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Getting lonelier: the forbidden spaces of sociality during the lockdown in Santiago

Alfonso Otaegui27 July 2020

“I hope that I will overcome this [the pandemic], given that us, older adults, are more susceptible to being attacked by this bloody virus”, says Don Francisco. Don Francisco is a 78-year-old retired electrician. He lives in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the western part of Santiago, not far from the central train station. He lives alone, as he is a widower and has no children, no siblings, nor any remaining family. Since lockdown started in March, I have had regular contact with Don Francisco every week through WhatsApp. He is one of the former students of my smartphone workshops.

As I said in a previous post, the COVID-19 crisis —and its corollary, the quarantine—have mostly enhanced what was already there: inequality, insecurity, instability of the job market. When it comes to older adults such as Don Francisco, it has revealed the relevance of little everyday interactions and the impact of digital exclusion.

Due to the lockdown, Don Francisco has seen his usual spaces of sociality reduced. His messages week after week constitute a collection of everyday interactions that are no longer possible. He regrets not being able to access the now closed big park near his house, where he used to stroll every now and then, sometimes sitting on a bench and watch people passing by. “There is no one in the streets, no one”, he highlights. Much of the social life of Don Francisco takes the shape of everyday chores: buying vegetables at the fair, going to the supermarket, getting the newspapers at the train station. Little opportunities for little dialogues.

Street market in Santiago during the lockdown. CCNC-BY Alfonso Otaegui

“With the neighbours, now I barely see them, we only meet when it is ‘street market’ day. We meet at the market and just give each other a short wave from afar, as we are holding bags… but at least when we see each other, we know we are fine, right?”. 

At the street market, Don Francisco enjoys short interactions with the vendors, who usually cry out their offers to passers-by, all potential customers. “We know each other with the vendors. We chat about our health […] I see families running the same stall, the son selling, while the father is sitting behind, watching, resting. It is so nice to see families united like this”, he adds. Lockdown has prevented Don Francisco from having his more intimate dialogues with his family – the cemetery where he used to go and see his relatives is shut.  Besides, the closing of all churches has taken other moments of reflection from him.

Going to the bakery provides another chance for greetings and smiles: “I now buy bread every three days, to avoid going out too often. With the bakers, I used to have a short conversation. Sometimes, even the master making the bread would come out to say hi to us, the oldest oneswho are in more danger.” All these little everyday interactions are spaces of socialisation for older adults such as Don Francisco, especially if they are alone. All these small interactions have been reduced or put on hold in the last four months.

Don Francisco’s experience also illustrates the limitations and contradictions of some of the measures taken to enforce lockdown. In Santiago, it is mandatory to have an official permit to go out. This can be downloaded from the police station’s website. Policemen patrolling the streets and security guards at the entrance of the supermarkets usually ask for this permit. After being mugged on the street last year, Don Francisco rarely goes out with his smartphone. ‘They prevented me from entering three supermarkets because I did not have the permit..!’ —Don Francisco complains vividly—‘I hope we, older adults, do not starve. Who is going to feed old loners like me, if we can’t go into the supermarket?” Fortunately, one supermarket allows him to go in without the permit. “I will not say the name, in case this conversation is intercepted”, adds Don Francisco in a WhatsApp voice note. As much as he likes technology, he is also worried about unwanted surveillance.

Digital literacy can be a powerful tool for older adults to fight isolation. Don Francisco loves gadgets, from the solar-powered moving flowers he has in his little garden, to the old mobile phones he repairs to pass the time during the lockdown. He is well-versed in the use of the smartphone. Many of his contacts, however, are not. “Last week I talked to Doña María, she is a charming lady about my age, but the phone call lasted 10 minutes…that is too expensive!”—he shares in another audio message. Indeed, phone plans are very affordable if one restricts themselves to WhatsApp communication but expensive when it comes to regular phone calls. Don Francisco uses WhatsApp with me regularly and we often have WhatsApp calls of up to an hour, sometimes even more. He also receives many WhatsApp chain messages from a couple of his contacts. Still, Don Francisco considers these to be a lower form of communication. “Those are things people do not write, they just forward them”, he states with a dismissive tone. Now and then, however, he expresses gratitude in WhatsApp groups when someone forwards a video of an old song he liked.

Despite all the setbacks, Don Francisco is eager to ‘overcome the pandemic’. He really wants to see the world post-COVID-19. For the time being, the pandemic has made him a little lonelier. Now and then, Don Francisco even takes his smartphone when he goes out and uses it to film the streets. He sends me a video message while sitting on a bench in an empty square.

This is one of the things I miss the most’—he says—‘sitting on a bench, looking at people passing by. Sometimes one of them will sit down next to me, and we will chat. I miss that a lot.’

