Somatic shifts: the politics of movement in the time of COVID

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Victoria Hattam.

Dispatch from Brooklyn, NY.
September 2020

COVID-19 has returned questions of migration and mobility to the centre of politics by upending the distribution of mobility privileges. Who is allowed – or required – to move is changing; many are trying to assess the consequences of such reorderings. I want to extend discussions of the virus by turning our eye from migration and mobility to movement of another kind. Under COVID-19, mobility for many has become less about getting from here to there; less about journeys of one kind or another; less about the movement of things: trade, finance capital, and cross-border production. As Shannon Mattern and others have shown, the virus is pushing the boundaries of mobility by demanding that smaller, differently located shifts be included in any assessment of virus significance. If we remain alert to the possibilities, perhaps the virus can open migration and mobility studies to somatic shifts and in so doing expand the political stakes of the present moment.

The virus has ricocheted through the somatic: distance, stance, breath, fluids, air flows, droplets, spittle have taken on new importance. There is a new awareness of the bodily everyday. What is especially interesting is the malleability of bodily actions; within weeks of hearing that the virus had arrived, and without any visual evidence that it was here, how one walked, talked, moved and stood changed. Space is now of the essence. Give a wide birth. I have been surprised at how quickly quotidian ways of being have shifted. What once seemed entrenched social forms have altered in relatively short order. If bodily actions can change so quickly, maybe habitus is not so fixed after all. Political possibilities open up as well.

Lining up for the Food Co-op, Park Slope, Brooklyn (image: Victoria Hattam, August 2020)

The somatic shifts underway have reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s experimental projects from the 60’s and 70’s. Fluids (1967) and Echo-ology (1975) come to mind. When I was co-teaching the ‘Political Sensorium’ with the late Ann Snitow, New York artist/researcher Robert Sember came to class and enacted one of Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’. It was a simple yet amazingly powerful action – deeply political in ways that resonate for me with the virus now.

The protocols went as follows: Everyone stands in a circle. One person has a teaspoon filled with water. The teaspoon is passed from one person to the next moving around the circle. Once the spoon has been passed all the way around, it changes direction and the spoon is passed back to the beginning. Once completed, the person left holding the spoon swallows the water. The whole action takes no more then 5-10 minutes – depending on the size of the group.

When Sember drank the water, a gasp filled the room. I understood expropriation in a way that I had not before. The visceral political. Disbelief, injustice, outrage followed. What amazed me in the Kaprow action, and what echoes now, was the speed with which I and other participants invested in the care of the water and collectively were outraged by its demise. Within the few minutes that it took to complete the action, we had identified collectively with the spoon’s contents – the careful passing of the spoon from one person to another had created a sense of affective investment in the water. The testament to the identifications generated was revealed by the shock that accompanied the arbitrary consumption of our newly created charge. A cycle of identification and resistance occurred within minutes not years.

Spoon filled with water (image: Victoria Hattam, Brooklyn, New York, August 2020)

Living in the time of COVID-19 has shifted somatic presumptions in powerful ways, changing the terrain of the bodily political.

Kaprow was certainly not the only one to push the envelope with such experimental work: John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Daniel Goode, Fluxus, The Motherfuckers, the Cockettes and many others drew attention to the somatic dimensions of the political through a variety of wide ranging projects.

Many experimental works carry with them a playfulness, a sense of pleasure and lightness of being that is captivating. But often, especially with Kaprow’s Happenings, there is a multi-vocality in which matters of power, futility and loss hover in the works as well. This more somber dimension to the Happenings adds to their salience now. Cage’s playfulness and infectious smile are complicated in Kaprow’s work. Constructing the ice ‘tomb’ that is left to melt, carrying buckets of water up stream in order to tip the water back into the river cast shadows over these collective endeavours. Perhaps a sense of mourning pervades Kaprow’s water actions as they were created not long after his two-year old daughter was killed by a car near their home in Glen Head, Long Island. (But one need not resort to such individualized motives; the power of Kaprow’s events often lay in their capacity to hold possibility and difficulty together.

This other register within Kaprow’s work, the more somber, futile, shadowy elements, echo in the time of COVID-19 when the virus reveals again the deep seated racial violence that constitutes the ground of US politics: infections, deaths and unemployment numbers all are structured by zip codes. The virus has ravaged unequally, exploiting longstanding economic and racial disparities in new ways. Pope L’s street crawls come to mind. In 1991, Pope L lay prone on the street, pot plant placed on the road in front of him, pushing it along the road inch by inch for hours. The Tompkins Square Crawl, as the action is known, was one of several such crawls that enact a powerful sense endurance and struggle.

Alternatively, we might follow Jill Richards into what she calls ‘The Fury Archives’ where movement is key, but takes less teleological forms. First wave feminism was powerful in Richards’ telling not for its end point, not for the retrospective ordering provided by the securing of women’s suffrage decades later. Any such ordering foreshortens the politics as it is happening. It is the long slog of action itself, the ‘long middle’ of small scale conflict without clear end, that Richards foregrounds. That unsettled, shuttling motion resonates now. Where the somatic shifts are taking us is by no means certain.

Under COVID-19 movement has neither ended nor disappeared. It has changed. Movement has moved to the everyday somatic. The political ramifications of somatic shifts are neither natural nor inevitable. They are in good measure ours to shape.

Victoria Hattam is Professor of Politics at The New School in New York City. She is a member of the Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster and of the Transoceanic Mobilities Network. Her current research focuses on US-Mexico border politics and the global political economy. For a recent writing see ‘Race Walls,’ in The Funambulist 31 (September–October 2020).

