Viral Encounters: Lessons on COVID, Coping and Community from Chinese Migrants in Italy

UMass Amherst anthropologist Elizabeth Krause finds the “threat of xenophobia, a preparedness to quarantine, and the will of solidarity motivated an entire migrant community to take action” during the pandemic
Elizabeth Krause
Elizabeth Krause

AMHERST, Mass. – As COVID-19 ravaged Italy during the early days of the pandemic politicians, public health officials and journalists feared that the northern city of Prato would be the most dangerous place in Italy due to its concentration of Chinese migrants who power the city’s “Made in Italy” fast-fashion garment industry. New research from University of Massachusetts Amherst anthropologist Elizabeth Krause has instead found that Prato emerged as a contagion exception as related to its Chinese migrant community, in part because of “viral encounters” – the social narratives, representations and practices involved in coping with threats of transmission and practices of prevention.

By combining virtual ethnography with health data, as well as evidence of xenophobia and solidarity, Krause, a professor of anthropology at UMass Amherst who has been doing research in Prato since 1995, and her co-author Massimo Bressan, president of the IRIS research institute in Prato, document a widespread shift in dominant attitudes toward the Chinese migrants by native Italians from one of xenophobia to one of respect. In an analysis published in a special issue of the journal Human Organization, they trace how solidarity efforts – including gifts of masks, protective gear and respiratory machines from the Chinese community – emerged spontaneously, and their research, they write, suggests that such practices have not only conditioned political and administrative actions during the pandemic, but also improved them.

Faced with travel prohibitions, Krause’s research was conducted through collaboration via Zoom meetings while Bressan, in lockdown in Prato, was able to witness the ways in which Italian society was reacting to the pandemic. Together they set out to follow and document the COVID response at various levels, including social networks, representations via popular culture and social media, political forums via Facebook, news coverage and public health data, while drawing upon ethnographic data collected during a multi-year collaboration between Krause and Bressan.

“In our tracing and tracking of encounters related to the virus and, specifically, to Chinese migrants in Italy, we began to notice a pattern in the production of social meanings,” Krause and Bressan write. “Initially, the forms of cultural production played on taken-for-granted assumptions about Chinese migrants. Cultural products took on the air of blame and contagion. The common sense narrative went something like this: the virus started in China, many Chinese migrants travel back and forth between China and northern Italy, and therefore the spread of the virus to Europe must have come from Chinese people. Xenophobia spread like a mutated virus.

“Before long, however, xenophobia withered in the face of solidarity that took the form of proactive and rigid self-imposed quarantine practices,” they write. By taking such protective measures, including voluntarily closing their workshops to prevent potential outbreaks, the researchers report that Chinese migrants in Prato have in fact not had the novel coronavirus, and at the pandemic’s height the health agency that traces healthcare in the region documented only a single COVID-19 case in the entire greater metropolitan area of central Tuscany.

In addition to the collective effort by the migrant community to maintain quarantine, one of the first members of the COVID-19 help team to reach Prato was reportedly from China’s Sichuan Province, where in 2008 an Italian rescue team was the first from Western countries to provide resources and medical support following the Wenchuan earthquake, and some of the Prato workshops ultimately converted their operations to the manufacturing of masks, many of which were distributed throughout the Prato community.

“The Chinese migrants prioritized health and well-being over business and money,” Krause and Bressan write. “Their collective action of a triple quarantine as a means to prevent the spread of the virus represented a gift to the community at large.”

Krause and Bressan argue that the effects of what they discovered “reconfigures dominant ideologies of individualism, open space for collective orientation toward a human economy, and offer potential to alleviate detrimental impacts of pandemics.”

“Not spreading COVID stands as the ultimate gift of solidarity,” they write. “Time will tell to what degree the withering away of xenophobia will endure as a form of reciprocity.”

The article, “Viral Encounters: Xenophobia, Solidarity, and Place-based Lessons from Chinese Migrants in Italy,” is available online now.