Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by ​Mattias De Backer, Université de Liège, Belgium

This contribution is based on the testimonies of about 25 frontline workers who, despite the dangers associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, have continued to support vulnerable groups including: undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, young people in special youth care, homeless people, and overall, people in poverty. This research is part of a European, HERA-funded research project on ‘The everyday experiences of young refugees and asylum-seekers in public space’.

As the pandemic has reached unparalleled levels of global notoriety, a striking by-product of this crisis has also emerged – the revelation that the virus is not the only invisible living thing present in society. Thanks to Italian sociologist Andrea Mubi Brighenti we have come to understand the concept of reciprocal visibility, or ‘inter-visibility’, as one of the most important variables to determine if and to what extent a space is ‘public’. This concept has become quite clear in this crisis as some vulnerable groups are now no longer present in our cities’ public spaces, nor are they at the centre of the public and political debate.

COVID-19 has rendered certain groups of people invisible while simultaneously forcing others to emerge from the shadows. From unaccompanied youth refugees who lack access to the internet and social networks, to intra-European labour migrants who have lost their jobs in the grey/black market who are in dire need of food and other basic services, COVID-19 is impacting various groups of migrants differently. Differences aside, however, one thing is clear: displaced migrants have been insufficiently identified by the government and have been inadequately targeted by crisis management efforts.

This article serves to shed light on the hidden dimensions of the coronavirus crisis by looking at how it has affected people’s homes, our institutions, as well as closed centres and public spaces in Belgium.

The increased visibility of vulnerable groups in public spaces
An unprecedented shelter and food crisis is taking place in our cities as different vulnerable groups are converging. In ‘normal’ times, most frontline workers work with clearly distinguishable and well-defined target groups. COVID-19, however, has flipped this reality on its head as the boundaries between these groups blur and the care landscape is completely redrawn. People in precarious living conditions are dependent on external help such as low-threshold initiatives that provide basic services and make no distinction in who they distribute food or clothing to.

A space originally planned for 35 people is occupied by 46 as people scramble for shelter in over-populated squats. Social workers worry as they think about what will happen when someone gets ill there and what they’ll have to do if and when that happens. An employee of an organisation that serves undocumented migrants observes that they are distributing food to hundreds and hundreds of urban ‘undesirables’, as they look for day or night shelter for dozens of people. Those who work for this organisation are concerned for the isolation these people are experiencing, as they ‘fear for those who, for one reason or another, cannot find their way to us and who live on the streets’.

Those who are poor and homeless need more support and all kinds of basic services such as food, clothes, medical assistance, hygienic facilities and legal support. Practitioners are demanding that the local government take the lead in coordinating reception and assistance, an issue that is bound to be complicated by COVID-19. At the time of the interviews (end of March 2020), there weren’t any homeless COVID-19 patients; however, if and when that should occur, putting them in quarantine will be difficult. Frontline workers stress that there needs to be a plan of action.

Incidentally, this issue of how to deal with homeless people has been long-standing, irrespective of COVID-19. Therefore, the best long-term strategy is one that ensures that no one has to sleep on the streets and that everyone is accommodated in existing (vacant) infrastructure. There are still dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have to sleep outside or in inappropriate squats, and this crisis  has shown that the night shelter system is bankrupt in a manner that violates human dignity and normalises a permanent crisis. Therefore, the COVID-19 crisis serves as a wake-up call as the current emergency shelter system becomes completely absurd when people with poor health and a compromised immune system are put in a room together and expected to keep their distance from a handful of others.

Even as some vulnerable groups are ‘lucky’ enough to enjoy some form of shelter and can therefore follow stay at home orders, others do not have the same luxury. Vulnerable groups such as young people in special youth care, or refugees in reception centres that have been stretched past their maximum capacity, are finding it challenging to keep their distance. In an effort to implement some of the COVID-19 mitigation directives, these centres have proceeded to a minimum occupancy which, though the correct and rational decision, has left some workers feeling that they were abandoning both the residents and their colleagues. Life in these centres has changed as all or most of the peripheral activities have been stopped and communal spaces, such as the TV room, have been closed. Centre staff worry about the effects these restrictions will have on their residents since for some of them the only place for privacy exists in their own room, which they sometimes share with three others. Centres also vary in terms of indoor and outdoor space which means some young people in special youth care or unaccompanied minor refugees in small reception facilities will have less access to move around freely at the same time that medical and psychological support has been reduced. To boost spirits in this new COVID-19 environment staff reflect on the fact that they ‘try to ensure that the residents are still greeted with a “hello” and a smile’.