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Greece during COVID-19

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Theodoros Fouskas.

Dear friends,

I hope you are staying safe and keeping well.

The first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Greece on 26th February 2020 (National Public Health Organization, 2020a). As subsequent cases in late February and early March were confirmed the government began to implement lockdown measures. Between 10th and 18th March, educational institutions and shops nationwide suspended operations, along with cinemas, gyms, courtrooms, shopping malls, cafés, restaurants, bars, beauty salons, museums and archaeological sites, beaches and ski resorts. On 23rd March, with 695 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, a nationwide restriction on movement was enforced, whereby citizens could only leave their homes for specific reasons and with a special permit. The gradual reduction of these measures began on 4th May.

The data below show cases from the epidemiological surveillance of the disease of the novel coronavirus, based on statistics of the National Public Health Organization and recorded up to 2nd August. The latest confirmed laboratory cases of the disease numbered 75, of which 4 were identified at entry points of the country. The total number of cases is 4,662 (daily change +1.6%), of which 54.7% were men. The latest recorded daily deaths of COVID-19 patients were 2, while a total of 208 deaths have been reported since the outbreak began. The average age of patients who have died was 76 years. The number of patients hospitalised and intubated were 12 (83.3% men) (National Public Health Organization, 2020b).

Figure 1: Number of laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases in Greece by 2nd August 2020

Source: National Public Health Organization, 2020b

In Greece, thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are living in unsafe and degrading conditions in camps on the Aegean islands and on the mainland. These camps are severely overcrowded. Multiple deficiencies and lack of medical doctors have resulted in numerous health issues. Deterioration of health is also due to weather conditions as there is no insulation or heated accommodation in the winter. Many third-country nationals (TCNs) feel insecure under these precarious conditions, having already suffered abuse or trauma. In the Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), medical doctors and NGO staff agree with the asylum seekers, refugees and migrants that measures against the spread of the coronavirus are severely lacking in such overcrowded spaces with little access to proper healthcare services.

TCNs inside the RICs are crammed into small individual tents or makeshift shelters with wooden walls and canvas rooves. These spaces offer little or no privacy. A blanket serves as a door and mats as a floor, providing insufficient insulation from harsh weather conditions and temperature changes (extreme heat in summer and freezing cold in winter). As the World Health Organization (WHO) (2020) states, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are exposed to increased risks of contracting diseases such as COVID-19 due to the overcrowded facilities and lack of basic public health conditions where they are living.

‘Vial’ RIC, Chios island, December 2019 (image: T. Fouskas)

COVID-19 cases were detected in accommodation centres in mainland Greece from mid-March. After the first case was detected multiple attempts to enter via the Greek-Turkish land border led to a border closure policy and the suspension of asylum applications. Table 1 shows the number of cases detected in accommodation centres:

Table 1: COVID-19 cases among migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Greece

AreaDateCases
Ritsona31 March, 202023
Malakasa, East Attica5 April, 20201
Koutsohero, Larissa10 April, 2020Quarantined after tracing a Roma case
Porto Heli, Argolida19 April, 20201
Kranidi, Argolida20 April, 2020150
Megala Therma, Lesvos12 May, 20202
Efthalou beach, Southern Lesvos15 May, 20202
Kranidi, Argolida26 May, 20203
Nea Kavala, Kilkis3 June, 20201
Northwest coast of Lesvos27 June, 20203

Protective measures against COVID-19 in the RICs, in the accommodation centres and in the Asylum Service were implemented from mid-March. The measures included the postponement of activities such as school classes (synchronous and asynchronous distance learning projects implemented during the lockdown) and exercise routines. Newcomers were checked for COVID-19 symptoms and confined to quarantine if found to be unwell (Kathimerini, 2020). TCNs were discouraged from strolling around the facilities or going outside the RICs, even to obtain supplies. The restriction on movement entitled ‘Measures against the occurrence and spread of cases of coronavirus COVID-19 in the Reception and Identification Centers, throughout the Territory, for the period from 21.3.2020 to 21.4.2020’ was extended via the relevant Joint Ministerial Decisions (Minister of Civil Protection, Minister of Health, Minister of Migration and Asylum) until 31st August (the measures apply to all types of accommodation structures throughout Greece, aiming at preventing the occurrence and spread of COVID-19). This was problematic as there was concurrently a lifting of restrictions for the public (from 4th May) and for international visitors (from 15th June).

It is extremely difficult to take the necessary precautionary measures against the pandemic in the RICs and accommodation centres, such as maintaining social/physical distancing between individuals and implementing hygiene rules. The overcrowded structures on the islands urgently need decongesting while on the mainland efforts to create new housing are crucial in order to contain the COVID‐19 virus in a humane and dignified way.

Warm wishes and stay well,

Theodoros

Theodoros Fouskas is a sociologist working on migration, precarious employment, social integration and exclusion of third-country nationals, and migrants’ access to healthcare and trade unions in reception societies. He teaches at the School of Public Health, University of West Attica.

No longer welcome: migrants face growing racism in South Korea

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Minjae Shin.

Dear friends

I hope you all are staying safe and keeping well.

It has been almost five months since I left Bristol. I am currently in South Korea, my country of origin. Many migrants, including international students, have returned to their home countries unexpectedly since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I was expecting to come back to South Korea to conduct fieldwork for my PhD research project ‘Politics of representations: representations of marriage migrants in South Korea’. But the unprecedented pandemic has changed my fieldwork into an unexpected journey.

