‘Take me home’: The coronavirus virus and panic mobility

Published 20 March 2020 / By Robin Cohen

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I want to contribute to this forum by drawing attention to ‘panic mobility’, a phenomenon in which humans act as somewhat unwitting bearers (or vectors) of lethal viruses by moving rapidly away from known sites of infection in significant numbers.

This behaviour is simultaneously rational and irrational. The response is rational in that few people would want to stay in a space (a city, district, a region or a ship) in which an infectious virus is prevalent and highly contagious. It is irrational in that many viruses (COVID-19 included) can find a human carrier who is initially asymptomatic or lightly symptomatic, but who can easily pass the infection to others. As the destination of panic movers is likely to be somewhere that is familiar and associated with a womb-like comfort, they often head ‘home’ or to their families (the Latin root familia underlines the obvious connection between family and the familiar), people with whom they have the most intimate connection. If one could attribute volition to a virus, it is almost as if it is asking anxious humans to ‘take me home’.

Let me provide one historical and three contemporary examples.

Africa 1919

The first is from Howard Philips’s work on the influenza pandemic in Africa in 1919. In southern Africa, infections stemmed from two troopships transporting members of the South African Native Labour Corps at the end of the war from Europe via Freetown, where the outbreak had already been transmitted from earlier ships. When they reached Cape Town, those showing symptoms of flu were briefly held in an insecure quarantine, then allowed to disperse to their rural homes by train. Demobbed soldiers, porters, railway personnel and migrant workers became prime vectors, ‘fleeing infected towns for their lives [and] desperate to escape from mine compounds and barracks where death was rampant’. Thousands of workers at the Kimberly diamond mines insisted they would leave, even if fired on. Philips explains:

"Within three months of its arrival by sea, therefore, the H1N1 influenza virus was causing death and mayhem even deep in the interior of west, central, southern and eastern Africa thanks to the ubiquity of flu-infected men on the move. As one historian recognized, it was as if ‘the colonial transportation network had been planned in preparation for the pandemic’, allowing the latter to ravage the continent far and wide, from Dakar to Mombasa and from the Cape to the Congo."

Italy, Spain and France

Dial the clock on 101 years later to Italy, when a draft decree banning people from leaving or entering Lombardy was leaked by Corriere della Sera on 7 March 2020. According to a newspaper report, thousands took trains or jumped into their cars and headed home. Michele Emiliano, the president of Puglia, signed an order requiring those arriving from the north to go into quarantine and, in a Facebook posting, issued a desperate plea:

"Get off at the first train station, don’t take planes to Bari and Brindisi, go back by car, get off the bus at the next stop. Do not bring the Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia epidemic to your Puglia. You are carrying the virus into the lungs of your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, uncles, cousins and parents."

Switch now to Spain, a few days later. A Spanish newspaper, citing ABC news, reported that the ex-prime minister, Jose Aznar, with his family and entourage, had been spotted arriving at his home in Guadalmina Baja, Marbella. As the paper noted, Aznar was not alone in fleeing Madrid after the closure of all bars, restaurants, nightclubs and gyms and the declaration of 2000 coronavirus cases. On the afternoon of 13 March, the report noted that ‘the motorways leaving Madrid this afternoon have seen four kilometres of traffic jams on the A-4, heading towards Andalucia [while] the M-40 headed towards Valencia and the Costa Blanca also saw tailbacks of at least two kilometres’.

The Spanish flight is largely to second, rather than primary, homes. Wealthier Madrilenos often have homes on the Costas to which they retreat when the weather gets too hot, though this time they moved for other reasons.

The manifestation of panic mobility in Spain is directly paralleled in France where Parigo (a somewhat derogatory name for Parisians) were met at Cape Ferret (south-west France) by hostile graffiti and a Facebook page where one local lamented:

"Already the Parisians and others with a second home have arrived … given that the supermarket has been stripped in two days’. Another complained ‘It’s very worrying to see all those people fleeing Paris – that will certainly spread the virus."

On Belle-Île-en-Mer (Brittany) one incomer ruefully acknowledged ‘the welcome from locals has been icy. They are blaming us for bringing the virus, emptying supermarket shelves and saying we risk taking up the rare number of hospital beds here. My neighbour gave me a ticking off from behind her hedge as I was unloading my suitcases’.

The view from London

Many Italian, French and Spanish epidemiologists argue that the relatively mild steps to contain the virus in the UK are complacent.

However, dramatic acts to enforce public health do not sit easily either with libertarian ideologies on the right or the concern for human rights violations on the left. So, the UK government appears to be blundering along, one step behind public opinion and events outside of its control. It is perfectly understandable that the French government argues that it cannot maintain an open border with the UK if their respective containment measures don’t match. The same logic applies to movement between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We can expect tighter measures.

Again, the UK’s grip on the virus does not look very credible when, literally within hours, on 19 March 2020, Downing Street stated that there were no plans to close down transport in London, while London Transport announced the closure of 40 underground stations. The further declaration from the Prime Minister’s Office that the planned mobilization of the army would not be used to lock London down may have put that very suspicion in people’s minds for the first time. With the closure, or partial closure, of clubs, pubs, theatres, restaurants and museums – all of which make London so exciting a city – the likelihood of Londoners following the rapid exit of the Polentoni (northern Italians), Madrilenos and Parigo is quite high.

On 18 March 2020, a third of COVID-19 cases were in London; it’s a fair bet that those with a family connection in relatively unaffected areas will be heading home, while the Cotswold villages, so beloved by wealthy Londoners with second homes, will be getting their spring and summer visitations a little earlier.

About the Author: Robin Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies and Former Director of the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford. 

The life under Italy's coronavirus lockdown. Piazza della Loggia (Loggia Square) in Brescia, Lombardy