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