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?
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
how can you proof
that you belong together?
Then they change the rules again
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
voice their solidarity
share food and words
but their faces
who do show their faces
come with sticks
to act on their hate
as if our disappearance
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luisa Schneider is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale).