Sides of the Same Coin

Photo by Joey Kyber on

A personal glance at different sides of history during the COVID-19 lockdown

Student Commentary

By Caterina Fassina / Staff Writer

The lockdown period in Milan was savage. Everyone knew at least one person who was fighting against COVID-19 or that died from it. For centuries, when death entered the public sphere again as during the Middle Ages, we had learned to confine it within our households. This year, thoughts and emotions filled every hour we consciously lived during the day. Insomnia extended minutes during the night. It seemed there was no room for creation. Inspiration was at its lowest level.  

Italian media were not helpful. They interviewed politicians and health care experts yelling at each other over their opinions about the illness. Virologists bickered publicly on state television, and everyone took the side of those who resembled the idea they already had. It was the failure of a communication model as it misunderstands the public sphere for a place of fruitless conversation. For the sake of our democratic freedom of expression, our mental health was put at stake. 

If we cannot step outside of our households, the media are responsible for telling what happens outside. Milanese people tried to do their best to cope with the situation and its representation.  Even if the media did not fulfil their promise to hold the powerful into account and inform rather than misinform, they were trying to craft a rational framework. They resembled the mayhem of Italian politics. Politics, along with its communication strategies, was the origin of the chaos, and the Italian press committed the error of following it instead of challenging it.  

In a video essay that the Tecmerin Revista, the academic issue of the University Carlos III in Madrid, chose to feature for its October issue, I chose to juxtapose how Italian media footage appeared on national television with scenes from my family’s everyday life. Watch it  here.

The creative process behind this video essay, Sides of the Same Coin, was born unconsciously. I only knew I wanted to capture ordinary people’s strategies to keep traditions alive, confronting them with the mainstream narratives by media and politicians. Indeed, the video explores the level of impact the illness had on Italian families.  

My family lives on the outskirts of Milan. We are a privileged family, since we own a large house with a garden and a vegetable garden. There is plenty of room to respect everyone’s need for space. My father did not lose his job, and we, his daughters, own a laptop each.  

COVID-19 hit us when we stepped out of our house, but our family traditions remained mostly unchanged. We kept playing Monopoly, and my dad grilled on Sundays like he does when spring begins. Overall, we managed to keep the pandemic outside of our household.  

The video essay compares this situation with other families, who were begging for food and money. They were not privileged enough to keep the economic outcomes of COVID-19 outside of their families’ homes. Their family traditions profoundly changed as the social polarization in Italy widened. It was another country, another reality from the one I experienced every day. 

Messages from the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte underlined how we were all benefiting “from the others’ sacrifices,” even when many families were left behind. In a schizophrenic communication strategy, politics became egocentric. They were the ones making the decisions without even talking to the civic actors involved. They displayed a kind of governmental practice that forgets the individual. 

Sides of the Same Coin explores this dichotomy: A “great history” of politicians and media narratives unfolding significant disruptions and a “micro history” displaying ordinary people’s lives, which clashes with the narrative made in the public sphere.  

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) introduced this division of history at the beginning of the 20th century. He argued that history cannot be read as one. Instead, there is the historia (history of mainstream narrative) and microhistoria (the small histories of the people). They run parallel to each other, and the latter is independent.  

However, his claims are not accurate, as Sides of the Same Coin depicts. Although his division of history persists even nowadays, it does not apply to the oppressed. When great disruptions happen within the “great” history, this exasperates social polarization, and the most unfit die. In other words, the life and the traditions of the unprivileged change radically.  

Unamuno’s division of history works within the boundaries of a bourgeois society where politics and media are not at the service of the finance industry, stocks, and all those trade terms we do not even understand. We do not live in such a society anymore. Through globalization, finance and international markets took over governmental powers, orienting policies for their own profit. We did not acknowledge the consequences this model caused, and keeps causing, until they harmed Western welfare and social policies. 

The national economic distress leaves the unprivileged behind. A significant portion of Italian children could not follow online classes as their parents could not afford to buy them a laptop. The digital divide increased its toll on younger generations, causing social exclusion, intellectual isolation, and education gaps.  

Approaching Christmas time, our traditions will change profoundly. Some among us will not be able to go home. Those who will go back to their parents won’t have a proper Christmas dinner with their family. Lost relatives won’t connect to Christmas videocalls. COVID-19 changed our traditions; yet, to what extent, depends on our privileges, which are fluid.    

Christmas and New Year’s Eve are two moments in which we think about the past year and our future plans. We experienced and witnessed extreme chaos during 2020. As young adults approaching life, we should re-think and build tomorrow’s world, advocating for politics that fight the exclusion brought by social Darwinism and strive for more ethical media that struggles to create a more inclusive public sphere.  

Caterina Fassina is senior student and Matthew member from Milan majoring in Communications and Political Science. We thank her for ongoing contribution to the newspaper as a staff writer and podcast host and congratulate her for concluding her studies at JCU.