Information and mis/disinformation during the pandemic in Milan

Shireen Walton3 July 2020

During the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis was at its peak in Italy, I observed through my research participants and friends in Milan how information sharing, and particularly health and care information – from government and regional levels, through to community and family – was embracing digital and visual avenues of communication to significant and creative extents.

Figure 1: Image shared in a community WhatsApp group in NoLo at Easter. Source unknown.

Amid the broad range of sharing practices were many documents, advertisements, and images aimed to raise community awareness about health, safety, and wellbeing, as well as digital accessibility. For example, in March 2020, an awareness initiative administered by a local NGO dedicated to the needs of families and children in the neighbourhood called on neighbours to share their wireless connections within apartment blocks to assist children whose families do not have internet connections at home to be able to follow school lessons online. Often such campaigns are also translated by NGO groups into languages spoken in the area such as Arabic and Spanish, in order to reach broader members of the community.

Figure 2: Example of a local NGO campaign to assist with families during lockdown in Milan by calling on neighbours within apartment blocks to share wireless connections with those without WiFi.

These kinds of initiatives led by NGOs in Milan during quarantine were also met with programmes of ‘digital solidarity’ to assist with digital connectivity during the lockdown. Here, the Italian Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization partnered with private companies to offer forms of assistance to citizens such as free online newspapers, faster internet, access to online education and entertainment platforms during the lockdown. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health created a series of infographics about protocols to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, many of which were widely circulated via WhatsApp and Facebook.

Amid the rapid spread of both the virus and information during the pandemic, unverifiable information also spread quickly across the community, the country, and the world via memes, short videos, and text/voice messages. By March, the Italian state increased its involvement in this issue with an attempt to communicate the facts about the virus, with a significant pushback by Italian medical authorities against ‘fake health information’ that was circulating via WhatsApp. The Italian Ministry of Health soon published a list of ten particularly pertinent ‘fake news’[1] items about the Coronavirus that had been identified within the Italian social web, from the myth that drinking tap water was dangerous to health to the rumour that wearing face masks in the home would help limit contagion, to the idea that taking a hot bath would kill off the virus.

Figure 3:Screen shot of the Italian Ministry of Health website section on Coronavirus and Fake News. Image Source: http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/news/p3_2_1_1_1.jsp?lingua=italiano&menu=notizie&p=dalministero&id=4380

In a widely circulated YouTube video appeal Roberto Fumagalli, a senior Medical Director from Milan’s Niguarda hospital, pleaded to people in Milan, and to the nation, to stop circulating unverified information and gossip about Coronavirus, including a stream of official-sounding voice messages that had been sent via WhatsApp to people across Italy about what doctors are/are not doing or who they are/are not treating.

In light of false and misleading information concerning the virus, and in the context of high anxiety and stress caused by the experience of quarantine, a number of research participants in NoLo had intervened on social media, asking for people to stop sharing unverifiable facts and misinformation that were proving inflammatory and divisive – a practice of regulation and control of the social web that I had witnessed more broadly in the community in the previous two years during fieldwork in Milan.

Figure 4: Daily news and chats in Milan. Photo taken by author.

The spread of misinformation, or unverified or false information via smartphones and social media remains a significant part of public conversation in Italy, as in other parts of the world. This issue is particularly seen to affect older populations and is a priority concern and main point of focus within ageing policy discussions, with the assumption that older people are particularly vulnerable to ‘fake news’.

Figure 5: ‘Anziani e Fake News’ (Elders and Fake News). Advert for a discussion event on ‘information and disinformation in the era of social media’) organised by AUSER, a main nation-wide ageing NGO in Italy. https://www.auser.it/comunicati-stampa/anziani-e-fake-news-come-non-cadere-negli-inganni/

My broader research encountered concerns amongst middle-aged and older adults about the role of smartphones in spreading unverified information quickly and easily in today’s world, while a number of research participants also recognised that dis/mis information[2] also has historical roots, reflecting uses of sectors of the media and television to misinform and/or mislead, citing examples from the media and television era of Berlusconi in the 1980s to the propaganda of the fascist era in the 1930s, which many of them and/or their parents had also lived through.

Overall, the multifaceted and deep-rooted issue of contemporary information and mis/dis-information in Milan, amidst and beyond the pandemic, highlights a range of contemporary tensions and paradoxes concerning social and public life within the present information age, which smartphones – as products of, and companions to the current age ­– are complexly implicated in.

 

[1] ‘Fake news’ is a significant feature of media coverage and popular conversation in Italy. The Collins English Dictionary defines fake news as the ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting’: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/fake-news

[2] The distinction between misinformation and disinformation has been defined in terms of intentionality. The former describes the sharing of information regardless of intention, while the latter involves the intention to mislead, misinform and/or manipulate. See: https://www.dictionary.com/e/misinformation-vs-disinformation-get-informed-on-the-difference/ and https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews