PhD in Anthropology
It’s been more than two months since the lockdown in Northern Ireland was imposed on March 23rd 2020. The pandemic has demonstrated that we live in a globalised world and the fact that parts of world are interconnected due to the mobility of people (Held and McGrew 2002). This has accelerated a quick spread of the disease. In the context of global pandemic, the World Health Organisation emphasises it is important that the countries unite together in the fight against Covid 19.
However, as time goes on the global outbreak has actually fuelled a backlash to globalisation. Governments are closing borders and more often Covid-19 is feeding into nationalist narratives. For example, Donald Trump repeatedly stated that Covid-19 is a `Chinese virus’. Conspiracy theories are circulating that the virus is a bioweapon that leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. There has also been a spike of racist incidents worldwide.
In the early days of the pandemic my friend confessed to me that her partner, a Black American living in London was avoiding the Chinese people on the subway. The fear of coronavirus has strengthened the fear of the other. Paradoxically, in this context, a member of BME ostracized another BME person. Even before the lockdown started, I heard of people avoiding Chinese restaurants in Belfast.
The lockdown itself and the new culture of containment in this context feeds into the Western rhetoric about health and safety/risk. It fits very well with socio-spatial practices of immobilizing humans in camps, behind security walls or in ‘gated’ communities (Bauman 2000). This puts forward an idea of the sterile as an image of order and enact the politics of difference and separateness that define contemporary Europe’s relationship to the ‘other’ (e.g. Diken 2004).
Another arena where coronavirus shows fragility of the global lies in the protests against the lockdown by right-wing groups. As time ensued, these have emerged as a result of social fatigue with the lockdown, and fed very well into the anti-globalisation narrative. Serendipity plays a great role in social scientific research and my interest in the topic emerged as a result of following carefully discourse on one of facebook forums for Polish migrants in Northern Ireland.
Nolens volens, I embarked on cyberethnographic endeavours (Hine 2015). I felt it was important to follow social media during lockdown as it facilitates civic engagement in the context of social isolation and confinement. I first had received a shared link from a colleague of mine strongly involved in anti-far right movements in Ireland about the unified mass gatherings to take place at Ormeau Park and Millenium Park on Sunday 16th May. That protest was organised by the Britain First movement, whose leader Jayda Fransen from had been convicted of stirring up hatred during a speech about Islam in Belfast at a rally in August 2017. Not long after that I have noticed the same invite on a Polish community Facebook forum. That post has sparked arduous public debate on the internet where members of the Polish diaspora were sharing their comments. The group had divisive opinions on the topic.
Whilst I don’t want to quote specific exchanges because of ethical considerations, I think what was interesting here, was a debate on globalism – that it’s not the British or Polish governments that imposed the lockdown but the global superstructure. Furthermore, the same people followed events in Poland, and exactly the same weekend, protesters in Poland were assaulted with pepper gas by the police. The far right group was reflecting on these ‘injustices’ and ‘oppressive regimes’, saying that the problem exists everywhere, and their aim is to undertake a struggle against the governments, who want to exert their power over citizens by ‘scaremongering’.
Furthermore, this group clearly sees the imposition of containment, social distancing and hygiene rules as a way of exerting power over people. As one of my interlocutors commented, ‘The best way to exert political power is to instil fear among people’. They have protested against public broadcasting and ‘moral panic’ induced by media. As the fact that media construct, shape and influence the public opinion (Habermas 2014), the right-wing group aimed at opposing the mainstream media discourses (Foucault 1979) through acts of sharing content on Facebook (Castells 2012). It’s important to highlight that these acts are performative and migrants are active agents, choosing what to share and how to share it. Following this protest, there were a series of initiatives directed against the lockdown: an online petition to the UK government, and a ‘hug me’ action to name a few.
What transpires from this is that covid 19 on one hand triggered off backclash to the globalisation, with a spike of racial attacks and fear of the ‘Other’ following the outbreak. On the other hand though it is worth noting that in a paradoxical twist the Polish community in Belfast became actively and politically engaged in the Britain First movement. Despite the fact that the Britain First movement in itself is a right-wing movement that goes against any categories of ‘Otherness’, the fact that the Polish community got actively involved in the protests, questions its mere foundation. It seems that we cannot escape globalisation forces after all, and mass media communication is at the centre of processes of cultural convergence in the context of the global pandemic.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge: Polity.
Diken, B. (2004). “From Refugees Camps to Gated Communities: Biopolitics and the End of the City.” Citizenship Studies 8(1): 83-106.
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books
Habermas, J. (2014). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, UK: Polity
Held, D., & McGrew, A. (2002). Globalization/anti-globalization. Cambridge: Polity.
Hine, Ch. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing