The “Invisible Other”: Social Representations of COVID-19 Pandemic in Media and Institutional Discourse

Keywords: infectious disease, pandemic, COVID19, institutional and media discourse, otherness


This paper thematizes issues of “otherness” in the representations of the COVID-19 pandemic in the media and institutional discourses. The emergence of unknown infectious disease represents a threatening event, intensively discussed in public and private communication. The pandemic crisis spread from China on a global scale and refocused the media agenda, transferring citizens’ attention from immigration to health risk, superseding the racially connoted immigrant with an “invisible other”. At first, Italian citizens were exposed to an institutional communication aimed at reassuring the population: "no more than a flu". Once the pandemic emerged as a public concern, alarm was used as a prevention strategy, legitimated by the recommendations of scientists:awareness stage. Successively, communication entered the divergence stage: multiple discourses emerged, both across scientists and politicians, and between lay people and experts, increasing uncertainty about the situation anchored into dilemma of health versus economic priority. Conjointly, representations of the disease offered in public discourses appealed to lay belief patterns: coronavirus was explained as result of either the unhygienic contiguity of the Chinese people to animals, or the interests of hidden powerful groups pursuing their goals (e.g., the conspiracy theories concerning 5G or lab-based viral weapon). Notwithstanding, the invisible infectious disease also increased awareness of human vulnerability on a global scale, engendering concurrent representations of otherness, which refer to humankind as the common ingroup. This process - contrary to the "othering" occurring in the projection of the disease cause onto devalued outgroups - implies the assumption that the “other may be me/us”.

Author Biographies

Annamaria Silvana de Rosa, Sapienza University of Rome

ANNAMARIA SILVANA DE ROSA, is Full Professor of Social Representations and Communication at Sapienza” University of Rome,Italy. Founder and Director of the European/International Joint PhD in Social Representations and Communication(, she has been project leader of 43 hypercompetitive international projects. Invited as visiting professor and awarded of Doctorate Honoris, of Emeritus and Adjunct Professor by many Universities worldwide, among more than 700 scientific contributions one of her books inspired by her  “modeling” approach is "Social Representations in the social Arena", covering in various thematic areas (Routledge, 2013). Other publications concern distinct forms of internationalization of doctoral education and innovative Digital Libraries, as creator of the SoReCom'A.S.deRosa'@-library.  Contact e-mail:

Terri Mannarini, University of Salento

TERRI MANNARINI is Full Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Salento, Lecce, Italy, and editor-in-chief of the international journal Community Psychology in Global Perspective.  From 2012 to 2015 she has been appointed Coordinator of the undergraduate and postgraduate Psychology programs at the University of Salento, in 2016 of the Ph.D in Human and Social Sciences and in 2019 of the Section of Social Psychology of the Italian Association of Psychology (A.I.P). Her research interests cover political, social, and community psychology with focus on community participation. In 2020 she co-edited the book  Media and Social Representations of Otherness, Springer.  Contact e-mail: