‘Can a pandemic break down stereotypes?’

CAN this pandemic break down stereotypes once and for all and make us realise that we are more similar than we thought?

A few weeks ago, when Italy went into lockdown, life in the UK went on as usual.

For days I felt like my life had been turned upside down. What I was living was surreal.

My family and friends in Italy were telling me how they could only leave home to go food shopping and they even needed permission for that.

But here, it was ‘business as usual’.

Most of my British friends looked at the situation in Italy with concern and hoped it would get better.

But there were others who told me not to worry because the UK would never go into lockdown “because of the nature of its society and culture”.

“British people need to go out, we need to do things,”they told me.

But what does that mean? What were they trying to tell me? Was there really a cultural reason behind the UK’s approach to Covid-19?

Why, in a situation like this, there was still someone who would say Italians were using coronavirus as an excuse to have a siesta? Is there still room for stereotypes in these circumstances and in 2020?

I asked these questions to Simone Varriale, a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.

“I understand why some people immediately think that two different approaches are down to two different cultures but in the case of a pandemic there’s a lot more. There are also political and economic reasons,” he says.

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In his career Simone analysed European cultures, with a focus on the Italian and British ones.

He explains that each country has its own way to talk about its identity.

“One of the ones used by English people is about people who work hard. There are historical reasons for that. British capitalism was one of the first and other southern European countries had to play catch-up. Culture is a way to explain things which are a bit more complicated such as politics, history and economy,” Mr Varriale adds.

He says sometimes it is also what decision-makers use to justify their actions.

However, Mr Varriale highlights how using culture to explain more complex issues could also lead to racism and xenophobia.

“But can we continue to use these ideas that are now hundreds of years old? I’d rather not,” he says.

I tell him how I can’t stop finding similarities between how Italians and Britons are coping with the lockdown  – and I am not referring to the countries’ policies.

He agrees with me and says: “There are many similarities and they go beyond culture such as being worried for our jobs or family and friends.”

He believes there’s a positive way to look at this situation.

“There can be a way to talk about this pandemic which goes beyond the cultural differences and highlights that we are all in this together. It requires a shared solution and it requires we protect the most vulnerable groups in all countries affected.”

So after we saw, both in Italy and in the UK, pictures of rainbows springing up in windows and a round of applause to thank doctors and nursers, I asked Mr Varriale if we do have to expect Britons singing from their windows soon.

He laughs and says he doesn’t know.

But he reminds me again that we are all in this together.

The appreciation for doctors, nurses and carers and the thousands of messages of hope have probably already shown us that we have more in common than we thought and that when it comes to fight an invisible enemy unity, love and resilience can make a difference.

And maybe, when all this will be over, stereotypes will be over too.

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