ROME — I've got a daughter who works abroad and, like many Italians, she is experiencing for the first time a different reaction when she says: "Yes, I'm Italian."
It is the gaze of mistrust and fear that makes her and her friends uncomfortable and cautious: Almost all of them have given up on the short visits home they had planned, out of fear they will not be able to come back, or be subjected to quarantine or to be subject to even greater suspicion if they do succeed in returning.
For Italians, this feeling of being looked at negatively is a new sensation in the face of the coronavirus spread through the country. In rating charts we have always been among the most popular and loved, those invited to parties to make a good impression.
Our popularity rating has been repeatedly measured by statisticians: we are at the top of every top ten of the sexiest, nicest and friendliest peoples.
The situation has changed in the last few days with COVID-19. Eighteen countries have denied entry to Italians or to those who have been in Italy in the last few weeks, another 15 countries are forcing all citizens from our country into a precautionary quarantine.
Germany and eight other nations have introduced a questionnaire for those arriving from the northern Italian regions. It is called a "landing card," and serves to ensure that all travelers can be easily contacted if necessary. But it is also a new form of control for the thousands of compatriots who used to cross these borders every week without any formalities.
My daughter tells me that in restaurants, people at neighboring tables have gotten up to leave after overhearing conversations taking place in Italian. One can imagine that this will happen elsewhere too: the gaze of fear does not only concern the great international events that are being canceled, but also those minor events in the daily lives of Italians abroad.
Newspapers in Tel Aviv reported that during the quarterfinals of the women's volleyball championship, one of the teams has two Italian players, which led to the suspension of the game because some of the other players were scared to share the same court.
We are feeling ostracized in the world where we have always moved with ease.
A recent article on Vice Italia, our expats describe the embarrassment of being kept at a distance. From Moscow to Ireland, from Paris to Romania, the words are the same: "They ask us to stay at home, they look at us as if we are all infected."
Feeling ostracized in the world where we have always moved with ease, strengthened by a tradition of emigration that has brought us success just about everywhere, is a new sensation for Italians. But perhaps, it is also an unexpected retaliation. We have been among the countries most ready recently in set off alarms and prejudices towards foreigners and the color of their skin, their origin, social conditions, religion, habits — and that includes the possible diseases some say they carry.
We have always launched sanitary alerts: scabies or tuberculosis brought by immigrants are a great classic of the sovereignist narrative. But in recent years we've never suffered from these suspicions, we never found ourselves in the ghetto of the undesirables.
Very often, we have heard politics calling for the abolition of Schengen, and we have always thought that should the occasion arise, we would be the ones holding the right to keep out those we don't like and reap the benefits of closed borders.
Instead, we find ourselves unexpectedly on the other side, that of those excluded and suspected, the travelers that find a wall at the border.
It is a tough lesson. We should heed it when this emergency is over.
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