The grand narrative of COVID-19 pandemic in citizenship

Joseph Mallord William Turner Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus Homer’s Odyssey 

The citizenship grand narrative:

From an independent study of Fondazione ISTUD, more than one hundred narratives in Italy from students, adult, and elderly people locked in their houses were collected from March to the end of April 2020. Proceeding from the low ranking to the number one used metaphor, the fourth group of the most recurring metaphors was that of images that described the sense of perceived “destruction”; the arrival of the virus was seen by many as a natural sudden and disruptive catastrophe, like a tsunami, a tycoon: “We have all been overwhelmed by a tsunami”“the pandemic broke out which affected all the services hospital”“certainties can be swept away in no time”. More, there were frequent images of the ugly “nightmare” from which we hope to wake up: “It seems to me to have been catapulted into a nightmare”“I would like to wake up in the morning and get out of this nightmare”; feeling “inside an apocalyptic film”“the hysteria that storms supermarkets like in a post-apocalyptic film”“inside the movie Lethal Virus”; the “wound” that comes to be perceived in the bodies: “I felt a blade that entered my side”“someone even manages to smile at you the broken soul”. Finally, the feeling of living inside a “bubble”, “a parallel universe”: “it seems that everyone lives his life, in a soap bubble”, “as if on February 21, 2020, in Italy a kind of door space-time and had sucked us all into a kind of parallel universe”.

The third most recurrent image in describing the experiences of these first months of the pandemic was that of “imprisonment” in homes, for some considered as protection but for others called “cloister”, “prison”, “cage”: “In the forced cloister I am confined to”“shopping has become a bit like the hour of air”, “we are all at home under house arrest.” This was and still is particularly remarkable in the younger generations but also for elderly people, in which there was an upgrading of the word “isolation” to “shielding”, evocating protection, however with a shield, an object used during war. 

The second group of the most represented metaphors was that of “time suspension”, “the frozen world” – now a familiar concept to us, that we currently use during our on-line meeting when there is a line crash -; people’s lives were suspended, “in a limbo”, waiting to find again certainties about the future: “everything has frozen, inside and outside of me”“I live in a suspended time”“the whole world has paralyzed”. For the first time in this new millennium, Time has acquired a different flavour in the citizens’ grand narrative:  due to the individual limits of movement, caused by the global lock down, the continuity of a routine such as going to school, or to the office, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, was stopped. The house (when available) and its perimeter became the only allowed space where to live and spend time, mainly cleaning it, overwhelmed by the fear of contagion: journeys were not allowed, and very constrained yet. For health care professionals, the new routine was characterized by commuting between home and hospitals: all medical congresses with related journeys were cancelled and transferred on virtual journeys. Time has acquired a different meaning, having to do with a “bubble, lingering” effect. Many narratives reported the shock of moving from hectic life of physical connections, made by flights, trains, and car transportation, to the stopping into a “bubble”. Although in many fields the business continuity was somehow guaranteed by the digital tools, time was mainly perceived as “frozen” since, apart from the ambulances, the devoted health care professionals, and the food and goods chain.

We all know quite well the at the top of all used metaphor they do reconnect with  “war” during the COIVD-19 pandemic, mirroring the media and the health care professional language, therefore  the realm of conflict. 

Now, after one year of enduring COVID-19 and although the vaccine campaign started, we are living with the difficulties of an efficient logistic supply chain of vaccines, with daily announcements of new lock downs in many western countries. The policymakers and media narratives are still on the war side, every day broadcasting new infection rates and numbers of “victims”, using the same term as if we were in a war. How long can we bear a war without being traumatized? Elena Semino is an expert in metaphor analysis[1] and she works on reframing the used metaphors to create healthier and more efficient images, and therefore beliefs, for the citizens, policymakers, and health providers. She proposes to switch from being soldiers to the metaphor of fire-fighters. Fire, she explains, conveys danger and urgency, distinguishing between different phases of the pandemic; explains how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that; explains measures for reducing contagion; portrays the role of health workers; connects the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems; and outline post-pandemic futures. In particular: “Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.” (Wilson, 2020).  Beyond the image of the fire, we can see here the image of being an interconnected forest that can live in peace, if no harm has done to our ecosystem, and no major turbulent factors are there: we are an entangled community of livings. 

Fire Fighters reminds us also the heroes of 9/11, who were photographed when going upstairs facing the death, when the flow of people was going downstairs in the Towers of the Trade World Centres in New York. And this recalls us immediately a war terrorist attack, with an external enemy able to spread death of 2996 innocent people up to  of whom 343, were, as a matter of fact,  firefighters.

Learning from the myth

Can we proceed further? Are there more powerful and effective model which can help in this time and in this place? I endorse the use of the myth, coming from the long journey of the Odyssey. There is a man, Odysseus, who travels for twenty years in search of his lost homeland: he has to face enduring trials and, in the meanwhile, he learns also how to live and enjoy with the sudden daily discoveries; watching at the future, he keeps a constant eye at the present, not in its “seize the day” format, but in its wise, vigilant, strategic, emotional, affective, creative, and respectful attitude. This man is Odysseus that Homer, the Greek poet, if ever existed, defines a man from the “multifaceted genius”: in Greek, the world “multifaceted” is literally “multi-directional”, “polytropos”. 

I think that we should go back to this immense mythological character, Odysseus, who can during this long journey, disappear, mask, reveal himself only when appropriate. He makes many mistakes, indeed, but he learns from his errors. Odysseus enters into the Polyphemus cave, the cyclops, desecrating therefore the living of a wildlife creature. This is his biggest errors for two reasons: the first contingent reason is that Polyphemus eats human flesh of his crew and it is very difficult to escape from the cave; the second strategic reason is that, after the blinding of the cyclops, Odysseus will have against the power of Poseidon, God of the Sea and Father of the Cyclopes. The journey of the return to Ithaki will become longer for this mariner king.  

Haven’t we in the last centuries desecrated the life of our earth?  Is there a possible causal relationship between what the humankind did to the planet all over the centuries, and the contemporary increase in spillovers up to the generation of COVID-19? Quammen says yes, David Attenborough says yes[2], I do say yes, very likely.  

Here is the time, In Covid-19 ages, for a contemporary rethinking of our responsibilities during this life journey, our Odyssey, using multifaced genius, to protect humankind and our planet, which is symbolized by the Whole Island of Ithaki. The journey could be a long sailing with storms and high waves, but also with a calm and serene sea, and dangerous shallow water again: by analogy, it could display wonderful gifts, nice met strangers in this net surfing, scientific discoveries, new therapies, cooperative networks, and beautiful ethics values represented by a spiritual inner and outer traveling.  

[1] Elena Semino, “Not Soldiers but Fire-fighters” – Metaphors and Covid-19, Pages 50-58 | Published online: 10 Nov 2020, Health Communication, October 2020,
[2] David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, Ebyry Publishing 2020

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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