I was supposed to participate in the activities of different institutions related to marriage migrants in South Korea. When I arrived at the end of February, however, the situation with the virus was already extremely serious. It was one of the first countries to experience the COVID-19 outbreak, with its first case imported directly from Wuhan, China. In January, at the very first stage of the pandemic, the number of confirmed cases remained in single digits, but the figure soon began to rise sharply. Daily confirmed cases reached a peak of 909 at the end of February.

As the number of cases kept rising, the country raised its COVID-19 alert to the highest level. The South Korean government imposed strict social distancing measures and, as a result, all workplaces were closed and employees had to work from home. Rather than getting into the field and conducting participant observation, therefore, I was sitting at home trying to become, as one person said, a ‘socially distanced but spiritually connected’ researcher. I was also thinking about my foreign friends who live in South Korea as I was worried about how they were doing. The first step of my fieldwork journey, then, was writing emails to these friends, asking how they were coping with the unprecedented situation.

One of my friends, who is a student from China, replied saying, ‘I am extremely scared of racism. South Koreans have been giving me really hateful looks since the COVID-19 outbreak.’ Since the pandemic started, several accounts of racism have been reported – anti-Chinese sentiment, especially, has been on the rise in South Korea. Fear of the outbreak has fuelled ethnic hatred, with Chinese people being seen as ‘carrying the virus’. Restaurants and shops have reportedly been posting signs saying, ‘No Chinese’ or ‘No Chinese allowed’ and refusing to accept Chinese customers. Protests have been held calling for a ban on Chinese people entering South Korea.

An anti-Chinese poster distributed widely on South Korean social media

Disease outbreaks have been used to rationalise xenophobia throughout history (Abbott 2020). And indeed, since the start of COVID-19, anti-Chinese sentiment has been amplified around the world, not just in South Korea. Who encourages such rhetoric as ‘the Chinese carry the virus’ or ‘it’s the Chinese virus’? Racialised rhetoric can be found easily among politicians, many of whom (such as Donald Trump) continue to connect disease with race. As Michael Dryzer discussed at the beginning of the outbreak, and Nandita Sharma more recently in the MMB blog, COVID-19 became heavily politicised very quickly and in the process has been used as strategy for immigration policy.

I received another email from a friend who is a migrant spouse from Singapore. Married to a South Korean national, she expected to feel safe and be given protection by the government during the COVID-19 crisis. However, instead, she has felt very vulnerable and found herself being excluded from South Korean society. In her message she wrote about the issue of distribution of cash relief funds. The South Korean government had begun distributing COVID-19 relief funds of up to £650 per household (as one-off payments). Foreign nationals who have permanent residency and are married to Korean nationals are eligible for the funds. But some of her friends, who are also marriage migrants, could not receive the funds because they were divorced. This made her realise that the citizenship status of migrant spouses is more insecure than she had thought.

I was relieved to receive emails from my foreign friends and know that they were all healthy. However, I kept thinking about their other vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected migrants all over the world in many ways, as outlined in Lorenzo Guadagno’s IOM report. In a global crisis like this, people have to engage with the underlying vulnerabilities of migrants. In particular, the questions of border control, citizenship and citizenship rights have become more important than ever as countries close their borders, restrict people’s movements and, first and foremost, protect their own citizens from the pandemic.

When a crisis like this hits, the human instinct is to go home. But for some migrants, ‘going home’ has not been an option as their countries of origin quickly closed their borders. In South Korea, some have therefore unexpectedly become ‘the undocumented’: unable to leave but not welcome to stay. Many migrants have also faced economic hardship having lost their jobs and remained unemployed due to the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. In many cases, this has been made worse by the increased discrimination and racism against them.

The rate of infection in South Korea is now much lower and I have finally begun the second stage of my fieldwork journey – active participation. The strict social distancing is easing and life appears to be going back to normal. NGOs and activists have been busy confronting the increase in racism by distributing press releases on behalf of migrants and intervening in governmental policies for migrant welfare and rights. For example, they have set up a campaign calling on the government to provide equal financial support (disaster relief funds) to all migrants. Since June, I have worked for one of these NGOs and assisted in distributing private relief funds to migrant households.

The next step of my journey is finally the expected part – my planned fieldwork. I am currently participating in an NGO programme that is similar to my research project and hopefully I will be able to conduct interviews soon. Even though my fieldwork was put on hold for a while, my time in lockdown here has not been wasted. My unexpected journey gave me time and space to think through others’ vulnerabilities in a way that I may not otherwise have done.

Minjae Shin is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

From ‘social distancing’ to planetary solidarity

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Nandita Sharma.

Greetings from Hawai’i!

Reading Colin’s blog from the ‘afar’ of Bristol has made me think about distance, and the (dis)connections between physical and social distancing. We are physically far apart, but, I like to think, socially close. This seems to run counter to the ‘social distancing’ we are being enjoined to adopt.

‘Social distancing’ is the most oft-used phrase during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it could be the motto for how states and ruling classes govern. For those studying the political economy of capitalism, ‘social distancing’ is understood as the effort by rulers to keep the levers of power and much-needed resources out of the reach of most people (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, personal communication, 11 March 2020).

Physical distancing at the bus stop (image: Gavin Clarke on flickr.com)


‘Social distancing,’ then, is not about the physical space between us. All systems of apartheid, after all, are built to ensure the close proximity of the dominators and those they supress. The point of ideological practices such as sexism, racism and nationalism is to keep us politically separated from one another. Going along with the idea that ‘we’ are unconnected to ‘them’ severely weakens our ability to take back our power and resources. That is precisely the point.

Rulers extol us to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from the rest of life on our shared planet. We are encouraged to use non-humans as we will but to take no responsibility for the harm we do. Indeed, we are taught to deny any awareness of our actions and to deny our connections with other life forms.

