The Importance of Community During the Pandemic

Somehow 2020 is flying by, despite all of the waiting. Time feels broken. Long have we been twiddling our thumbs, and all the while our lives seem to be carrying on without us. Birthdays, weddings, convocations, exhibitions, all manner of ceremonies have been muted; they seem poor imitations of themselves, threadbare excuses for what was only recently taken for granted. Still they pass, with or without our appreciation. We wait and now we are growing resentful of the waiting, becoming fatigued. The end is not in sight, though it’s rumoured to be around the next long corner. The sensation is difficult to make sense of.

Already there is something peculiar about looking back through the chapters of the pandemic. The shortages of toilet paper and the sensational emptying of the world’s tourism hubs are a thing of the past, yet the root of the problems lingers and refuses to be killed. In fact, because of our collective fatigue with the countermeasures, a second wave is swelling all around the world.

This summer, we asked four different Italian Canadians about their diverse experiences enduring the pandemic’s opening act. Thus we have defined a small cross-section worth examining, if only because its scope is manageable. What is the thread, we might ask, that stretches through this experience? What is it that we’re learning? Nearly everyone seems to be impatient to find out.

Right from the beginning, whole aspects of routine life have vanished and many of our social circles have been severely diminished. As soon as we relaxed, we locked down again. Emotions have ebbed and flowed with the numbers and the small-world feel of viral international news. All the while, we have missed one another.

Paolo Frascà, a University of Toronto professor, immigrated from Italy, had to stay put in Canada for the summer and not return to his family, as he has done every summer before. “That has been difficult to deal with,” he says. “I really miss being back in Calabria with loved ones.”

Paolo Frascà is a professor at the University of Toronto.

And without people like Paolo travelling, there are also economic consequences, of course: Sandro Di Girolamo is a corporate travel counsellor who watched his entire industry shrivel down to almost nothing, practically overnight. “We are operating at 5-10% of our normal levels, so revenues are close to nil. With little family in Montreal, and all friends quarantining, I have mostly lived the life of a hermit since March.”

And in Vancouver, writer Monica Meneghetti returned home from a retreat and a “near media blackout” in March, arranged with the hope of finding a sense of peace and calm to find that the news was more overwhelming than ever. “Returning home to the reality of a global pandemic was a rude shock – even more so because I found out my parenti were in the epicentre of the Italian crisis.”

Physician Silvana Barone had to adapt her practice, first “completely to telemedicine,” and then returning to the clinic with the constantly lingering threat of the virus spreading. “One of the hardest things,” she says “was not being able to see my parents and having to keep them away from their grandchildren. That was very hard on everyone.” For all of our interviewees, connection to one’s family has seemed the most important and one of the most threatened factors in life moving forward. With the world’s eye on Italy in the early unfolding of the virus’s mortal consequences, Italian Canadians looked to their roots with a mix of pride and concern.

“Back in Italy, my grandparents rediscovered the importance of . . . community kinship when it comes to staying safe,” says Paolo, noting Italy’s widespread adaptation to the drastic measures required to mitigate the spread of the virus. His sentiment is echoed by what Sandro has learned from his aunts in Rome and Le Marche: “The tragedy of all the deaths in Bergamo and Northern Italian regions most probably alerted the rest of the population to the severity of the situation.” His aunts who are elderly, he says, “respected the measures in place, well aware of the consequences of breaking curfews.”


Silvana Barone is a pediatrician in Montreal.

Both Monica and Silvana recall the musical performances on the balconies all across Italy, shared in videos online. “They tried to bring some joy and humanity to a difficult situation,” says Silvana. “That certainly showcased the Italian spirit that I know and love.” Monica, living in Vancouver, even came to envy the “beautiful music” of those balconies when outside her own home there was instead a nightly “cacophony” of pots and pans driven up to salute the frontline workers. Her envy, she admits, is “a form of Italo-snobbism, I suppose,” and in the end she confesses that the thundering of the kitchenware did begin to synchronize: “folks started to listen to each other’s noise, and bang more or less in unison.” A small victory, but a victory all the same in the name of coordination. Looking back, we remember what dread really had hold then, what tiny gestures mattered when none of this felt normal.

And good news really was spied and shared, throughout the ordeal. After the first wave of fear came an influx of sympathy: “A lot of people I hadn’t spoken to in a while reached out through social media and I felt a greater connection to others,” says Silvana. And Sandro realizes the same significance: “Issues such as health and friendships are what matter.”

Monica has noticed the same, and even begun to miss some aspects of the early pandemic: the peace and the quiet, the neighbourliness. “Suddenly folks were saying hello as they passed each other on the sidewalk. The only sound outside my window in the morning was birdsong.” Priorities, it seems, shifted, and for some this is cause for optimism.

“I hope that life does not return to the old ‘normal,’” says Paolo. “I hope we move on from this without wanting to go ‘back,’ but instead wanting to move forward.” Silvana even goes so far as to “refuse to accept that this is the ‘new normal.’” And it proves a disturbing phrase for most, having largely been discarded now while we wait for the next step to come. She continues: “My hope is that we will hold on to a lot of the positive things that came from the pandemic – greater vigilance with regard to hygiene and staying home when sick, more flexibility around working from home, a greater respect for our natural environment, and a new appreciation for our home life.”

“I now understand how cultural norms arise in reaction to stressful events,” says Monica insightfully, “and I’m less judgmental about the norms of the past as a result. I hope some of the positive changes in our society will stick.”

But Monica immediately admits that “routines die hard.” We see now an impatient creeping back toward old habits, the odd person disregarding their mask. In the news cycle now there appears to be a desperation throughout the world to will the virus away and just carry on. For Sandro, it cannot be so simple. His industry is fundamentally changed. “The first lesson,” he says that he has learned, “is don’t live paycheque to paycheque.” He has lived off of his savings through this emergency, and living alone at home he has had nothing but time to consider a career change. “I’ve been joking for a few years that I would have to start thinking about retirement soon,” he says. “That changed because of the pandemic. Having all this time at home doing little made me realize I need to remain physically and mentally active, and that I have not yet found the proper replacement for work to occupy my time.”

The gravity of the sudden changes necessary around the world, for many, has felt too much to bear. Cultural tempos might have been hastening as it was, but this year change has been rampant and wild. As Monica puts it: “At any given moment across the globe, humans are having completely different, often opposite, experiences during this pandemic. And very often, emotions arise that we didn’t expect the experience to provoke.” But, that any progress has been made ought to be cause for pride and a returning sense of resilience. Privileges have been sacrificed for the greater good, and at the same time adjustments in supply chains have provoked a rearrangement of incredible wealth. One thing that is for certain is that we all still have skin in the game.

Things are certain to change moving forward, as they always do. The advice from Monica in Vancouver then, when asked what the most valuable lesson from the experience so far has been, is simply to “surrender.” Loss comes first. The old normal is gone and it will not return. What we make of the future is up to us. “Slow down,” says Silvana; “breathe a little more mindfully, and be thankful for our breath.” A good enough place to start, considering the circumstances.

Kyle McKinnon is an intern at Accenti, and currently studying English Literature at Bishop’s University. Having long admired the limitless beauty of nature, music and storytelling, he has travelled throughout Canada and Europe, listening keenly to the stories told with sincerity and compassion. Formerly apprenticed as a home-builder, he is sure to measure his words twice and to cut them once.   



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