Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Living – Irony: One of the Italian Ways to Cope with Pandemic Fear and Isolation?

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Marta Fanasca, University of Manchester, UK

I was in the UK when the lockdown was imposed on my home country, Italy. My mother called me after the Italian PM, Giuseppe Conte, informed the nation about the restrictive measures to be adopted to overcome the Covid-19 crisis. She told me that from the very next day all the shops would be shut down, with people invited not to leave their houses unless for necessary (although limited) grocery shopping. When going out, people would need to carry a declaration of the intended purpose for leaving their home (work, shopping…), clearly stating one’s address and destination to justify any movement. Any gatherings obviously would be strictly forbidden.

It was simply unbelievable. My family gave me, through a videocall, a view of the streets of my neighborhood – completely empty – in our little town nearby Rome, showing the civil protection forces patrolling around. This view left me astonished. “Was it like this during the war?” I asked my grandmother, who wittily commented “Well, there were fewer food pictures around, indeed. And no toilet paper hoarders!”

My 89-year old grandma, updated about Instagram’s and Facebook’s contents and trends by my younger sister, made me smile. She also made me reflect on something that, since the very beginning of this emergency, I have found extremely representative of the Italian people: the ability to cope with stress, fear and anxiety through irony. While my British friends posted about online yoga classes, or tips for mindful reflections, the approach of my Italian friends was quite different. They were sharing memes, and the ability to laugh of the situation was (and still is) helping me, my family and my friends to carry on.

The use of humour as a way to keep emotional balance has been already investigated among individuals dealing with traumatic experiences, such as emergency workers [1], police officers [2], and subjects involved in highly controlled and repetitive occupations [3], as well as among those subjected to high levels of emotional, psychological and physical stress [4]. Humour is indeed an aid in detaching individuals from contingent situations, and in creating a way to overcome stress and fear. In addition, irony improves the sense of community belonging in a group [5]; making a joke or being the subject of mockery is a way to participate actively as a qualified member of the group, shaping a personal feeling of belonging and collective identity. Feeling part of a group, in these times of pandemic isolation, is an extremely important factor in enduring and coping with everyday life – as demonstrated by the increasing number of music-on-the-balcony flashmobs, another collective Italian way to cope with the quarantine.

Since the end of February, when the first restrictive measures were introduced in some areas in the north of Italy, on my Facebook wall I stepped into tons of memes about the pandemic, the political actors involved, and the impulsive, and sometimes stupid, reactions of people to the lockdown. Although for some this could be a very disrespectful way to deal with fear and isolation (and death), I honestly feel that I disagree.

There is a very famous Italian collection of short stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio, the Decameron (1349–1351), that (almost) all Italian middle and high school students have read. It tells of a group of seven young women and three young men seeking shelter in a villa in the outskirts of Florence, to escape from the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The ways these young people found to cope with isolation, the fear of the plague, and the death of their relatives and friends, was to tell each other short, funny, and sometimes licentious stories to kill time and not let themselves be drawn in to a vicious circle of negative thoughts. The Decameron, arguably, carries a powerful message which is still valid in these Covid-19 times: when everything around you is out of your control, there is very little you can do but laugh about it. In my view, irony is an extremely powerful tool to keep an emotional balance, and to think that sooner or later this will all be over. And eventually, in the future we will be able to remember this – we were stressing out because one of the priorities in the 2020 Covid-19 quarantine was to have our buttocks wiped and cleaned.

Here follows a short selection of Italian memes, in chronological order, with a rough translation and the explanation of the situation they refer to. Please do not feel offended in looking at these memes but instead try to imagine what people making them could have thought. I think of them as acts of resistance, probably one of the few available when you cannot even leave your house.

I do not own the following memes, and I have attributed the author or the Facebook pages they were taken from. All credits, of course, go to the authors.

[Image1] 08/03/2020: 3916 cases of Covid-19 in Italy. 197 deaths. Lombardy and another 11 municipalities in the North of Italy are quarantined.


From Facebook page Prugna.

[Image 2] 10/03/2020: Milan is one of the most Covid-19 affected cities in Italy.

Barbie – Stroll in Milan *facemask not included.

From Facebook page MalEdizioni.

[Image 3] 13/03/2020: The Chinese Government sends medical help to Italian hospitals, while Germany and France adopt a more closed attitude.

Aragorn: “You must call for aid, my Lord!”
Theoden: “And who will come?”
Aragorn: “Europe will!”
Theoden: “Europe? Where was Europe when the virus came? Where was Europe when we run out of respirators? Where was Europe when…We are in quarantine. No one will come.”
*Chinese people*

Picture by Carlos Milite.

[Image 4] 21/03/2020: News about people in their 30s dying without underlying prior medical conditions.

“God is dead. But he had prior medical conditions”.

From Facebook page Kotiomkin.

These memes range from political satire to black humour. They can be read as a critique of the contingent political situation, but they also represent a collective form of resistance for overcoming the crisis. They give voice to the popular perception of topics such as foreign policy, or the Covid-19 itself, embodying a way to express our fears and, at the same time, working as a relief valve to cope with the uncertainty of these days through irony.

In the Decameron it is possible to grasp the direct experience of human beings in times of crisis, and to laugh represents a major part of it. Not only do the quarantined protagonists laugh, but also the characters appearing in the short novellas do so, and the reader as well. Risum movere – to generate laughter – is one of the intentions of the author, as he was aware of the ability of humour not only to entertain but also to heal the spirit. Similarly, these memes remind us that, during a crisis, even though it is important to find a new daily routine, to keep being productive, and to turn to mindful meditation may all help to handle the stress, it is also fine to take it easy, and to slouch on the couch scrolling social media just to have a laugh.

[1] Moran. C. and Massam, M. (1997). An evaluation of humour in emergency work. Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 1997(3), pp. 26-38.
[2] Alexander, D.A. and Wels, A. (1991). Reactions of Police Officers to Body-Handling After a Major Disaster. A Before-and-After Comparison. British Journal of Psychiatry, 159, pp. 547-555.
[3] Collinson, D.L. (2012). Engineering Humour: Masculinity, Joking and Conflict in Shop-floor Relations. Case Study methods in Business Research, 3, pp. 291-310.
[4] Sanders, T. (2004). Controllable Laughter Managing Sex Work through Humour. Sociology, 38, n. 2, pp. 273-291.
[5] Goffman, E. (1963). Behaviour in Public Places. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

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