This is reflected in the political organisation of our world. We live in a global system of apartheid organised by nation-states, which encourages us to see each nationalised territory in splendid isolation from all others. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that we ignore the world at our peril.

What we can learn from this global pandemic is that the global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into almost all parts of the planet has resulted in the destruction of complex ecosystems, the dispossession of more and more living beings (humans and non-humans), the rise of industrial agriculture and ‘meat farms,’ the cultural capital attached to eating ‘wild’ animals by urban dwellers, and the expanding supply chain of commodities. Each of these have contributed to the breeding and spreading of novel viruses.

Yet, none of this reality is reflected in responses to COVID-19 by either nation-states or capital. Instead, each nation-state touts its border controls as its first ‘line of defense’ (in keeping with the general militarised jingoism of the pandemic). Meanwhile, capital discourages efforts to halt transmission of the disease while pushing for the quick ‘opening up’ of the economy. Nation-states have largely gone along with this by refusing to organise the redistribution of wealth necessary to ensure that people can survive without jobs.

Many imagining themselves as members of the ‘nation’ cheer on such approaches, thereby further fanning the flames of racism/nationalism and deflecting attention away from inept governments and rapacious capitalist markets. Such approaches are on full display in the United States (but not only here).

On 31 January 2020, the same day the novel coronavirus was first declared a public health emergency, Trump issued an executive order blocking the entry of anyone who had been in China in the last 14 days. On 11 March 2020, Trump extended the travel ban to include the 26 EU Schengen states. On 14 March, it was extended further to encompass the UK and Ireland.

In keeping with the structural importance of national citizenship to current regimes of power, these travel bans do not apply to US residents and family members or spouses of US residents or citizens, even though they may very well be the ones carrying and spreading COVID-19. In any case, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US was announced more than ten days before the very first travel ban. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to increase. So too have border control measures.

Supposedly to ‘protect the public health,’ on 20 March 2020 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health order denying people seeking asylum the protections afforded them under national law and allowing them to be summarily deported. From 21 March 2020 to 30 April 2020, more than 20,000 migrants were expelled, mostly to Mexico. 

Migrants are deported from the US to Mexico, March 2020 (image: Asociacion Pop No’j)


Of this number, 915 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum. A New York Times reporter found that, ‘some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters [sic] and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families’ (Dickerson 2020). Disavowing responsibility for the harm they do to others, the US government is largely silent about the spread of COVID-19 in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps or their deporting of people with the virus to nation-states with far less resources than the US. This too is a form of ‘social distancing.’

At the same time, nationalism doesn’t prevent people from demanding that what they need and want from ‘outside’ continues to enter, including personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment and people recruited to work in sectors deemed ‘essential’ for the well-being of the citizenry. While industries of healthcare, agriculture, meatpacking and more would cease to operate were non-citizen workers not permitted to enter and work in the US, these workers are denied the rights and protections available to the citizenry they serve.

The issue, then, is hardly about movement. Nation-states actively organise the movement of people, other living beings, capital, commodities and more – but only on terms that maintain ‘social distancing.’ That is, only on terms that will keep power and resources out of the reach of most people and only on terms that will ensure our continued separation from one another.

This is not a contradiction, so far as nationalists are concerned. Instead, it is a powerful testimony of the importance of separation to ruling relations.

If ‘social distancing’ is the mantra of those hoarding power and wealth, the response of those seeking liberty from rulers is to break down the walls built to disconnect us from one another. While public health officials and media talk about ‘community spread,’ it is also true that during this global pandemic a tremendous growth of solidarity has taken place.

Here in Hawai’i, where I am ‘sheltered in place’ with my partner, Gaye Chan, there has been a massive uptick in our connections to people, mostly strangers. In keeping with our project, Eating in Public, Gaye has responded to the fear of food shortages at the market by building ‘weed stations’ that demonstrate how to grow and cook the edible, nutritious and tasty weeds all around us. She then erected another Free Store, re-stocked on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. And, she helped organise the Seamsters Union that, to date, has collectively made more than 3,000 cloth masks to freely distribute to those ignored by rulers. Each day, more people come and go, stop and talk than ever before. Practicing solidarity while adhering to safe practices of physical distancing is the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and it forges a path away from our dominated world. And, I know we are not alone.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She recently published a new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).

Unemployment and xenophobia persist for migrant workers as China’s lockdown is lifted

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Xinrong Ma.

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you all very well.

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in China at the end of last year, then rapidly spread around the globe. While people in many other countries are still experiencing lockdown, in China it has now been lifted. Since the middle of May travel restrictions have been eased, business and commercial activities have reopened and ordinary people have started to return to work, although the government is still emphasises the potential risks and advises people to wear face masks in public.

The pandemic has affected Chinese migrant workers in various, extremely damaging ways. Mobility has become seen as not only risky but also immoral. Workers were locked down in their hometowns from February and have been unable or unwilling to come back to the cities. By March, labour-intensive factories, such as the electronics and garment industries, were in dire need of workers to restart their production after a month’s shutdown. To recruit workers to return to factories, local governments of industrial cities began to offer higher salaries and subsidies to attract migrant workers.

An intersection of roads with no traffic. A man pushes a cart.
Empty city streets in China during lockdown, April 2020 (image: Gauthier Delecroix on flickr)

And then, unexpectedly, the supply chains were terminated in April as the pandemic spread across the globe. Many returned migrant workers were again unemployed. I have been thinking of some of the migrant workers I interviewed previously. Most of them who used to work in manufacturing can no longer find jobs and are trapped in their hometowns. They worked for years in industrial cities where small factories have now been closed. Even the largest firms, such as Foxconn, are laying off staff. Some people, including domestic workers and those in the hospitality industry, are now gradually coming back to work, but the persistence of the pandemic across the world will continue to create difficulties for migrant workers in the coming months.

