The Coronavirus in Poland: Factoring in race, ethnicity, and immigration

The Coronavirus in Poland: Factoring in race, ethnicity, and immigration

Zelalem Nardos

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is radically reshaping lives globally whilst we are still learning about its impacts on human life with an assumption that everyone is equally at risk when it comes to this pandemic. However, data are beginning to emerge on how particular communities are impacted more than others.

For instance, in Chicago, New York, Detroit and New Orleans, it has been reported that 70% of COVID-19 victims were black, despite representing a smaller percentage of the entire population. Similarly, in the UK, the government has been urged to recognise that racial inequalities are a risk factor for Covid-19: reports have shown that this coronavirus is having a disproportionate effect on people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The reason for this is twofold, first, persons from such backgrounds are most likely to live in poor areas; they often work poorly paid jobs with less or no access to benefits or the luxury of working from home where they could be protected during this pandemic. The second contributing factor has been the group’s inability to complain or to be heard about its worse working conditions without fear of unemployment.

As recent reportage has shown, COVID-19 is not just about the management of a pandemic, but largely a health issue with huge ramifications on access to social welfare, with class and race implications at its core.

What is the COVID-19 situation with People of Colour in Poland?
At least we know a little about the bearing that the coronavirus has on people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the US and the UK. What is the COVID-19 situation with people of colour in Poland?

On 4 March, the Polish Government reported its first case of COVID-19. Four days later, the government announced cancellations of all public events as well as closure of schools, businesses and universities. This was quickly followed by the introduction of special regulatory acts related to self-isolation. These acts require that people who go out do so in groups of no more than two individuals and to remain at least two metres away from each another with a fine up to 30,000 zł (£6,000) for failure to comply.

Nonetheless, members of the current ruling party (PiS) are said to have violated the government’s own restrictions on public gatherings – such as when they met in large numbers for a commemoration at the Smolensk memorial in Warsaw.

Like in most countries in the EU, the sudden processes of lockdown in Poland have had dramatic effects on many – above all, foreigners and immigrants with legal or illegal status in Poland. For example, in Krakow, where people of colour study and work, the changes brought about by COVID 19 simply means that many can no longer work in restaurants, bars and casinos, leaving them in uncertain (if not dire) circumstances.

To get an actual sense of how COVID-19 has influenced people of colour in Poland, it is important to first recognise the racial experiences with which many of these individuals live. As Pędziwiatr and Balogun (2018) have shown, some persons of colour have already been struggling with acceptance from the general public. The way in which race and racism impacts largely on the lived experiences of this minority group is further explored by Balogun & Joseph-Salisbury (2020: 3) showing how the roles played by these factors (race and racism) in Poland have been underestimated by migration scholarship, and perhaps rendered irrelevant in national narratives. This implies a precarious state of affair for many People of Colour living in this country.

For me to understand how the above-referenced racial experiences have exacerbated the current situation with COVID-19 here, I spoke with various individuals from sub-Saharan Africa currently living in Poland. For this particular minority group, the overwhelming response by EU and other Western governments to recall their citizens and bring them back to the homeland is beyond reach. Rather, the pandemic has highlighted the boundaries between citizens and foreigners in Poland, especially foreigners from less affluent states.

This is evident in a conversation with Adam from Benin who highlighted that “I don’t know if I will get proper treatment equal to the local [Polish] people if I get infected with [Covid-19].” Demba, a student/worker from the Gambia told me how the pandemic has affected his daily life to the point of not knowing what to do next or where to turn: “I don’t know what to do, now I stop working because the mall was closed and that is a bit scary, if I finished the money that I saved.”

In Warsaw, Abena from sub-Saharan African background pointed out how some companies are “forcing immigrants to work… with tight working conditions that put them at risk of becoming infected with the virus.” Whilst Abena recognised that this is against the state’s recommendation, she equally lamented that “We are working because we don’t have money to survive…”

What Does This Mean for Average Polish Workers?
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has identified the significantly increased vulnerability of migrants in comparison to citizens due to personal, social, situational and structural factors. Similarly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the powerlessness of this particular cohort can be aggravated during a crisis situation such as a global pandemic. In this situation, migrants are at increased risk of contracting diseases, including COVID-19, because they typically live in overcrowded conditions without the means to follow basic public health measures.”

The Polish Government’s policies regarding the virus – stay at home and stay at a distance – may seem welcoming. However, without taking into account the precarious situation of many migrants, these policies may not go far enough to solve the problem. Serving as a case in point, Patricia from Rwanda summed up: “The Polish government have no idea about migrants, they forget us.”

More than that, undocumented migrants are most likely not ready to seek medical treatment due to fear of deportation. It is important to highlight that the victims of these policies may be not only African immigrants but also many Ukrainian and Asian workers, and unskilled Polish workers. Still, primarily for the many people with immigrant status in Poland, this means that they could be unable to afford food, rent and perhaps an adequate health insurance that addresses COVID-19 specificities. With financial insecurity and the possibility of infection, many Polish workers and migrants are disproportionately affected by the government’s COVID-19 lockdown policies.


Zelalem Nardos is anthropologist, historian, and clinical nurse. He is currently studying at Jagellonian University (International Security and Conflict Management, and Central and Eastern Europe: Politics, Histories, Cultures and Societies Studies).

Image Credit: author’s own