Bridging Physical Distance: Solidarity Rituals During the Early Stage of the Coronavirus Pandemic in Italy

Simone Rambotti
Loyola University New Orleans

In late February 2020, Italy became the European epicenter of the novel coronavirus contagion. The Dipartimento della Protezione Civile (the national body that deals with emergencies) began publicly sharing data on February 24: 221 people were confirmed as positive and 7 dead. Four days later, the CDC travel recommendation for Italy went from level 2 (Practice Enhanced Precautions) to level 3 (Avoid Nonessential Travel). Nine days later, on March 8, with 6,387 confirmed cases and 366 deaths, a lockdown was announced for most of northern Italy. The next day, the lockdown was extended to the whole country. Ten days later, on March 19, Italy recorded 33,190 confirmed cases and 3,405 deaths, more than any other country in the world. 

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Fig. 1: Italians sing the national anthem from their balcony. Source: twitter.com/Petit_Wendy35

With events accelerating dramatically, millions in Italy had to quickly adapt to “social distancing.” Not only did this involve school and non-essential workplace closure, but most notably, home isolation. These measures increase the physical distance between infected and non-infected people, but they come with remarkable costs. Home isolation, for instance, is particularly damaging to those who lack safe shelter, such as homeless people and victims of abuse. Broadly, isolation harms health and it may hinder the kind of solidarity that is most needed in times of national emergencies. We know little about what happens when a whole society is forced into self-isolation. I argue that Italians responded to this crisis by creatively using pop culture and digital technology to mobilize three modalities of unity at the local, national, and international level. 

Soon after the lockdown, the hashtags #andràtuttobene (everything will be fine) and #flashmobsonoro (audio flash mob) started circulating widely on social media to invite people to go onto their balconies or lean out of their windows and sing. Many Italians, varying wildly in talent, responded to this call and interacted with their neighbors to sing their national anthem (Figure 1) and many popular songs. 

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Fig. 2: PM Giuseppe Conte’s message to Italians. Translation: “Let’s remain distant today to hug each other with more warmth and run faster together tomorrow. We will make it.” Source: https://www.facebook.com/GiuseppeConte64/posts/866165293865437

While neighborhoods, towns, and cities reunited through singing, playing, and cheering from balconies, national narratives of solidarity emerged around the figure of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. In June 2018 Conte, a professor of private law, became PM of a populist government formed by the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League. After this coalition collapsed, Conte remained PM with the support of M5S and center-left Democratic Party. Initially regarded as a “minor figure,” Conte gradually grew in popularity. In response to the coronavirus outbreak in the country, he issued measures imposing physical distancing with words emphasizing social connectedness. Conte explicitly cited German sociologist Norbert Elias in his address to the nation on March 11: “Every individual is benefiting from one’s own sacrifices and the sacrifices of others. This is the strength of our country, a ‘community of individuals’ as Norbert Elias would say.” His last remarks, displayed on his official Facebook page (Figure 2), evoke images of corporeal unity: “Let’s remain distant today to hug each other with more warmth and run faster together tomorrow. We will make it.” These messages soon echoed through social media, generating a stream of memes that romanticized Conte and even depicted him as the protagonist of a romance manga (Figures 3-4). 

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Fig. 3: A romanticized version of Conte’s message. Translation: “Everything will be fine. We will get over this together.”

Finally, Italians looked to the rest of the world. In a popular Reddit thread, thousands of Italians shared their (at the time, still rather uncommon) experiences. On March 15, a collective of filmmakers based in Milan released a YouTube video where isolated Italians talk to their 10-days-ago-self. The video, which within a few days was subtitled in 23 languages and surpassed 7.5 million views, urged the rest of the world not to underestimate the virus and not to “f**k up.” As we know now, few countries took the advice. 

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Fig. 4: Manga-style Conte addresses the nation. Translation: “Let’s remain distant today to hug each other with more warmth and run faster together tomorrow. We will make it.”

To conclude, forced into physical distancing, Italians creatively engaged in pop culture and digital technology to build social solidarity across their balconies, their country, and the world. The events described in this essay are consistent with the first stages of solidarity rituals that tend to follow a threat. Almost three months later, the country is slowly easing restrictions to mobility. The emotional response has gradually faded and has been replaced by numerous conflicts, which these forms of solidarities may encourage. The political mismanagement of the pandemic (both at the national and local level) is under scrutiny. Tensions arose among citizens on their levels of compliance to the lockdown. Anti-EU sentiments may rise following a lackluster European support. The economic downturn, rising unemployment, and slow welfare response could eventually threaten PM Conte’s popularity, still high according to early May polls. It is unclear what will happen next. In fact, COVID-19 is essentially different from more typical forms of threats, such as a terrorist attack, because – without a vaccine or herd immunity – it challenges directly any idea of “normalcy” after the crisis. Future research is due to investigate the complex nexus between leadership style, solidarity building, and long-term effect of the COVID-19 across the world.