The dangerous vulnerabilities of being a migrant worker in China have also affected immigrants from abroad during the current crisis. Under recent epidemic control regulations, individuals are required to provide a health code – like a digital passport – to enter their residential compound, shopping centres, transport or other public places. This digital code also enables the government to collect people’s private information, so some immigrants are unwilling to use it. Meanwhile, others find it difficult to follow the government’s pandemic control policies due to language barriers.

Guangzhou, the city where I live, became a global media hotspot in late April when the authorities required all Africans in town to test for COVID-19 and remain in quarantine, regardless of whether or not they had recently travelled. Many were evicted from their hotels or apartments and found themselves homeless. This policy, referred to briefly in the Chinese media, caused a major backlash internationally due to the clear racial discrimination behind it.

The local government’s overreaction towards Africans is associated with Beijing’s ‘Three Illegals’ of immigration (illegal entry, overstayed visas, working without a permit) – a category that many undocumented African migrants are subjected to. Social exclusion and xenophobia among Chinese citizens have been magnified during the epidemic. Under diplomatic pressure, the local government later issued an announcement that Chinese and foreigners should be treated equally, but still, the deep division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ revealed in such an event cannot be easily erased.

Although the local government was slow to act, a group of young people with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology and psychology quickly began providing food, language translation and physical support to the Africans in quarantine. Within a few days, the number of volunteers reached over 400. Being part of this volunteer group has made me feel more hopeful about the future.

My latest research concerns foreign domestic workers in China. This is an extension of my previous studies of internal ethnic Yi labour migrants. As with many African immigrants in China, southeast Asian migrant domestic workers have also been subject to the ‘Three Illegals’ category. During the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are not possible, so my plan of conducting fieldwork has been postponed. Instead, I sometimes talk with a few familiar informants via WeChat to say hello and comfort those feeling anxious.

Many of them, especially those working part time, have lost their jobs. In their neighbourhoods they are now more frequently inspected by the community guards and in public spaces more likely to be stopped by the police, though they find subtle ways to avoid them. Being unable to follow the ever-changing government information in Chinese has caused them many difficulties. If Chinese internal migrant works are only just noticed by local civil society organisations, undocumented foreign migrant workers in China are completely out of sight. So far, the Chinese government has not issued any specific policies regarding undocumented migrants, though a few local news reports state that some have been repatriated to their home countries.

Personally, a big change in my life is that I recently became a mum. My baby girl is seven months now. Her arrival cheered me up and enriched my life with love and intimacy during the lockdown period. Like many working mothers, I am facing the challenge of balancing work with caring, production and reproduction. The struggle of motherhood, precarious academic work and the embodied existence of gender inequalities, all magnified by the pandemic, are not something I read from literature, but experience in everyday life. Being a mum gives me more empathy with many working-class women I have studied and will conduct research with, especially those who have to shoulder the responsibility of family and work, and are struggling to feed their families in the pandemic. I have the privilege of working from home, but many of them cannot afford to do so. We all need to explore our agencies and form solidarity with others.

We are required to keep our physical distance during COVID-19, but many new ways are opening up for people to be socially connected. In China and many other countries, a lot of open-access webinars are now being held. The beacon of knowledge, previously bound by the wall of the university system, is leaking to wider audiences. As Bridget wrote in her earlier blog, ‘we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other’.

The outbreak of the pandemic urges people to think beyond their familiar world, to find connections and to overcome the isolation and individualisation of our age. I am happy to share my observation of migrant workers in my country as well as my personal experience during this time with friends whom I both know or have not yet met.

Xinrong Ma has a PhD in Chinese Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Sun Yet-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. She can be contacted at maxr5@mail.sysu.edu.cn.

Sweden faces COVID-19 with a neoliberal elderly care system and a racialised labour market

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Anders Neergaard.

Dear friends,

Reading newspapers every day and strolling around the streets and parks of Malmö (Sweden) I watch people trying to live with the pandemic. It’s scary as a human being but interesting as a sociologist. It raises so many questions that need further research. Being who I am, I often study a phenomenon or practice in terms of how class, gender and racialisation affect people. Thus, this blog post is about how inequalities intersect with the pandemic health strategies of elderly care, mobility and migration.

In newspapers around the world (such as The Guardian, El País and Página 12) Sweden is making headlines as one of few countries that have not implemented legislated lockdowns of society, instead trying instructions and recommendations for physical distancing (please do not call it social distancing, as we are trying to maintain social closeness in times of physical distance). Is this Swedish approach an experiment, and if so, what will be the consequences compared to other strategies? While these are important questions, we need more time and better material to be able to answer such questions.

Instead, I want to focus on two particular, and partially connected, aspects of what seems to be an Achilles heel in limiting the consequences of the pandemic. One concerns the neo-liberalised care of the elderly in Sweden, and the other the racialised (often of migrants) class structure.

Two elderly people in wheelchairs sit at a table waiting to be served
Elderly residents of a care home in Sweden. Image: Elitsha

One of the few things we know about COVID-19 is that it aggressively targets the elderly. Thus, the organisation of elderly care is at the core of understanding who dies and why in the pandemic. Most people would argue that care of the elderly is a central aspect of humane societies (despite the fact raised by many economists that their direct contribution to the economy often stops with retirement). Thus, we have some forms of organised elderly care, but it is rarely an area of priority in politics. The elderly care system was far from being good during the heydays of the social democratic welfare state, but the neoliberal re-regulation (using privatisation) (Peck 2004), New Public Management and shrinking municipal taxation (in Sweden the municipalities are formally responsible for care of the elderly) has created a system based on scarcity, just-in-time services and profits (Szebehely 2017). Consequently, elderly care is characterised by employees who have to care for numerous elderly people, elderly people receiving care who have to meet many employees and an austere elderly care infrastructure (Behtoui et al. 2016). In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, this mean that elderly care is a hotbed for the spread of the virus.

