“Self-portrait” in transit. Photo: Giada Lagana.
In Italy, Covid-19 started earlier than anywhere else in Europe. Italians living abroad, and especially those living in the UK, lived it twice: alone, among the sick men of Europe. The UK did not pay enough attention to what was happening, commented Luigi Ippolito in the Corriere della Sera, referring to the two-to-three week period when Italy was ahead in the coronavirus trajectory. The UK ‘lost the advantage that fate and Italy gave it…’ when it was obvious that the virus did not know borders.
This altered view of the UK government – as a not entirely serious, capable, or trustworthy machine –was only one of the reasons prompting Italians to repatriate. ‘Better the devil you know,’ some said. Others, from their window on the Bay, saw that the view of Britain as Europe’s ‘problem child’ predated the pandemic.
Italians have been repatriated from 117 countries in over 750 operations aboard planes, boats, and overland. From the UK, where I have been based, the only option is to fly from London Heathrow to Rome Fiumicino with Alitalia, the almost-bankrupted national airline company. Considering the fare – from £300 one-way – in a pandemic of unemployment, the Italian government has implemented an objectionable measure to save the company.
Upon arrival, returnees need to undergo a quarantine period of 14 days. They may be kept in government quarantine facilities, or they can choose to self-isolate. They are not allowed to take public transport and, if requiring temporary accommodation, they have to meet all the costs.
In my case, I set off from Cardiff, where I work, on a long Uber journey that took me in the first instance to London Heathrow. The Airport is a well-oiled machine. In this Noh* world of faceless people, gloved hands and incessant queuing to access the next queue, social distancing is the rule. It is in the airport that the endless process of filling forms begins: to prove your necessary reason to access Italy, your residency, and your quarantine address. An average of eight forms is given to each (prospective) passenger, without any real explanation of when and where the completed forms will be requested.
To be allowed to fly, you have to prove yourself free from illnesses, which generally means that medical authorities will check your temperature. And people are left behind. Without any right to be reimbursed, re-booked, nor to see the thermometer’s actual results.
On-board, you are a faceless mask amongst faceless masks. You are taught how to drink and eat with your mask on (!), as part of the initial safety explanations. No refreshments are served, to avoid the cabin crew having unnecessary contact with passengers. You are entitled to a drink if you ask for it (regular Ryanair customers would still find this a luxury). Upon arrival, disembarking the aircraft is done row by row, to avoid overcrowding the busses driving to the main terminal building. Only eighteen people are allowed into the busses.
‘Better the devil you know’… are you sure? If London Heathrow Airport is inexpressive, Rome Fiumicino reminds me of the main building of a modern Ellis Island. The structured social distancing of London’s Heathrow has been replaced by an overcrowded, overheated building. I sink into too-loudly-given instructions, health checks done on every four or five people (at the discretion of the authorities), and policemen asking me for forms that are never the right ones. ‘It is not our fault if things change every day’, said the man asking a young woman for her plans, unhappy with the answer. Behind, a lady with a northern accent commented: ‘Rome is the South. If we would have landed in Milan, it would have been all tidy and well explained. Here, when you give them too many instructions, you only confuse them.’ Politics in times of Covid-19… On average, it takes two hours to get out of Fiumicino Airport, where the nightmares are left behind, and tears of happiness wet the face masks.
From my quarantine address, it is evident that foreign perceptions of the UK as a badly governed, disorderly, embittered, and chronically divided country, took deep root in the politically chaotic years that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum. One disaster had swiftly followed another, but, from this perspective, it is wrong to think that Britain is the only lonely place. Italy is also displaying stunning levels of incompetence xenophobia, and scepticism against those who ‘left us alone’, particularly the European Union (EU).
Covid-19 reminds us all that, in a second, we can be discriminated against, segregated, and stopped at borders. Covid took away the familiar: nobody can touch, no hugs, no kisses. Everyone is faceless. If all we have learnt is more incompetence, more xenophobia, and more arrogance … we have literally learnt nothing from this experience.
My decision to go back to Italy (temporarily) was not taken as a political stance against the UK government. I live in Wales, where I have been welcomed and provided with a life and a future. I decided to go back to Italy because the effects of social distancing, mixed with this new virtual way of life, were becoming a burden too heavy to carry alone.
* Noh is a major form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Noh actors wear masks to cover their facial expression.
Dr Giada Lagana is a Research Associate at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University, working on the ESRC ‘Between Two Unions’ project with Professor Daniel Wincott examining the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) on the UK’s internal constitutional and intergovernmental arrangements. Her research focuses on the role of sub-state authorities during the withdrawal process, focusing on cross-border cooperation between Wales and the Island of Ireland since the 2016 referendum. She was awarded her PhD in political science and sociology at NUI Galway in February 2018, under the supervision of Professor Niall Ó Dochartaigh, looking at the role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process. She studied modern and contemporary history at the University of Pavia (Italy) before taking an MA in international relations and history, under the joint supervision of Didier Poton (Université de La Rochelle) and Michel Catala (Université de Nantes).