Is Coronavirus really the great leveller?

All of our lives have changed immeasurably in the last month. Things that many of us never expected to witness have come to pass. Society as we knew it has, in many ways, closed down.

There are queues outside supermarkets, food shortages (real or a result of panic buying), schools are closed and people we know and love are in hospital – some of them seriously ill. Jobs have been lost, small businesses have gone bust, restaurants are empty, theatres are dark and the events that usually fill our sporting and cultural landscape have been cancelled.

But while much has been made of the fact that everyone is experiencing this crisis in the same way at the same time, it is wrong to assume that the virus is a great leveller. Some of the most vulnerable in our society have had their support systems removed, many have no access to outside space and little money to make lockdown more bearable. And refugees, asylum seekers and recent migrants are amongst the worst affected.

In the UK, almost all the face-to-face services provided for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are now closed. This means that, in many cases, access to hot food, immigration advice, English classes and cultural activities has ceased. Like Stories & Supper, many organisations are trying to take advice services, classes and workshops online. But no physical meet-ups means no access to travel expenses, shared meals, person-to-person solidarity or regular activities which give the week its structure.

For many, however, this sense of isolation is not new.

As you struggle with not seeing your friends and family, remember that many refugees have been separated from their loved ones for many years. Without money or permission to work, asylum seekers often spend a great deal of time at home alone, relying on technology to stay in touch with family scattered around the world.

Photographer Laura Martinez, who found herself unable to return to Venezuela when the political situation worsened, said she feels in some way prepared for the current situation. "I think I can handle it now, because when I first arrived in the UK I was feeling isolated. I know it was a different situation, I could still get out. But you have to stay motivated, to do new things with everything you have around."

Immigration policies in the UK in recent decades, including dispersal, detention and the hostile environment, have exacerbated the sense of isolation and disenfranchisement, defining the ways in which the virus now disproportionately affects refugees and other migrants.

AVID have pointed out that for the hundreds currently in immigration detention in the UK, social distancing is nigh on impossible, there is a serious risk of an outbreak and healthcare facilities in the centres are inadequate. Detainees are also denied morale-boosting visits from volunteer befrienders and access to adequate legal representation. AVID is calling for the immediate release of all immigration detainees, in the light of the current crisis.

For refugees currently in transit, the situation is also dire. There is limited access to food and water for people living in informal settlements in Northern France, for example, and yet the police are still evicting them. Refugee Community Kitchen, who have been serving hot meals to displaced people in Calais and Dunkirk for three years, recently made the heartbreaking decision to suspend operations due to mounting concerns for the safety of their volunteers and the people they serve. Without them and similar volunteer-led services, many will struggle.

Meanwhile, in refugee camps, limited hand-washing facilities, basic sanitation and overcrowding make the virus a potential time-bomb. At the end of March, more than 20 people tested positive for Covid-19 in Ritsona camp near Athens. In a camp of 2,453 people, the virus could now spread unchecked. The first case was confirmed in Malakasa camp, also near Athens, in early April. Meanwhile, conditions in Moria camp in Lesbos are also deeply worrying. More than 1,300 people use just one tap and many have underlying health conditions. How can it be that some lives are more important than others? When social distancing is in place across the globe, why do people living in refugee camps not deserve the same protection?

There might be, however, one unexpected outcome of the difficult – and hopefully temporary – privations that we are all living through right now. It is just possible that this current situation might provide at least some insight into how it feels when everything you take for granted is removed, when daily life becomes unrecognisable.

The gradual erosion of normality. The inability to earn money. The lack of education and limited health care resources. A restriction of freedom and choice. Separation from friends and family. The fear of sickness and death. Most in the UK are experiencing these things for the first time, but for many refugees and asylum seekers, including those involved in Stories & Supper, this situation is familiar.

Musician Maurice Nwokeji, who left Biafra as a child, agrees. "These are difficult times, but quite a few of us refugees have been through greater difficulties and perhaps our experiences have equipped us more than most to endure and lift others."

There are countless memes, articles, tweets and social media comments declaring that we will all come out of the Coronavirus crisis changed, a more cohesive and kinder society. But this will only be the case if we are better able to empathise with all of our fellow humans, including those living at the margins of society. If we understand a little better the impact of isolation, loss of normality, lack of social contact and freedom, then maybe a more compassionate attitude towards immigration in general and refugees in particular will emerge after this current crisis.

Helen Taylor, Director, Stories & Supper

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