The invisible Corona crisis

The invisible Corona crisis

Mattias De Backer

To the Italian sociologist Andrea Mubi Brighenti we owe the insight that reciprocal visibility, or “inter-visibility”, is one of the most important variables to determine if and to what extent a space is “public”. This becomes quite clear in this crisis, in which some groups are rendered invisible and unreachable (young unaccompanied refugees without access to Internet and a social network, for instance) and other groups emerging to the amazement of frontline actors (intra-European labour migrants, due to the disappearance of jobs in the grey or black market and the closure of borders, in need of food and other basic services).

Both movements, however, are insufficiently seen by the government and its crisis management; their physical (in)visibility does not bring them to the centre of the public and political debate. This text serves the purpose of shedding light on the hidden dimensions of the Corona crisis by looking at the places where it occurs: home or apartment, institution, closed centre or public space.

In our cities, an unprecedented shelter and food crisis is taking place among vulnerable groups. According to a social worker homeless people are now looking for shelter in over-populated squats: “that was a space for 35 people, now there are 46, we think about what will happen when someone gets ill there, what we’ll have to do then.” An employee of an organisation for undocumented migrants observes that they are merely distributing food to hundreds and hundreds of urban undesirables and looking for day or night shelter for dozens of people: “I do fear for those who, for one reason or another, cannot find their way to us and who live on the streets, that they feel very lonely”.

Minimum occupancy
Some vulnerable groups are currently “lucky” to enjoy some form of shelter. They can live by Minister De Block’s motto “stay in your home”. However, this is not an obvious task for vulnerable groups such as young people in special youth care or refugees in reception centres. “In some [closed] centres [for refugees] the occupancy capacity is 100 percent or more. Everything has already been increased to the maximum because we were already in a reception crisis”.

In the meantime, these centres have proceeded to a minimum occupancy (“that’s a rational, right decision, but I had the feeling that I was abandoning both the residents and my colleagues”) and all or most of the peripheral activities have been stopped. “All activities are at a standstill, the TV room is often closed. There’s nothing left. I’m worried about that,” says the medical coordinator of one of the centres.

Another employee notes that there is a lot of difference between the different centres in terms of indoor and outdoor space; in some of them the only place for some privacy is their own room… which they share with three others. The same picture can be found with young people in special youth care or unaccompanied minor refugees in small reception facilities. For them, too, the space for movement is limited, activities have been stopped and access to medical or psychological support is now minimal: “we try to ensure that the residents are still greeted with a ‘hello’ and a smile”.

Reach groups
Information about the Covid-19 virus and about government measures is only sparsely received by some groups. Online spaces are massively used to disseminate appropriate health regulations in many languages. But as one youth worker points out, many groups are not easily reached through these online campaigns and social media.

Especially in the first days of the lockdown, there was still a lot of hanging around outside by groups of young people who were unaware. “A complete lack of sense of urgency,” says an outreach worker, “giving hands, a kiss, all cosy”. There was a sense of youthful invulnerability, perceived as remote and inaccessible. “Police drive by, wait and then drive on.”

Pressure on public space
In the meantime the pressure on and in public space has increased dramatically. A youth worker: “if they continue to act so harshly in the context of that restraining order, it’s going to explode,” and was unfortunately proved right [on 10 April, a young man named Adil died in a pursuit by the police, after which two days of riots ensued in the Brussels municipality Anderlecht]. Many underprivileged urban youths live in small houses with little or no privacy. Public space is the only place they can consider ‘themselves’. They are now losing that because of policemen whose behaviour is perceived as disproportionate and biased.

For undocumented migrants and homeless people, the situation is even more distressing. Measures concerning public gathering and social distancing are much easier to implement when you have a roof over your head. For these groups, there is a ban on assembly and even a ban on sitting (although a sort of “homeless permit” has been introduced in Ghent in the meantime): “everyone has to move, you can’t stand still. Homeless people are tired of being constantly on the move, you are no longer allowed to sit on a bench”.

A young man at a food distribution line: “what am I going to say to the police if they stop me?” However, the presence of a companion may also be a matter of safety and well-being for these people. Due to the increased presence of the police in public space, undocumented migrants do not dare to go out to the shop: “public space is not safe, because of the illness, the presence of the police, the rules that work against them and that are absurd”.

At the same time, police officers are unclear about what is allowed and what is not, administrative fines are issued when there is no legal basis for doing so, and the pressure on them is increasing as well. In the meantime, there have been many incidents of people spitting at the police. 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. Frontline professionals also point to the danger of abuse of power, albeit in a small part of the police force.

Unsafe public space
Although crime in our cities has fallen dramatically as a result of the Covid-19 measures, and air quality may also have improved, public space in the city is not a paradise in all respects, certainly not for vulnerable groups. As a result of the ban on public gatherings and the general guideline to stay indoors, public space has also become a lot more unsafe, especially for women (while for a significant number of women, their own home has also become a dangerous place).

Some stories pop up about women being raped in the station or a subway station: “the city is empty, the nooks and crannies are even more empty than before. All sorts of things are happening.” The rise of sexual harassment and cat-calling by groups of men is striking according to some female Brussels inhabitants. From previous research, we know that 9 out of 10 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. We can therefore assume that public space has now become more dangerous.

In other words, there are a number of invisible consequences of the epidemic and of measures against the virus that make the already precarious lives of these vulnerable groups even more difficult. This is something that has 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. However, necessary measures are not highly complicated: temporary regularisation of undocumented migrants and safe shelter for everyone by temporarily putting vacant premises into use.

This is a matter of humanity and of public health. Furthermore, the government should think about how food distribution and other basic services can eventually be taken out of the hands of all kinds of spontaneously organised citizens’ initiatives. This should be a matter of principle.

But the first step, we believe, must consist of making the impacts of the Corona crisis on vulnerable groups visible and recognising the work of professional frontline actors and numerous volunteers.


Mattias De Backer is a post-doctoral researcher at the universities of Liège and Leuven, criminologist, urban geographer and volunteer in the refugee and youth work sector.

This contribution is based on the testimonies of about 25 frontline workers who, despite the dangers associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, try to provide support to vulnerable groups: undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, young people in special youth care, homeless people, people in poverty.

Image Credit: Young people hanging out in Brussels © Brecht Vanhoenacker and Mattias De Backer