Imagine You Were Me

On How COVID-19 Affects Vulnerable Groups



the internet stops working

electricity is cut

the many screens which connect you to the world turn black

you no longer have access to your bank account

or functioning credits cards

the walls behind which you retreated fade away

and you find yourself under the open sky

now you are like me

nothing but a “dangerous body” on the street

what can you do now?

what must you do now?

out in the open where an invisible virus lurks?

you roam

roam the city for



and means to protect those you love

but everything is closed

and without the euro you don’t have

you can't even enter the supermarket

and all soup kitchens have closed

almost daily new regulations are passed

they don’t include your needs


you cannot possibly survive

and adhere to them

you can no longer be with loved ones

for without the walls of your house

you must decide

between your child and your partner


only two people

may stay together

and without papers

without walls

how can you proof

that you belong together?

Then they change the rules again


without housing

only one person

can move around

you wish this nightmare were over

wish for the world to go back to normal

be careful what you wish for


this, my friend

this is my normal

for I have no housing

and I am telling you

while you wait it out at home

part of an expanding digital universe

connected to those you love

millions of us

have no doors to close behind us

or doors behind which

violence waits

or loneliness

or emptiness

or fear

some people

voice their solidarity

share food and words

but their faces

their person

remains unknown


who do show their faces

come with sticks

to act on their hate

as if our disappearance

could somehow

end their fear

but while people discriminate

viruses do not

this is the world we created

can you imagine?

do you even want to?

what will you do about it?


and once this is over

The COVID-19 pandemic poses global medical, economic, political and social challenges. Indeed, health crises can dramatically increase existing social and economic inequalities if social factors and specific needs are not considered in the development and execution of response mechanisms. While efforts to limit the impact on our economies consider different occupations and circumstances, current virus containment measures are one-size-fits-all solutions. They are technical and relate to medical protective measures. “Experts say” has become the fail-safe way to preventively end any opposition and politicians built an unusually united front with little space for discussion or discourse. But the solutions don’t fit everyone. Indeed, protective measures such as social distancing, frequent hand washing and the request to stay at home cannot possibly be implemented by some vulnerable groups, such as people without housing or refugees. For others — including people who experience violence at home, who have special needs or who suffer from loneliness — they add to their hardship. Tailor-made measures are imperative.

That those who are most at risk during this pandemic are already struggling to make ends meet has become a global but meaningless slogan. What seems to be forgotten is that our inequality is not natural. It is a product of our guidelines. Health emergencies are always social crises too. We urgently need to think about the long path of neoliberal measures that led us to this pandemic. If we undermine solidarity and social justice, the devastating effects of this pandemic will go far beyond the medical and economic consequences. Current measures reduce the visibility of the suffering for those in need of the most support but not their suffering as such. One of the rough sleepers I conduct research with, Yelena (40), who has limited access to food, water or money at the moment and who lost contact with most of her network, formulated the challenge as follows: “Humans will survive this pandemic. But whether humanity will is a whole other question.” Emergencies are known for their ability to increase social cohesion and mutual support, but also for their potential to turn people against each other and to strengthen radical, political currents that are based on division and hatred. How this pandemic will shape our societies depends on our ability to support each other and to document and combat increasing poverty and inequality.

I am an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale). I conduct, collaborative, long-term ethnographic fieldwork with people who do not have housing in Leipzig, Germany. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have been working with rough sleepers, social workers, the city and politicians on measures to provide care for particularly vulnerable people, to give them the opportunity to isolate themselves and to seek medical help. The poem above is an assemblage of structures of feeling that emerge currently in different places across the world and are communicated via different media. Predominantly, however, it is based on what my unhoused research collaborators — who wish to remain anonymous — have told me since the pandemic mitigation measures entered into effect, and reflects on the urgent need to strengthen empathy and solidarity in our societies and to serve the common good in the collective sense.


Luisa Schneider is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale).