In recent years, with the growth of the internet and the possibilities of online surveillance, many began to imagine the present and even more so the future as some sort of world straight out of George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. A world with cameras everywhere and all powerful institutions gathered all possible information about every citizens on earth thanks to the internet, a world where surveillance was omnipresent and inescapable. The coronavirus pandemic may change this though.

Country after country is adopting more and more restrictive measures in order to contain the spread of the disease. When quarantine was enforced in China, where the epidemic started, we in the West looked at it as just another manifestation of the authoritarian and oppressive character of the Chinese Communist government. Now that shutting people in their homes has become a reality in Italy and is being discussed in several other European countries, the practice of quarantine does not look so oppressive anymore.

On the one hand, mortality in the most affected regions and cities of Northern Italy is certainly higher than average but it is true that people who have fallen victim to the coronavirus are mostly individuals who are in old age and having preconditions.

On the other hand, however, countries cannot be remained shut down forever. If remains closed down until until May, as some fear, the economic and social consequences risk being truly devastating. The European Central Bank will create liquidity but to keep economies afloat but most of the money clearly will not go to the ordinary citizens who need to pay rents, pay installments for their car, buy food or start a family.

It is a period of great suffering but the panic provoked by this latest epidemic could have effects that are worse than the disease itself.  We cannot afford to let economies of many developed nations be driven only by the bipolar moods of the stock exchanges and, unfortunately, death cannot be abolished. We have to look to the future in some way. It looks like in China there are no longer internal Covid-19 contagions, which means that China managed to deal with the emergency in roughly three months. For Italy and other European countries, if things continue this way, quarantines, curfews, product shortages and reduced employment are here to stay for longer. This can’t be the solution.

And this could be the moment when strong powers could exploit the situation to severely limit citizens’ freedoms. One of the hottest topics in recent years had been artificial intelligence and robotization and how these technological trends would have on the life of millions who would lose their jobs and source of income to robots and sophisticated computer programs. Many were excited about the prospect, but many were afraid. Some claimed that after the “end of work” everyone would live off basic income and not bound by the hardship of working for a livelihood, would finally be able to refine his tastes and become an artist or at least be able to discover his unexplored creative potential. Others, like for example the professor and writer Yuval Noah Harari, imagine a world where large parts of the population would sit at home and do drugs, paid for by the state. The initiative of many pornography portals to offer gratis premium packages to all people forced to stay at home per government decree felt similar in a way.

Because let’s face it, the task of modern extensive governments is almost an impossible one: managing millions, sometimes several hundred of millions of people is certainly a difficult challenge and clearly also implies a significant propaganda effort and a large manipulation dimension. Think for example of transnational corporations that display rainbow in their offices to demonstrate that they operate in tune with the spirit of the era, because they value every individual and celebrate the diversity of individuals for their sexual inclinations (until recently a rather private matter). It’s however the same corporations who would not think for a second about off-shoring entire departments to a country with cheaper work costs, thus wrecking the lives of the people they ostensibly value so much, in order to save 100 euro per employee per month.

In the world of 1984, the George Orwell, dystopian novel, there is almost no place for any form of pleasure other than collective political agitation. Our world may soon resemble much more the other great dystopian novel of the twentieth century, Sir Aldous Huxley 1932 classic “Brand New World”, where people are fed with high doses of soma (call it Netflix, YouPorn, Tinder or home delivered food) to keep quiet in testing times.

Stefano Di Lorenzo