ECMI Minorities Blog: Corona or Minority Crises?
Blog Editor: Dr. Marika Djolai
The Corona Crisis affects us all. Almost silently the virus reached Europe a few weeks ago and today it is the most discussed topic in the media and in our society. Many questions have been raised: “How can I get to work?”, “What consequences does the virus have for my children and their schooling?” or “Is it still reasonable to visit my parents/ grandparents?” Not to mention the many pressing economic questions concerning the future of jobs and the security of livelihoods. One question, however, also shouldn’t be neglected: "What has been the effect of the corona crisis on minorities?"
This blog represents a collective effort by the staff at the ECMI to bring together a variety of information and observations as to how corona is impacting on minority lives, minority policies, cultural diversity and social harmony. It was motivated by our Blog Editor, Marika Djolai; but it has also offered me, Vello Pettai, the ECMI’s new Director, to make a debut on this fantastic communicative channel of the Centre. Through the different linguistic abilities as well as disciplinary perches of our staff, we can offer a wide range of perspectives that illuminate how corona is affecting minority issues. Let’s begin with the most general: what is corona doing to our sense of community as human beings:
As our Senior Researcher Ljubica Djordjević writes:
An age-old question arises: who is in and who is out, is it a polis of all citizens or only our herd? Does our solidarity transcend ethnic lines and rests on our human nature or is it entrenched in the kin? Does the crisis decrease interethnic distances or make the gap even deeper? This is a notable paradox: on the one hand, all leaders call for unity; on the other hand, it is a unity often aimed at someone else, an external threat. Governments declare universality with regard to the anti-corona measures they impose; but they are often unaware of the differential burdens these incur. Ljubica goes on to add: On the one hand, it might be fully legitimate to ignore ethnic differences for the sake of the higher goal, taking into account the urgency and risks at stake. On the other, if these apparently neutral measures bring (minority) groups and individuals belonging to them into a disadvantaged position, this could amount to discrimination even in the times of pandemic. The prohibition of discrimination is a valid legal claim and cannot be restricted even in times of emergency. Moving down the level of abstraction here, minority communities are important precisely because they are living, vibrant, interacting communities. They thrive through social life, not social distancing. In our current conditions, this imperative begins with the basic issue of cultural activity, but raises more long-term questions of identity preservation.
Our Communications Officer, Katharina Jürgensen, rightly brings these two levels together:
For minorities, who express their identity mostly through the activity of cultural events it is a challenging time, as those activities are being cancelled. An example here is Germany’s Sorbian community and their decision to cancel their traditional horse riding around Easter. The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) has also decided to postpone the European Football Championship of autochthonous, national minorities “EUROPEADA” until summer 2021. In our own area of Schleswig-Holstein and South Jutland, social services, churches and schools belonging to the regional German and Danish minorities have been closed. All of this posits an important philosophical, anthroposophical dimension: how can minority identity exist without living it and expressing it? Schools are a particularly fragile nexus of relationships. As noted, minority schools can be the lifeblood of a minority community, and their closure is especially trying on social interactions. Also for immigrant minorities, the closure of local schools can mean that children have to continue their studies at home, but in a context where little support is available. Accounts from Estonia report that Russian-minority children seeking to integrate via Estonian-language schools are now cut off from this important context and have to cope with learning on their own. A final, though perhaps even more distressing level of reflection could be summed up in the form of intrusions into minority communities. How are external players putting added pressure on minority identities and ways of life?
The issue begins with small things, as our Junior Researcher Craig Willis explains:
Over the past few weeks, lockdown measures in the United Kingdom have taken much longer to be rolled out nationwide. While the stricter rules of movement are now in place, frustration has grown among rural residents as many city dwellers seek refuge in the countryside and thereby potentially spread the coronavirus to previously unaffected areas. Locals in the traditional regions of Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish – three Celtic minority languages – were amongst those voicing strong concern, often specifically targeted at second-home owners. Residents of the Isle of Skye are worried about visitors spreading the virus and putting extra strain on local health services. Scotland’s other main Gaelic-speaking council area, Na h-Eileanan Siar or the Western Isles, saw similar calls from local authorities to protect their islands from the virus. In an ultimate irony, local politicians and tourism leaders in Cornwall asked visitors to ‘come back later’ to protect the lives of local Cornish people.
More serious majority-minority upset is visible in how mainstream media have been reporting corona-related issues in connection with Roma minorities. Sergiusz Bober, our Senior Researcher examining politics and civil society, brings the example of Spain:
On March 20, the Seville edition of the ABC newspaper featured a page-size picture of the inhabitants of the Romani-inhabited neighbourhood of Tres Mil Viviendas apparently insulting security staff, who were instructing residents to stay indoors. Elsewhere in the newspaper’s print and on-line editions, additional stereotypical and stigmatizing images were presented of inhabitants in the neighbourhoods of Los Pajaritos and Vacie. Accompanying articles described and interpreted the situation using divisive language, structuring the narrative around that of a divided city: one side is responsible and stays indoors in order to contain the virus, while the other is clueless and defiantly ignores the measures introduced by authorities. Another narrative depicted one part of the city conforming with the rules, however, essentially in order to isolate itself from the other and the latter’s contaminating destitution.
The stigmatization of Roma communities appears no less in Romania, as Senior Researcher Andreea Cârstocea explains:
Roma people returning from abroad are flagged as a potential source of the spread of the coronavirus; in this context, the emphasis is less on the danger itself and more on the alleged rule-breaking behaviour of this ethnic group. A case widely reported in the media was that of the alleged return of some 300 persons of Roma ethnic background, who – in order to avoid the mandatory 14-day quarantine for persons travelling from Italy – declared they were in fact returning from Germany. The incident caught the attention of both local and national media and was also widely shared on social media as evidence of the norm-defying behaviour of the Roma. In cases where Roma returning from abroad were indeed placed under quarantine, media reported instead on their aggressive behaviour that ‘terrorised’ the authorities. These issues have further become fodder for right-wing activists, who contrast the alleged aggressive, rule-defying behaviour of Roma returning from abroad with the hard-working, law-abiding Romanians who have to continue working even as the virus is spreading. In both Spain and Romania, Roma community leaders have issued protests over these reports. The National Centre for Roma Culture in Romania reminded the general public that the associations made during WWII between the Roma population and the spread of the typhoid fever represented an important element in the deportation of Roma to Transnistria during the Holocaust.
However, as Sergiusz Bober reminds us, The obvious difference in outreach potential between a major national newspaper and a social media account of a relatively unknow civil society organization needs to be borne in mind when a comparative analytical angle is used.
Against the backdrop of these points, our conclusion is clear: the coronavirus crisis has a direct negative impact on the position and lives of minorities across the world. Governments and particularly the media need to avoid misusing the pandemic to increase pressure on and stigmatisation of minorities, who tend to be among the most vulnerable society members even in the best of times.
As the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier has pointed out, states and individuals need to remember that cohesive societies are strong societies. He further reminds governments that emergency measures need to include the needs of everyone in society, including persons belonging to national minorities and other marginalized communities.