Information about COVID-19 and government measures has been sparsely received by some groups. Online spaces are heavily used to disseminate appropriate health regulations in many languages. However, as one youth worker points out, many groups are not easily reached through these online campaigns and social media. For example, following the first couple of days of the lockdown, groups of young people were observed hanging around outside as they were unaware of the new social isolation measures. An outreach worker noted that there was ‘a complete lack of sense of urgency’, as people were cosy, shaking hands and sharing kisses. Here, there was a sense of youthful invulnerability perceived as remote and inaccessible as police drove by, waited a second, and then moved on.

More recently, social distancing measures implemented to combat COVID-19 have also placed our public spaces under undue pressure. Many underprivileged urban youths live in small houses with little or no privacy and public space is the only place they can claim for themselves – a place of comfort that is no longer available to them. Enforcement actions to ensure compliance have been perceived as disproportionate and biased and have created tension between the police and youth members of the community. Youth workers feared that tensions would come to a head, and in early April their fears came true after a young man named Adil died while being pursued by the police. Adil’s death was followed by two days of riots and unrest in the Belgian municipality of Anderlecht.

Some of this tension comes from the fact that police officers themselves are unclear about what is and is not allowed. Lack of clarity in this regard has left police officers caught in the middle, often issuing fines with no legal basis, which has left them vulnerable to various forms of retaliation. Human rights organisations and investigators argue that this lack of clarity also means that policemen have to determine on the spot what is acceptable and what should be punished.

Social distancing measures such as bans on assembly and sitting have hit undocumented migrants and homeless people particularly hard. Police presence in public spaces has increased to ensure people are abiding by the new rules, and although their presence is supposed to establish law and order, it has also inflicted a new level of fear for homeless people. Although a type of ‘homeless permit’ was introduced in Ghent as a sort of a buffer in the meantime, fear of being caught by the police persists, especially among undocumented migrants who fear the virus and the police alike.

Furthermore, although COVID-19 measures have led to lower crimes rates and improved air quality in our cities, public gathering bans and general directives to stay indoors have also resulted in less safety for certain vulnerable groups. For example, not only has the home become a dangerous place for a significant number of women, but we have also seen women being raped in the public transport station since ‘the city is empty, the nooks and crannies are even more empty than before. All sorts of things are happening’. From previous research, we know that nine out of ten women in Brussels have been victims of sexual harassment in public space and that the presence of bystanders is very important in preventing this type of violence. The assumption that less  people on the street has resulted in public space being more dangerous is supported by a rise in accounts of sexual harassment and cat-calling by groups of men.

Identified needs and insufficient care
Soon after the coronavirus crisis began, it became clear that too many people lacked (safe) shelter, sufficient food, internet access, quality care, as well as fresh clothes or the opportunity to wash themselves. As a result, there was a plea for more and better basic services and for medical and psychological support in first two weeks of the crisis. Small non-profit organisations, volunteers and activists responded to this need by organising many basic services in a short period of time, often at odds and exceeding their capacity. Basic economic assistance has also been requested for the small one-man businesses and creative entrepreneurs in deprived neighbourhoods, as well as the temporary lifting of unemployment and PCSW suspensions.

It has also become clear that although some recommendations may apply to more than one group, customisation is still needed – something that is not there at the moment. For example, frontline workers call attention to the fact that homeless people are a heterogeneous group where people who are on the run and in transit have different needs than those who may have more complicated needs related to drug and alcohol problems. Many frontline professionals have also repeatedly called attention to the hidden psychological suffering afflicting all kinds of vulnerable individuals such as children, young people or women in problematic family situations; vulnerable young people in underprivileged neighbourhoods; asylum-seekers in (closed) centres without psychological assistance; and intra-European migrant families without a local social network.

