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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta M Gozdziak

Social distancing and privilege

I returned to Washington, DC from Budapest on March 13 and have been on lockdown ever since. First it was a self-imposed quarantine, but as more and more cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the capital city, my husband and I decided to continue sheltering in place. Given my age—weren’t I 35 just a little while ago?--and the nasty pneumonia I had last year, I think prudence is what the doctor ordered. I am disappointed that the field research I planned for this spring and summer had to be postponed and the conferences I wanted to attend have been cancelled. I miss face-to-face interactions with my students and my colleagues. I grumbled at having to spend many additional hours to convert my seminars to online teaching almost overnight. I am privileged, though. I have a lovely home office, fast speed Internet access, fancy computer, a loving husband to keep me company, and a daughter who is just a phone call away. Refugees and migrants do not have access to such luxuries. Displaced migrants all over the world are at heightened risk as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. The risks for refugees in the Greek islands are multiplying by the hour. Thousands of older people, people with chronic diseases, children, pregnant women, new mothers, and people with disabilities are trapped there in dangerously overcrowded conditions. Social distancing is not an option for refugees lingering in camps, for asylum seekers in detention centers, for caged migrant children, and poor immigrants living in overcrowded tenement housing. Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practice it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water and soap. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to stay home or have a profession that can be practiced remotely. Most refugees and immigrants will not be able to practice any of these safety measures. Don’t bemoan your isolation. Think about it as solitude and a time for reflection. As I continue to work on the NoVaMigra research project on norms and values in the context of the ‘refugee crisis,’ I am reflecting on the values governments in Europe and elsewhere in the world exhibit when they close borders, build barbed wired fences, and push boats carrying refugees to the sea. I am also wondering how our study of values and norms will ultimately affect a value-bases refugee and migration regime. Personally, I am thinking back to the dark times of martial law in Poland and to the time when many Polish dissidents spent months in internment camps. I also think about my students who come from immigrant families: the bright young woman who all of a sudden became the sole breadwinner as her immigrant parents lost their restaurant jobs, the gay young man who has to stay on campus because his father will not allow him to live at home. And many others who struggle in these trying times.

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