Life in Lockdown

The anxiousness of lockdown

Ciara Power 
MA Candidate in Anthropology

It was the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown in the Republic of Ireland. The most beautiful day I had seen this Spring. I’ve been staying with my grandmother in Dublin. Her Victorian-style farmhouse-fortress is situated deep in the country landscape, sheltered by green trees standing tall like skyscrapers. Hustle and bustle sounds of the city are scarce, but these silences amplify the voices of birds – their joyous hymns distract me from thinking too much. The virus confines my grandmother to her home because she is categorised as ‘vulnerable’. Her independence stripped; she relies on others to complete her tasks beyond the stronghold. She half-heartedly asks me to drive to the closest town to purchase the weekly shop. I can hear the unhappiness in her voice. She thirsts for her freedom. Like everyone, she wants this isolation to end and return to what she constitutes as a ‘normal’ life. 

As I anxiously drive a small, raspberry Nissan Micra, my grandmother’s cries for freedom ring in my ears. I wonder if she will ever live a ‘normal’ life again. I wonder if I will ever live my ‘normal’ life again. I blast the radio loudly, distracting myself from thought. The radio station plays a bog-standard chart-pop tune. Impatiently, I click  through different stations to find any ‘oldie but goldie’. After a fifteen-minute journey, I arrive at the entrance of the underground, drive down the narrow ramp, and proceed to find a parking space. I can’t believe my eyes as I scan the length and breadth of the large, industrial car park. There’s just a handful of cars scattered around the place. There are no bumper-to-bumper, vibrant vehicles or people going about their day-to-day shopping tasks. It’s eerie, lifeless, and I feel empty inside. 

I park the car nervously, steadily pull up the handbrake, and carefully switch off the engine. I break into a cold sweat. I swallow the razor-sharp lump in my throat, take a pair of blue latex gloves and stretch them over my clammy hands. I quickly snatch my purse, two shopping bags and a handful of anti-bacterial wipes from the passenger seat. I mentally prepare myself for this psychological warfare as I open the door and step out of the car. I look left, then right, then left again. I hear the faint buzz of electricity waves from the overhead rectangle lights. A blue hue beams across the parameter of the parking lot. I yearn for some reassurance from just a single person, but I am alone.

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

Life in Lockdown


Taika Bottner
PhD Candidate in Anthropology
Belfast, 06-04-2020

Rainbows in the windows for the passers-by;

Thursday 8pm, cheering in our homes;

Scrolling memes, o’ crazy world! -sharing them.

A video made, in isolation, of students singing in union – headsets on.

– Post it on.

Joining in five new teams and Facebook groups.

Calling friends; emailing people who I have not met in five years.

Everyone together – alone in our homes.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has led to people living in isolation or quarantine all over the world. The levels of isolation are different everywhere. Some people live with a large family, or flat with their friends, others live alone – cut off from the rest of the world. In some countries people can still go for walks, enjoy shopping or meet with friends (Finland), while elsewhere one might need a permit to leave the house (France). However, since the beginning of the first regulative measures there has been growing concerns about loneliness.

Goodwin-Hawkins and Meher write that loneliness ‘has no distinct materiality, no clear spatiality – and by definition it lacks sociality’ and yet, it is a concern for the society, something that needs to be tackled and the loners to be taken care of (2019: 118). Loneliness might by definition be lack of sociality but still it is inherently social.

Goodwin-Hawkins and Meher write about loneliness in the context of our own lives, which sounds far too familiar to me:

the years of re-made identity, the years of unmade friends. Our lives of migrant mobility and academic aspiration saw us regularly distanced from close friends. Each of us wrote to the friends we had left behind. Each of us imagined new friends we had not made. (Goodwin-Hawkins and Meher, 2019: 114)

Since the past ten years, I have been living away from my home country, moving from one city to another and from a country to the next. Every move has brought me to new people, new acquaintances and new friends. Yet, it has always taken me away from some other people, who I might not even meet again, but who I miss years after. It creates a feeling of loneliness, which is ‘feeling apart from some imagined, or remembered, or longed-for social coherence’ (Goodwin-Hawkins and Meher, 2019: 119). It is grieving for a lost form of sociality. The time I have spent in the past weeks just at home has made me re-visit my past friends. Since the distance does not matter and face-to-face communication is not possible, I have become maybe even more social than before. Instead of spending my days with people I work with or people living near me, I am spending much more time talking or chatting with my close friends and family, or the people from my past that I care about. With the possibilities of modern technology, it is possible to create new imagined or longed-for social coherence.

However, it is not only the close friends that one feels inclined to get in touch with. The feeling of shared community, that we are all living the same isolation in our own ways away from each other makes people want to tell others ‘you are not alone’. It might be a wave at your neighbour, or an encouraging message left at the window. The feeling of non-loneliness gets even stronger Thursdays at 8 pm, when people come out to their doors to clap for carers, or when you run past drawings of rainbows -maybe I should make one as well…

Loneliness has temporality. It varies from a moment to another. It can be lifted by a call to a friend, by making a rainbow coloured butterfly for the window or by talking to a plant (as my great grandmother used to do). It is something that we all have and can relate to at least to some extent.

People live in different social environments, have their own habits and levels of social interaction with other people and things around them. We are all unique. We perceive loneliness in our own terms and through past experiences. Therefore, it is not surprising that we react differently to the isolation. A friend of mine laughed, noting that his normal daily life is not any different from living under the new restrictions. My grandmother lives in a residential home in Finland and no one is allowed to visit her there. Yet, she has friends, neighbours and carers around her and does not ever have to be alone, though it does not mean she would not be sometimes lonesome. My other grandmother is used to being alone, so this does not affect her, though she does worry about the wellbeing of others and them being alone. It is not necessarily their idea of loneliness that makes them less affected by isolation, but their idea of sociality and that the social coherence in their lives were not greatly disturbed.

Yet, when sitting here at home reading the news, I wonder how some more vulnerable people are doing. On my way to the shop the homeless people seemed distressed and even more abandoned than before. How about the older people that used to go to a day centre every day to meet their friends, get their meals and to just spend their days? Not everyone has the resources and skills to re-create social coherence, and the situation might leave them even more abandoned and alone. On the other hand, the social that some people long for or remember might not be re-discoverable, and the loss can be difficult to cope with.

Goodwin-Hawkins, B., and Meher, M., 2019. “Epistolary Fragments for an Anthropology of Loneliness”, Irish Journal of Anthropology, 22(1), 114-121.