Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

Contesting lockdown: Backlash to globalisation and right-wing movements

Marta Kempny
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 considerationsI 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 

Life in Lockdown

On Loneliness

Marta Kempny
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