Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Mediating Covid – Following the #. Italians and ‘Biographical Continuity’ Under Covid-19
Veronica Moretti, Department of Sociology and Business Law, University of Bologna, Italy
Anwesha Chakraborty, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, Italy
It is adequate information about a situation that enables individuals to have expectations and to predict how certain circumstances might affect their lives . Being familiar with a condition contributes to reinforcing our 'ontological security': a sense of continuity and order in events . Giddens suggests that this sense of continuous narrative – what he calls biographical continuity – entails the stability of the self’s existence and confidence of its social interaction . Maintaining a stable biographical continuity helps individuals and societies, since it brackets out issues about ourselves, others, and the object-world, which have to be taken for granted in order to preserve ordinary activity .
However, some events can radically change our lives, deeply altering the functioning of society and the individual sense of security in establishing norms and routines, disrupting the stability of identity, and therefore the biographical continuity of a whole nation. The present Coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) is one such event which has already had an enormous impact on how we behave, how we learn, how we work, and how we socialise and routinise our activities.
Through this short article we have attempted to piece together a tentative biographical continuity of residents in Italy, using the more prominent hashtags prevalent in some of the most important social media platforms, focusing primarily on content shared by politicians. We identified four main phases (during the first six weeks of the pandemic) which we call the Italian ‘biographical continuity’ during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Phase 1: #reluctancephase
On January 23rd, 2020, two Chinese tourists landed at the airport of Milano Malpensa for a tour in Italy. After a while, they were hospitalised in Rome in a critical condition, where they tested positive once the SARS-CoV-2 virus test was administered.
This episode articulates the genesis of the pandemic in Italy, the escalation of which proved to be more severe and fierce than in most other European countries. In the beginning, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as shown in image 1, said that the situation was under control, and that Italian citizens were safe. The hashtag (#)coronavirus began to spread through the Italian territory and social networks.
Despite some measures being introduced, a fairly ‘nonchalant’ attitude towards control over the situation was evident in this first phase. We therefore identify this phase as #reluctancephase.
Things were, however, about to change fast. In less than a month (21st February), eleven municipalities in northern Italy (most of them in Lombardy) were identified as the centres of the two main Italian clusters, and recognized as ‘red zones’ (zone rosse).
Phase 2: #resistancephase
In the first week of the contagion there was a lot of effort – as reported in the media – to show that Italian businesses would not stop and that tourists were welcome. Museums and other tourist attractions in the most affected regions reopened within a week. Beppe Sala, the Mayor of Milan, who had launched the hashtag #milanononsiferma (Milan will not stop – image 2) which characterised this early trend, later acknowledged, towards the end of March, that his campaign was ill-timed.
This ‘virus-resistance’ trend was adopted by several famous people, including other politicians. Nicola Zingaretti, a politician from Rome and Secretary of the centre-left Partito Democratico, promoted the same message as Beppe Sala (see image 3), tweeting that while we (Italians) need to defeat the virus using science, we should not destroy normal life and give into panic. He was also seen sharing a drink with youngsters in Milan.
We call this period the #resistancephase. In this phase, and with respect to the virus, many people showed a sense of action  in maintaining active behaviour and keeping up with routines and everyday life, and also a sense of opposition , symbolically rejecting the disruption caused by the virus.
However, the same Zingaretti, after a few days, revealed to the public that he had tested positive. Shown in image 4 is a meme posted on 7th March by Spinoza.it, a popular Facebook page which served as a satirical commentary on current Italian politics laced with humour and which highlighted the need for acquiring new awareness of the situation and taking a different course of action. The first image (NO) on the top panel shows Zingaretti sharing a drink with young people while in the bottom panel (SI) Pierluigi Bersani (another Italian politician) is drinking and working alone, thereby signalling what would become the norm in the days to come, staying at home and practising social distancing. The post was liked by almost 7000 people and shared by almost 4000, also signalling that a new phase had begun.
Phase 3: #resiliencephase
If in the initial days, the trending hashtag was #milanononsiferma, by March 8th, it was #iorestoacasa (I will stay home). In the span of a day, the so-called ‘red zones’ were abolished and the whole of Italy was put under lockdown after the decree (Io Resto a Casa) was announced by Prime Minister Conte on the 9th of March (see image 5). Conte’s tweet invoked the importance of the family as the primary social unit. He wrote that the future of Italy is in the hands of its people. Everyone must contribute and renounce certain things for the well-being of the collective. At stake is the health of our loved ones, our parents, children and grandparents.
The decree ‘Io Resto a Casa’ also called for a major change in lifestyle and habits. Italians were encouraged to stay home, hang out on the cyber space, drink online with friends, chat with neighbours from balconies and, in general, adopt virtual social encounters. Basically, a whole society had moved from socialising spaces of piazzas and restaurants to the confines of their balconies and rooftops. This turn of events is what we call #resiliencephase.
Phase 4: #recoveryphase
‘Andrà tutto bene’ (Everything will be alright) is the positive leitmotiv that was repeated across Italy since March 12th, 2020. The initiative was born primarily as a form of entertainment for children, considering that many parents feared that the social distancing measures may have significant repercussions on their lives. The goal was to post, through various social networks, (Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) images of hearts and rainbows to promote signs of trust, and to initiate a ‘positive’ campaign. This initiative was officially publicised by influential politicians, such as the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi (image 6). She tweeted about the hashtag as a message of hope which she wanted to convey to all citizens.
The initiative was also carried out offline, since many parents hung colourful banners outside their balconies and windows (image 7). As an activity, children were asked to ‘colour the virus’. Therefore, we decided to name this trend as #recoveryphase (or sceptically #wishfulthinkingphase)
A few final thoughts
Biographical continuity might lead people or states to adjust behaviour to maintain consistent self-concepts , or to stimulate communities to construct secure identities. This condition is harder to attain under Covid-19, since both the self and social continuity are moving targets. However, the sense of the Italian self as a part of the larger Italian community, and increasingly, the role of family, were reaffirmed through the various phases.
In the end, we were inspired by the playfulness of the final phase to plot these # trends in the following graph (image 8) that shows the correspondence of different phases with the sense of biographical continuity, as explained in this early attempt to periodise the phases of online communication of the Covid-19 crisis.
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All pictures captured and hashtags selected belong to public and open profiles.
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