Italians in the UK and the Two Temporalities of the Virus

Italians in the UK and the Two Temporalities of the Virus

Benedetta Zocchi

Until a few months ago, I could firmly argue that, as a white Italian woman, I had never been the victim of any discrimination that could be even slightly associated with racism. From March 7th 2020, this statement could no longer hold true. It was a Monday and I was travelling on the Central Line.

As I was lucky enough to find a seat, I took my phone out to send a voice message to an Italian friend. We were discussing the rumour that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was about to lock down the whole country to limit the spread of coronavirus. As the woman sitting next to me heard me speaking in Italian, she turned her head down and covered her face with her scarf. I would not have even noticed such a gesture but at the moment I needed to sneeze. Carefully preparing for the inevitable event by posing my face into my elbow, I let the sneeze happen.

Immediately, the woman stood up, renouncing the rare comfort of a seat on a Central Line train at 9 am on a Monday. Just so she would not be sitting next to me. Her reasoning seemed to be straightforward: I was Italian, i.e. a national of the European country which is currently the hardest hit by coronavirus.

The language I spoke triggered the danger; the sneeze confirmed it.

At that moment, I realised something was drastically changing in the society I was living in. My whiteness was no longer protecting me. My privilege was swept away by fear of a new unknown. Stay away from the Italians and the Chinese. They are the spreaders, they can no longer be trusted.

This is how the story begins. With the naïve and arrogant presumption that the spread of a virus could be an issue that responds to rules of nationality. We all know how it ended, as we are confined in our houses, washing our hands compulsively and looking at the season changing from our windows.

For people who, like me, have daily contact with friends and relatives in Italy, the escalation of the crisis in the UK looked like one of those nightmares where you try to shout but your voice doesn’t come out. Forced to witness our loved ones as they were suddenly locked in their homes, we were condemned to remain helpless spectators of an inevitable future, while living a present of almost dystopic calm.

March 22nd Italy is about to enter the third week of lockdown. In the UK, pubs and bars are closed and spring is surprisingly on time. Victoria Park has never been so beautiful.

For days, Boris Johnson has been suggesting the British public stay home and avoid social gatherings. He did not mention parks, nor activities in open spaces. Somehow, he expected people not to make the most of the first sunny weekend in a country that is famous for its gloomy weather.

For days, my friends and colleagues have been sending worried messages. ‘I hope your family in Italy is okay’, ‘I am thinking of you in this difficult moment for your country’. It seems like Italy is fighting a civil war, where the victims are targeted for wearing uniforms and where the rules of the conflict only apply on specific battlefields. No one seems to realise that the UK will soon turn into a battlefield as well.

Perhaps I also want to amuse myself with the tempting assumption that I am safe because I am not in Italy. I guess that is why I decide to go for a run in Victoria Park. However, a part of me knows that this might be the last time I run here with a light mind. Perhaps I am already carrying an unbearable weight in my head.

My jogging soon turns into an obstacle race. My body attempts to slalom across other runners and keep my distance from them. My mind attempts to move away from the awareness that it is just a matter of time before things here will get bad.

If I look around me, no one seems to feel the same way. People are sunbathing on the green grass of the park, looking like they have no care in the world that spring cannot erase. A part of me cannot stop thinking that maybe they are right. Undeniably, the UK has a legacy of successful, unconventional strategies to exit crises. Maybe this is the case now as well.  Perhaps I am lucky because I am not in Italy. However, every time I let my mind be spoiled by these silly arguments, I realise the ridiculousness of it.

Isn’t it exactly this arrogance, this confidence, this exceptionalism that brought us here in the first place?

For young Italians like myself, moving to London is a leap of faith. Most of us chose to come here because we heard about things being exceptional. Our minds were filled with hopes of meritocracy, excellent education and job opportunities. In exchange, we learned the steps to the chaotic choreography of a city where all are welcome but no one belongs. A city that keeps collecting loud voices without really listening to any of them.

London makes us feel like we will never keep up. We will always be a step behind. We have our funny accent, our funny jokes and our funny governments. Comfortably personified in charming clichés of thoughtlessness, spontaneity and laziness, we should have known we would not be taken seriously. However, this time, we were a step ahead. More specifically, we were two weeks ahead.

Finally, London is also in lockdown. The consistent underestimating of the crisis and the embarrassing delay in taking measures left us with an infected prime minister, a collapsing health system and a disoriented public.

We Italians knew it would happen, and we could only watch it unfold. All of a sudden, we witnessed newspaper titles changing radically. Just a few weeks ago, news was all about the victims being old and with previous health conditions. Then they started signalling alarming cases concerning people dying. Finally, we were left with the numbers. A systematised injection of panic, with no real guidance nor orientation on how to address it.

We saw London transforming into a ghost town, populated by queues of carefully distanced individuals, exactly the ones described by our friends back home. We saw supermarkets shelves emptying and then filling up again as the lockdown was implemented. They warned us about this as well. Now, as we compulsively refresh news web pages in search for good news, all we get is more numbers.

For weeks, we felt trapped between the most ridiculous negation and the most striking acknowledgement of what was happening in Italy, in the UK and in the world. In between these opposites, we let these two temporalities coexist in ourselves until one was inevitably proven right.

We had to remain silent in front of a fumbling unclear and inconsistent governmental strategy that did not distinguish advice from restrictions. We witnessed the purest manifestation of what I am not afraid to call a brutish British exceptionalism, based on the conviction that here a differential logic might always apply, almost as if the nature of the virus was expected to adjust to the UK decision to leave Europe.

As the number of deaths started growing exponentially all around the world, the UK government had already decided that the weakest slice of the population had to be condemned to a fatal destiny. Many of the debates on strategies such as herd immunity were shamelessly based on principles not far from those of eugenics. This attitude revealed the brutality of an exasperated neoliberalism that learns to rate life on indicators of economic growth and production, dispossessing it of its intrinsic value. A social compromise that prioritised economic stability over humanity creating new names and roles for actors in the pandemic game. The Italians and the Chinese hold the blame, the old and the weak pay the consequences.

If the UK political language was a fundamental trigger of frustration, we, the Italians living here, had to sustain it while watching the future from a webcam. We were included in new social media and video calling routines before we could actually understand their necessity, having to listen to what looked like crazy stories about police fining people for sitting in the park. We stayed there and observed fear turning into sadness and sadness turning into habitude, knowing we were just one step away from the following phase.

April 16th 2020. The Central Line is empty. Victoria Park has closed its gates. Spring has not given up and accompanies us as we are about to conclude the fourth week of lockdown. While some shops start re-opening in Rome, London has never been this silent.


Benedetta Zocchi is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar in Political Science at Queen Mary University of London


Image Credit: Gustavo Fring