In the first days of the crisis, asylum seekers were confronted with the closure of the Immigration Department (Dienst Vreemdelingenzaken, DVZ), which makes new asylum applications impossible. The closure was called scandalous as closed DVZ makes ‘an entire group of vulnerable people invisible’ and rudderless. People on the ground challenge the legality of doing so, calling the decision insane and inconceivable. Therefore, there is an urgent need, according to frontline professionals, for a coordination centre where they are referred to the appropriate services and where correct information about the pandemic is provided.

Asylum centres are already filled to the brim, which could be alleviated by opening more centres, but as Vermeulen and De Bruyne argue, most needed are centres of a smaller scale. According to an employee of one of the centres, it is currently not possible to offer a safe and warm place there, let alone expect centres to adapt to social distancing measures. These centres also fear a lot of psychological and psychiatric damage as the message to stay indoors has a completely different impact and meaning for them as they are not at home.

Most undocumented migrants need shelter, and many frontline workers recognise that sending these people out onto the street and leaving them to their fate is dangerous and inhumane. In recognition of this, some frontline workers are in favour of temporary  or partial regularisation similar to what has been decided in Portugal and Italy. The moment seems ripe for this kind of relief as border closures will prevent new waves of migrants from being attracted by this type of policy. The reality is that some undocumented migrants who live and work in underground circumstances may face confounding problems that will lead them to staying indefinitely. In the spirit of solidarity, some feel that those who are already here are a part of us too, which means we can ‘give them rights and enough resources so they can quarantine themselves’. Some frontline organisations have advocated for a collective response from all key organisations to address the needs of those who live on the streets to find a lasting solution to the problem.

Sense of responsibility among frontline organisations
Since the pandemic started, frontline actors with a lot of commitment have worked hard under extremely difficult circumstances. An employee in an asylum centre remarked that ‘the only thing I would like to ask is that more attention is paid to the non-medical sector. Especially people in reception centres and the supervisors there, people in other centres for vulnerable groups, the disabled, special youth care. They, too, work very hard and with minimum occupancy. The sense of responsibility should be put in the spotlight there’. Little concern or attention has been given to people outside the medical field as groups are not identified, and staff in response organisations are not identified or prioritised.

Finally, the fact that (local) authorities and traditional civil society reacted very slowly to the crisis and that much-needed aid initiatives came from small NGOs, volunteers, activists and self-organisations should be taken into consideration. Although more cumbersome structures were unable to respond quickly, one can wonder whether a government, once it has organised itself, should take that work out of the hands of volunteers and civic initiatives since, after all, it is a core responsibility of government to offer basic services to all residents in its territory. If this is not possible, perhaps we should move towards a model of society in which ‘swarms’ of citizens, as Rogier De Langhe calls them, organise themselves in an agile (and sometimes volatile) way to extinguish the many small hotbeds of a major crisis. Should a modern government take more account of the capacity of such spontaneous networks to assemble quickly and solve partial problems?

A frontline professional remarked that ‘there’s so much knowledge and know-how among citizens: talk to us. It’s really necessary for someone to map out that whole field, including the smaller organisations, the mosques where they cook…Thus it could become clear how big the problem is, but also how solvable it is’. Nevertheless, there is an issue of principle here. A (neoliberal) government may like the fact that grassroots initiatives take responsibility. Some ten years ago, David Cameron coined the concept of ‘the big society’: a participatory society in which the government gradually transfers some powers to the citizen. That being said, it is no coincidence that this political project coincided with savings in the social sector as further democratisation of governance can become a fig leaf behind which an increasingly thin government can hide.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some unforeseen consequences that have hit certain vulnerable groups of people particularly hard. These effects have received far too little attention, not least from local authorities who acted too late in the face of the crisis and who were outperformed by frontline workers and volunteers. Small NGOs, volunteers, citizens and self-organisations that were the first to react deserve a strong praise as they have been vital antennas that immediately sensed the basic needs that would arise. This response is also a testament to how heart-warming solidarity can be established at the district and city level. Spontaneous networks and solidarity funds were set up in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels to the point where they actually had to refuse volunteers as there were too many helping hands.

For a topic to become an issue of public interest, it needs to become visible and through this crisis it has become clear that, though often invisible, many underpaid professional groups appear to be working in ‘essential’ jobs. Let us hope that our societies are able to widen the scope even further to those working with the most vulnerable groups, or better still, that we come to realise that every one of us is an essential part of the public.

Photo credit: Hannes Couvreur