Pandemic Borders

Did the COVID-19 pandemic revive nationalism?

It only took a sub-microscopic pathogen to confirm that, when a crisis strikes, it is the national framework that becomes crucial in offering a sense of security to disoriented masses.

Marco Antonsich
22 July 2020
Merchants from the Porta Palazzo market improvise a flash mob by singing the Italian anthem and waving Italian flags to celebrate the 159th anniversary of the unification of Italy. 17 March 2020
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Picture by Nicol Campo/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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If the present pandemic has shown anything, it is that nations matter. Yes, it seems quite obvious. But in a world traversed by incessant flows of information, goods, capital and, to a lesser extent, people, the fate of the nation has recurrently been depicted as doomed: an obsolescent socio-spatial register, out of tune with increasingly transnational and cosmopolitan societies. And yet, it only took a sub-microscopic pathogen to confirm that, when a crisis strikes, it is the national framework that becomes crucial in offering a sense of security to disoriented masses.

In what follows, I would like to use the case of Italy (the country of my nationality) and the United Kingdom (my country of residence) to reflect on what we can learn about the nation facing the present global pandemic. I am not interested here in governmental responses which have securitised the health threat in terms of a threat to national security (despite the virus being a global threat). Neither am I interested in the militaristic language deployed by many national governments and mass media to respond to this threat, which equally reinforces national borders as the principal lines of defence against the virus. My interest instead is in the emotional responses of the general public facing the pandemic and the extent to which these responses have contributed to reproduce a sense of nationhood.

When Italy became the first European country to experience the highest levels of coronavirus contagion and related deaths, my cousin forwarded me a video which was circulating on social media. Produced and aired by a popular Italian radio (Radio 105), the video narrates the stories of ordinary and famous Italians who directed their courage and inventiveness towards helping the nation fight the virus. The message of the video, like others which can be found on the web, is imbued with feelings of national pride and solidarity.

A sense of national exceptionalism, merged with feelings of pride and solidarity, heralds the nation as the main register of identification in times of crisis

What’s more, after showcasing the Italian spirit of abnegation, the video ends with the phrase: “but the others cannot understand all this because… they are not Italians”. Italy is unique. Italians have no match in the world. A sense of national exceptionalism, merged with feelings of pride and solidarity, heralds the nation as the main register of identification in times of crisis. Singing from balconies and flagging rainbow drawings with the phrase “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be all right) have also become spontaneous widespread practices, helping people to find a sense of security, reassurance and hope within this shared national atmosphere.

The UK has not been different. From the beginning of the pandemic, the government’s slogan ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ has deeply resonated with people’s feelings. In the British national narrative, the NHS is a national symbol, highly valued by the British people who, in a survey, listed it at the top of the things that make them proud to be British. Thus, it was no surprise to see the success of the grassroot initiative ‘Clap for our Carers’, which every Thursday at 8pm saw millions of people clapping and banging pots and pans to pay respect to the NHS and other key workers.

The same pandemic has in fact revealed, both in Italy and in the UK, how the nation is far from such a unified and unifying register

The same enthusiasm moved a World War II veteran, Captain Tom, to walk 100 laps around his garden to raise money for the NHS. His challenge ‘captured the hearts’ of the whole nation, no less than the millions of rainbows drawn by children to symbolise national resilience and hope. Here, like in Italy, an atmosphere of national affect brought people together, confirming how the nation is something to celebrate, identify with and hold on to in times of uncertainty.

But it would be erroneous to think that the coronavirus has simply reinforced the thrust of the nation in an increasingly – at least until recently – globalising world. The same pandemic has in fact revealed, both in Italy and in the UK, how the nation is far from such a unified and unifying register.

In Britain, for instance, many of the heroes acclaimed every Thursday evening have turned out to be denizens, often racialized minorities, who, according to the new point-based immigration system, might have no place in a post-Brexit Britain. The higher coronavirus death rate among ethnic minorities has also exposed the persistent socio-economic divides which run deeply within the British nation.

In the case of Italy, ethnic minorities have been completely absent from any media coverage of the pandemic, offering the flawed perception that Italy continues to remain an ethnically homogeneous nation when in fact about 10% of its population is foreign born.

The pandemic has also exposed deep-seated territorial fractures. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have adopted different measures to contain the virus compared to England: different policies which also speak of profound national differences. Similarly, in Italy, regional powers have adopted different measures to deal with the spread of the virus, putting the regional interest before the national one, particularly when it came to end the lockdown.

In the case of Italy, ethnic minorities have been completely absent from any media coverage of the pandemic

If the pandemic shows that nations matter, particularly as affective spaces in times of crisis, it also shows that nations continue to remain contested spaces, riddled with social tensions and territorial fractures. In other words, the pandemic has not exposed something which we did not know about the nation, but simply amplified, on the one hand, affective manifestations which concur to reproduce the nation in the everyday life and, on the other hand, lines of ethno-racial and territorial divisions which persist beyond the fleeting moment of singing or clapping together.

If, during the pandemic, governments have capitalised on popular manifestations of affective nationalism, which have helped them side-line the above mentioned tensions and fractures, it is likely that in the aftermath of the pandemic these tensions and fractures will appear with new vigour, fuelled by the economic havoc produced by the pandemic. The unifying power of affective nationalism will be tested then.

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