Another way of showing the vulnerability of elderly care services is by looking at its care workers (I focus on paid care work, but we shouldn’t forget that a substantial part is carried out by daughters or other female relatives as unpaid work). Within this group, assistant nurses (by far the most prevalent job in elderly care in Sweden) are disproportionately represented by women and racialised workers, both women and men (often migrants) whose role intersects with poor working conditions, low wages and discrimination (Behtoui et al. 2020).

This reflects the gendered and racialised Swedish class structure, meaning that women in general and racialised men and women (many migrants or children to migrants) in particular are overrepresented within the working class, and are overrepresented in working class jobs that have lower wages and poorer working conditions (Neergaard 2018).

What does this have to do with elderly care and the COVID-19 pandemic? In answering, I would like to highlight two key points. In this pandemic two particular categories of jobs with low wages and poor working conditions are important in making the society function but are also highly exposed to COVID-19 and thus to spreading it. The first, mentioned above, are assistant nurses directly involved in caring for the elderly and in containing the virus. The second is the more general category of service workers, especially bus and taxi drivers and ticket inspectors of public transport, but also workers in retail and restaurants. Both these groups work in economically underfunded services, are highly exposed to COVID-19 in their daily work and have been neglected when it comes to protective equipment and instructions for avoiding contagion.

Furthermore, if one of these workers is infected with the virus, then the chance of continued infections is substantial due to their housing situation. In a recent analysis of Statistics Sweden, it was shown that almost one in three immigrants from countries outside Europe, who have been in Sweden for less than ten years, lives in a home with more than two people per bedroom. The corresponding figure for persons born in Sweden, with at least one domestic-born parent, is 2 per cent. Many of these immigrant households are three-generation families that include elderly grandparents due to the difficulties of finding adequate housing among the lower and racially discriminated sections of the working class (SCB 2019).

We don’t yet know when robust statistics will be produced that show Sweden’s excess mortality in the era of COVID-19, although preliminary statistics show a strong overrepresentation of elderly within care, as well as migrant and racialised workers and their parents. However, we shouldn’t focus only on the government’s interventions to contain the pandemic. What I have argued in this short text is that the combination of a neoliberal elderly care regime with a racialised (and gendered) working class structure seems also to be a central factor in explaining why the elderly in care, and the elderly within racialised families, have been more exposed to COVID-19 in Sweden.

Anders Neergaard is Professor in the Department of Culture and Society and Director of the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) at Linköping University, Sweden. His research focuses on inequality, power and resistance, especially related to discrimination, migration, racialisation and racism.

The dismal UK Home Office response to coronavirus: the wider picture

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Colin Yeo.

Dear Bridget,

We’ve learned that closeness does not mean contact, so I hope that this can count as a ‘Letter from Afar’ even if ‘afar’ seems a strangely 19th-century way of talking about the distance between Newport and Bristol. I wanted to share with you some of my reflections on the UK Home Office’s response to coronavirus and what it means for migrants and asylum seekers.

Let me start with recognition of the fact that basic steps to reduce immediate contagion risk were quietly implemented in mid-March – such as suspension of immigration bail reporting and cancellation of asylum interviews. This may have been because the hand of the Home Office was forced by social distancing guidelines from other government departments. But where the Home Office response has been seriously deficient is in its chaotic communications, failure to protect migrant lives, failure to protect families and questionable legal competence.

Adrian Berry from the Immigration Law Practitioner’ Association and I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about these failings. But I want to step back from the immediate Home Office failings here and think about the broader context. There are important features of the immigration system that could inform a considered, strategic and effective government response. If there was to be such a thing.

Unauthorised migrants

First, there are estimated to be between 600,000 and 1.2 million unauthorised migrants living in the UK. If the government decides to employ a policy of contact tracing, the size and distribution of this population will potentially make such a policy very difficult. Unauthorised migrants are not going to volunteer to download an app which tells the authorities where they live and work.

This group are in considerable danger from coronavirus. Many are destitute, have no routine access to healthcare and live in substandard accommodation with no access to furloughing or Universal Credit. The government says it is trying to stop transmission of the virus by reducing non-essential work that brings people into contact with one another, but for this group work is literally a matter of survival.

Some countries have responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering unauthorised migrants access to lawful residence and to welfare support. There were already lots of reasons to pursue this policy and the public health dimension during a pandemic is just one more.

Access to healthcare

This brings us to the hostile environment. One of the features of the policy – and it is a feature, not a bug – is that it makes unauthorised migrants afraid of the authorities. Data sharing agreements between departments mean a sick person who seeks medical help may be reported to the immigration authorities and there is plenty of evidence that unauthorised migrants would rather go untreated than risk deportation. The government has added coronavirus to the list of diseases for which free treatment is available to all. This is welcome, but it does nothing to address this fear.

An amnesty would address this issue. As a first step the data sharing arrangements between government departments and the immigration authorities need to be suspended.

Nature of the immigration system

The immigration system is highly complex with outdated and sometimes incomprehensible laws, a widespread lack of faith in the immigration authorities, a very poor working relationship between the authorities and civil society and the legal community, and dire consequences for anyone who makes the slightest mistake.

