Visiting Research Fellow at QuB, Anthropology
Since the coronavirus lockdown on March 23rd, claims have been made that the virus is a great leveller, and in recent days, this became a contentious topic in public media discourse. As a politically engaged social scientist, I argue that it is not true that the virus is a leveller, because it does not affect all equally. In this short piece I am going to give some insights into how the virus affects migrant communities. As a migrant myself, I will interweave my personal narrative with perspectives from other migrants whom I encountered before the lockdown. Bochner, Ellis and Tillman-Healy suggest that autoethnography allows ‘an artful, poetic, and empathic social science in which readers can keep in their minds and feel in their bodies the complexities of concrete moments of lived experience.’ (2008:51)
Since the outbreak of pandemic I was taking notes and journal entries on migration and coronavirus. Most notes were taken as the events unfolded in the form of a personal diary. Although I am a migrant, my privileged status as an academic allows me to stay at home and self-isolate. This is not so easy for the hundreds of Bulgarians, Romanians and East Timorese in Northern Ireland’s Moy Park food processing factories, who were made to leave their stations, claiming that social distancing was not being adhered to. These people are excluded from mainstream society, as they are far less likely to be able to self isolate or work from home. A group in even more severe circumstances are the Romanian Roma who work in local car washes, are paid cash in hand and have no national insurance number, operating outside the formal economy. They live in overcrowded accommodation, with up to 20 living at the same address and few are registered with the NHS, in part because many lack the language skills and literacy to register. Recently the police dispersed a gathering of local Roma people in the Holylands area of Belfast, where many of them live. Coronavirus makes this community more vulnerable, lonely and isolated from mainstream society in Northern Ireland, but can also separate them from their own closely knit communities.
Whilst coronavirus does not respect national boundaries, it paradoxically solidifies boundaries that had previously become porous. Boundary crossing has always been at the heart of transnational practices. From this perspective, the close links that migrants maintain with their compatriots at home are being weakened, regardless of their wishes. The Polish state has blocked all incoming flights with the exception of people repatriating. Having family in both Poland and in Northern Ireland, I have a stronger sense than ever of being betwixt and between. As an elderly person, my mother in Poland is potentially vulnerable to the virus, and last time I spoke to her on Skype she said ‘I am not sure if I will ever see you again’. In order to go to Poland, I would have to sever links with Northern Ireland, risk being infected at an airport, and potentially passing that infection to my mother. As time passes and lockdown goes on, it has become apparent to me that I will probably not go home until a cure or vaccine for the virus has been found. Many migrants have expressed the same kind of anxieties and fears to me about their limited mobility. For example, Iwona told me ‘I can’t stand this isolation. My children and family are far away and we stay at home all the time’. Just today, one of my Polish research-participants posted a message on Facebook, showing her vexation with flight cancellations: ‘The next available flights will be in mid June, it’s really frustrating. Girls’ Holy Communion is cancelled and my relatives won’t come over’. From this perspective coronavirus strengthens feelings of loneliness and migration may become an exile rather than a voluntary stay abroad.
At the same time, technology has mitigated some of the effects of isolation. The Skype online phone application has been particularly useful in dealing with loneliness and feelings of displacement. Easter celebration, usually a significant festival for Polish people, has this year been bleak, sad and lonely, with planned celebrations in Belfast cancelled. Whereas for the locals, there is a sense of social distancing, for migrants this is distancing in a double sense. Migrants cannot participate in their own traditional community practices, leaving them socially isolated not only from mainstream society but also from their own larger diaspora. One Polish friend posted a link to a video recording of an Easter Saturday church service on the “Polish Belfast” Facebook forum as a form of virtual communal celebration. From this perspective one can say that the traditional ways migrants maintain transnational connections are being reconfigured. Whilst physical co-presence through travel is currently impossible, virtual networking becomes more powerful than ever in fostering these links. Virtual place seems to replace physical place when migrants rejoin and are involved in kin work. In a way, migrant homes often become non-places: spaces of transience, within which little real social life takes place.
However, as we celebrate Easter, a small ray of light is coming through these dark moments in history. Whilst coronavirus has aggravated my sense of loneliness in one way, in another, it has helped me to build bridges. My neighbour, who had a reputation of being very private, is an elderly woman in her 70s, living alone. I offered to do her shopping, and she took my phone number, asking me to get her milk. I was communicating across the door with her. The difference of age and ethnicity ceased to matter in the context of Covid 19. I rung her on Easter Sunday to wish her a peaceful Easter. She responded: ‘Is it OK if I call you from time to time, just a wee call. Can’t I? She asked my how another neighbour was doing, and also asked after my Mum. This connection made me wonder to what extent we may actually see a re-birth of gemeinshaft? Feeling of neighbourliness may be on a rise as a result of global pandemics. Graham Crow et al (2002) described neighbourliness as being a precarious balance between being an intrusive ‘busybody’ and a distance-keeping ‘nobody’. Neighbourliness involves various forms of social activity, reprocial aid and support. In the context of coronavirus, a detached form of neighbouring is transforming into a more interactive type of neighbourliness. As a result, migrants may actually accumulate social capital and widen their social networks in the face of the deadly disease. Only time will show whether the social bridges formed in the time of coronavirus will persist or whether they will dissolve as the virus becomes a memory and not a threat.
Bochner, A.P, C. Ellis and L.A Tillman Healy (2013/1998) Mocking around looking for truh. In B. Montgomery & L.Baxter (Eds.), Dialectical approaches to studying personal relationships (pp. 17-40). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Crow, G., G. Alllan and M. Summers (2002) Neither busybodies nor nobodies: managing proximity and distance in neighbourly relations. Sociology, 36, (1), 127-145