficult phase is taking us off-road. Perhaps we will soon discover that we have sacrificed what we need most to fear.