Holding our breath…

By Sara Bonfanti

Self-ethnography Intro

Covid-19 reached me sideways in Milan on 22nd Feb. I was enjoying a tour around the local Chinatown, expressly organized to support the Chinese community who has settled there since the 1930s and thrived, despite the mounting xenophobia addressing this national minority since the viremia had burst from its epicenter. My friend Wu Di sobbed along via Sarpi, pointing to a cocktail bar which exposed a banner “come in for a free happy hour, we are not viruses”. It took me little to see that not only racism but also the biological infection was turning from local to global, epidemic to pandemic. Three days after, public schools closed down in my region, as the first Italian patient infected with Covid hit the news and in a matter of weeks Italy, Lombardy and Bergamo itself, my city of residence, became the analog to Wuhan. My kids have endured 14 weeks of online schooling since then, and my own house temporarily morphed into a call center, with way too many digital devices connected all day long. I won’t retrace here the mass hysteria, public health collapse and lockdown measures set up nationwide to thwart this unprecedented challenge, nor will I open the dams of my personal distress (with both my parents infected, and my father rushed to intensive care and yet to return home). Flanked between relentless ambulance sirens and hundred coffins stocked in my neighborhood church, the drama lingering at my threshold forced me to stop and stare at my lengthy work on home and mobility. How could I retrieve and keep going with the research experience accumulated within HOMInG over years?

The current pandemic and its aftermath affected my research experience on three strands: enhanced my long-term relations with some South Asian informants; halted the making of our documentary movie in minority houses of worship; slowed down my budding fieldwork with Romanians in Italy.

Four key points

1. As Italy was the 1st country to enter lockdown in Europe, when I hadn’t realized how critical the circumstances were, collaborators from the UK surprised me with messages on WhatsApp & Messengers. Their short texts were caring and inquisitive at once: how were the kids and I coping, what was the situation like in my hometown, in terms of severity? One photo sent from a dear Brit-Sikh friend drove me to tears: a dozen believers were doing Amrit Vela (dawn supplication) in a Southall Gurdwara, praying for Italy to be freed from the plague. Some ethnographic relations based nearby and going through the same emotional hurdles gave me a ring: partly to let go of their own anguish, partly to ask practical information while our PM was emitting new declarations. My interlocutors met with irony the weekly form to download and fill in if someone had to leave their house for ‘unavoidable purposes’. Many challenged that sibylline formula “far visita ai congiunti”… who were those alleged relatives that once Italy entered phase2 could be visited at their home (or invited over to one’s place)? Not that these puzzles were alien to non-migrants, but that contingent (il)logics sounded even more confusing to those who might not master the national language and fell short of supporting kin networks.

2. It’s yet to be seen whether the sudden disruption of the run-of-the-mill will affect the return to past routines. Domesticities have been reshuffled widely, and there is a combination of structural aspects to ponder: including the intersection between migrant (non)belonging and socio-economic marginality. Considering the transnational Asian families settled in Europe I’ve heard from these months, being self-confined at home with household members was troublesome for the most vulnerable: forced social distancing and the tightening of intimacy meant that carers often doubled their labor at home, while occasions for public life were temporarily reduced close to zero. It is a matter of fact that women often fared worse, whatever their life assets were.

3. Now, despite lockdowns are being lifted, social distancing measures keep running: until people are compelled to maintain physical distance and to wear face masks (thus preventing facial expressions), banned from gathering in crowds and/or limited in entering others’ private spaces, shifting part of our research online is a sensible move. We will have to confront data losses from failing to engage with the real world in its embodied manifestation, but we may also take up the challenge to explore the social media cosmos of our informants and/or to join them in specific online community activities… I assume there might be some gains insofar as visual analysis will be easier to conduct and partly compensate for the lack of participant observation.

4. I can foresee a couple of macro scenarios in relation to home and migration post Covid-19. First, mass phobia and discontents might fuel an exacerbation of enduring stigmas for certain populations, especially undocumented migrants who may be at increased risk of unfair monitoring and tracking (for alleged public health safety). Furthermore, we may be entering a more regulated era especially for low-skilled labor migrants: hired through temporary contracts, benefitting of fewer family reunifications, living in more isolated dwellings and possibly being restricted in their relations with locals.

Ethnographic reflections: worship houses go viral – from shut doors to cagey reopening

The most immediate effect of Covid-19 apparent paralysis was the disruption of the shooting schedule my co-director and I had arranged to proceed with our ethnographic movie. As we were both confined in our homes, the houses of worship where we had barely entered and started to win over the confidence of gatekeepers were closed down until further notice. Months going by, all our targeted temples in Brescia remained inaccessible, and we could only keep in touch with cult leaders via phone calls and following their public pages on social media, watching ritual celebrations webcast from deserted worship rooms (or from the inner chambers of those premises). Since the start of Covid-19 emergency, while online prayers pretended a sense of normalcy, all religious associations have engaged in special fundraising: in Brescia, Centro Culturale Islamico was quick to deploy its alms or zakat for civic purposes such as donating respiratory machineries to the city hospital where hundred locals were battling against the disease. To replace the usual cash boxes left empty, information circulated online on how to donate on a dedicated bank account. In addition to genuine generosity, all minority-based associations took the chance to get involved with local solidarity. This mandate is ever more crucial for houses of worship, which have only recently reopened their doors, after the Italian Government signed a Protocol of Agreement with all cults (prompted by the Catholic Church) to resume religious activities in presence. Since 18th May, these semipublic homes went back to welcome their followers, though formal prescriptions are operating: visitors are counted up, screened with a temperature scanner, need to stand/knee/bow at least 1m away from each other, and wear a sanitary mask. Wajahat and I are walking back into this slippery terrain: aware that our ethical reasoning calls for reassessment and that our video will document a critical event, a pandemic that has changed people’s perceptions and experiences of private homes, but also of community ones. The subtitle of our movie recited: ‘an ethnographic film on freedom of worship and the right to the city’. Will these two tenets of living with diversity survive this new era when “we are all holding our breath, but some tighter than others” like the local Imam forewarned live on FB?