Immigration lawyers have to be cautious because for us worst case scenarios are the norm. So, we are reluctant to accept such unverifiable and easily-reversible Home Office platitudes as ‘we’ll extend visas, trust us’, and we are slow to trust a government website that changes almost daily, leaving no trace of whatever was yesterday’s mumbled, fumbled plan F. We need to see proper statutory instruments that we can be confident are legally effective. At the very least, the Home Office needs to share why it thinks announcements on a website meet the formal requirements of the Immigration Act 1971.

Valuing migrants

The UK immigration system values migrants by their economic worth. Migrants are Good Migrants if they contribute to the economy as the ‘highly skilled’. Implicitly and often explicitly, migrants are Bad Migrants if they contribute to our economy and society through ‘low-skilled’ work picking fruit, cleaning hospitals and delivering food. Or by caring for children and the elderly.

The public and maybe even the government may be re-evaluating what the coronavirus has definitively shown to be a false dichotomy. I’m not holding my breath; the old ways of thinking have become deeply embedded.

A range of harsh policies are automatically triggered against migrants who lose their jobs or whose salaries are reduced. If a family that includes a migrant husband, wife or partner finds that its income has dropped below £18,000, the migrant will have to leave the country, and the British partner and children will either have to accompany them or stay behind and hope better times eventually come. If a skilled worker on a Tier 2 visa loses their job or their salary drops below £30,000, they will also have to leave the country. Some are affected by this rule right now, but many others will face the problem in the coming months as their visas expire.

Immigration policies tying immigration status to economic value are supposed to incentivise migrants to work hard – or, at least, to earn a lot, which is not always the same thing. But during the coronavirus, when the government is trying to discourage everyone from unnecessary work and the social contact it inevitably brings, migrants are still compelled to work. Migrants do qualify for furloughing, but if the 20% cut in wages puts them below the income thresholds, they are ultimately going to have to leave the country.

If migrants are valued in purely economic terms, and very narrow economic terms at that, they are – not to put too fine a point on it – totally screwed if or when the economy collapses.

This is why I and others have been so critical of the whole hostile environment policy. It does nothing to deter future arrivals or encourage departures, but it does treat migrants already in the UK as a disposable economic commodity rather than as human beings worthy of respect.

It is difficult for politicians who have risen to power on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment to reverse an anti-immigrant policy. Some are genuinely ideologically committed to reducing immigration but also their political support depends on their presenting themselves as tough on immigrants.

It is time to separate out future admissions policy from the treatment of migrants who are admitted. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to make changes on a temporary basis that can later become permanent. The opportunity should be embraced and hostile environment measures suspended.

Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog. This Letter from Afar is an edited version of one of his recent posts on the Free Movement website. Colin’s latest book, Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System, will be published by Biteback in July.

A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Dear friends

Two months ago the governor of São Paulo decreed a state of emergency and social isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I was in São Paulo, conducting fieldwork for the ERC project I am working on, ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’. The project uses histories of Atlantic World slavery and the means by which enslaved people sought to escape it to guide research on marginalised people’s efforts to move closer to freedom today. So, my days are now mostly spent reading about the history of slavery and its aftermath, and anxiously following news on the Covid-19 pandemic, topics that are closely entwined in the Brazilian context.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, the Covid-19 crisis has illuminated existing inequalities. Besides the massive division between those who can afford access to high quality health care and those who cannot, much of the country’s population simply cannot enact the practices recommended by the World Health Organisation to prevent contagion, such as washing hands or social isolation: 38 million people (41.4% of the labour market) are informal workers; more than 100,000 are homeless; 31 million lack access to a water supply system; 13.6 million live in the thousands of favelas spread across a country that is twice the size of the European Union.

A cart on the street filled with rubbish, with painting and slogan on the side
‘My dream… is to have rights!’ – a street recycler’s barrow in São Paulo (image: author’s own)

Bolsonaro’s deny and defy approach to the Coronavirus pandemic has already been widely reported in the international media. Over the past month, the President has claimed that the Covid-19 crisis is a media fabrication and trick, or a ‘little flu’. He has also attacked scientists and fired his Health Minister for defending and promoting social isolation; urged people to go on demonstrations against their governors and isolation measures. Bolsonaro mobilises his support with a narrative that places the economy and the virus in competitive opposition, claiming that he is trying to save lives by demanding an end to social isolation, since hunger is a far greater threat to the mass of Brazilian people than a ‘little flu’.

Hundreds of his supporters (video 1) have taken to the streets across large cities in Brazil, waving Brazilian flags, calling the pandemic a communist farce, chanting and shouting violent, nationalistic and authoritarian slogans, asking for dictatorship/military intervention, and mocking death (video 2). Many people have been physically attacked by demonstrators (video 3), while others have suggested killing governors who have decreed social isolation.

These demonstrations are visceral testaments to two things that go hand in hand in Brazil – first, the absence of belief that the state has any role to play in providing for people, and second, a violent disregard for life. Instead of asking why the state is not providing for people so they can safely stay at home, the idea that people will die from hunger if they are not allowed to work individualises the problem and fosters violent sentiments towards those who defend social isolation measures.

Many will rightly link the popular response to the pandemic to neoliberal politics and its individualising social enterprise. It is true that, from the 1980s, neoliberal policies, and their individualising ideological commitments, have been normalised in Brazil, translating all social problems into matters of individual misfortune or misdeed. We can say, indeed, that the ‘neoliberal rationale’ has become a hegemonic feature of the Brazilian cognitive political struggle as well as in people’s minds. This could help us understand why so many people do not see the state as responsible for caring for its population, but instead applaud its efforts to send them to work to avoid dying from hunger even when this means spreading a virus that will kill thousands.

But we also need to remember that in the colonial and post-colonial order of Brazil, violence, disregard for (particular) lives and state repression have been almost omnipresent features. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, after having enslaved 4.9 million Africans or 40% of the total number forcibly taken to the Americas. To transform people into slaves, it was necessary to continually repeat acts of violence designed to impress upon the enslaved the knowledge that they were nothing but slaves, with no existence conceivable except as an appendage to the master who owned them. Violence was not only a matter of punishment, but something core to the existence of the enslaved, the masters and the whole system of slavery. For centuries, the mass of people in Brazil were condemned to live in a society where their own social status and very existence was dependent on perpetuating and/or submitting to acts of violence, and this has had great consequences for later generations, long after ‘emancipation’.

After abolition, an entire class of black and mixed people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter skinned poor Brazilians were left to their own fates, having to survive in the poor peripheries of large urban centres. They have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion and discrimination. In Brazil, there was never a welfare state, as in Western Europe, which could attempt to remedy such inequalities by providing the basic social rights and protections required for this population to be able to live with dignity. In fact, after independence, almost all governments that have tried to promote social justice and diminish social inequality were impeached or suffered a military coup. In this context, violence has continued to be an important element in Brazil’s social order.

The descendants of the enslaved and lighter skinned poor Brazilians have historically faced a discourse of degradation, rejection from the human commonwealth, and state violence – often being executed on the streets by the police. They are the ones now struggling in the favelas, being told to go back to their already precarious, low paid and insecure work to avoid dying from hunger in a moment of health crisis.

As Stuart Hall has noted, it’s difficult to work through the question of how violent colonial pasts inhabit the historical present. Yet there can be no doubt that this past still reverberates in Brazil’s socio-political-economic structures, as well as in its collective psyche today. Unbidden, our history shapes a present in which the state and many ordinary people place no value on the lives of millions of their fellow beings, and are not only willing to allow death en masse but often violently to attack those who act, symbolically or materially, to preserve the lives of all alike.

Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. This is an edited version of a longer blog that appeared in Discover Society on 23/04/20.

Research in extraordinary times

Bridget Anderson introduces our new blog series, Letter from Afar, in which we invite colleagues from across the world to tell us about their life and work in times of COVID-19. Answers welcome!

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well – COVID-19 has turned that platitude into a genuine wish – I truly hope you are well.

I am writing with news from a virtual Bristol. In fact, I’m writing from Newport in South Wales, where I’m staying with my elderly parents who are particularly vulnerable at this time. Right now in the UK we are being strongly discouraged from going outside other than to shop for necessities and take an hour’s exercise. As I write we’re seven weeks into lockdown, and it’s proving tough. It’s tough enough for me, and I’m in the privileged position of having access to a garden. I keep thinking of people in flats with toddlers and teenagers. Like in many other countries, domestic violence is on the rise. We need some pushback on the assumption that home is a safe place. But others don’t have a home to go to. It’s particularly difficult for migrants who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) as one of their visa conditions, or who are undocumented or asylum seekers. The Government has advised Local Authorities to (temporarily) house everyone including NRPF people, but it is not clear where the money will come from.

The University of Bristol has shut all offices so we can’t access books and papers, and we are all adjusting to working from home. There are clearly financial fears and the vulnerabilities of precarious working in the sector have been exposed. Budgets have been frozen and staff laid off: similar processes are happening at other universities.

There are also consequences for research, as I’m sure you too are experiencing. Together with colleagues Jon Fox, Therese O’Toole, David Manley and Natalie Hyacinth I was about to start fieldwork on the Everyday Integration project in Bristol. We were going to deploy innovative methods including flash focus groups on buses and Uber rides, none of which are possible now. At a time of ‘social distancing’ we are actively being told to ‘dis-integrate’ for our own health. We are re-thinking how to proceed, perhaps by observing the period of ‘re-integration’ that we are all going to have to go through when we emerge from lockdown. ‘Integration’, whatever was meant by that term, is going to look very different now. Yet at the same time connections between us are being revealed (who knew we would be connected to a bat in Wuhan – talk about a butterfly flapping its wings!) and new ways of connecting are being forged. I’m on a mission to change the language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’, for we are not socially distant at all.

In the UK, as in many places, the pandemic is also revealing the crucial role that migrants play in our societies – disrespected ‘low skilled’ workers have turned into ‘key workers’ and many of them are migrants. So focussed have we been on the impact of migrant workers as an abnormal phenomenon that affects an otherwise normal labour market, that the politics has missed the fact that in some sectors migrants are normal and are needed to keep things ‘normal’. But at the same time as being key to socio-economic life, migrants are marginalised in state responses to the crisis. If you missed the EUI webinar on this then you could take a look at the recording here. These discussions are important as we need to be prepared for the tsunami of nationalism that appears to be building. Did you see that a couple of days ago in Australia there was a call for migration restrictions?

It is worth reflecting on how some of our experiences are a pale reflection of what migrants have endured for years. It is partly to do with separation from loved ones – I can’t bear speaking to the children by Skype when all I want to do is hug them – but it is also to do with time. We are inhabiting a kind of ‘precarious migrant time’ – stuck in a permanent temporariness that makes thinking about the future very difficult.

I don’t want to fall for the ‘we are all in it together’ kind of line, given how this virus is exposing gross inequalities that are, quite literally, sickening. But we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other. So here I am, writing a letter, and hoping to hear back from you.

In solidarity and with affection,

Bridget

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.