Not because of your brown skin… Pandemic stigma, stuckness, and social infrastructure

This blog post is written by Marie Stender and Lene Wiell Nordberg. 

Marie Stender is an anthropologist and senior researcher in the Department of the Built Environment at Aalborg University, Denmark.

Lene Wiell Nordberg is an architect and researcher in the Department of the Built Environment at Aalborg University, Denmark.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home’ in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the authors.

Pandemic stigma, stuckness, and social infrastructure

Covid-19 was not equally distributed among neighbourhoods in Denmark. The neighbourhoods on the Government’s so-called “parallel society list” were recurrently pointed out as “Corona ghettos” with high levels of infection and long-term lockdowns.1 Both the media and politicians were especially concerned with how people in such neighbourhoods live in crowded homes or have “deviant” cultural norms and social conventions, hence contesting their ways of residing and living. But how did the residents in these areas actually handle being stuck in their (sometimes crowded) homes, and what was the impact of the pandemic on the stigmatization and social infrastructure of these neighbourhoods? Based on architectural-anthropological fieldwork in a range of neighbourhoods on the “parallel society list” during and after the pandemic, we focus on how the Covid-19 lockdown was experienced from within.

Our study is part of the RESPOND research project financed by Realdania Foundation that focuses on long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on everyday life and the built environment in Denmark.2 Previous pandemics have had considerable impact on architecture, urban planning, and the built environment, thus we are interested in whether this will also be the case with Covid-19, and in what we can learn from the lockdown periods. When the virus spread and caused a global state of emergency, we were already involved in an ongoing long-term research project following the 15 areas that were formerly listed as “hard ghettos”.3 In some of these areas, we had to postpone fieldwork, but in others, we did fieldwork during the pandemic lockdown. This complicated our fieldwork tasks, as we had to conduct interviews outdoors or over the telephone, but it was also an opportunity to zoom in on how the pandemic was experienced and handled by people in these neighbourhoods. Therefore, we decided to do an extra case study as part of the Respond project, focusing on what we can learn from the pandemic’s state of emergency – especially in relation to stigmatization, social infrastructure, and pandemic stuckness.

Stigmatization

The media coverage of neighbourhoods on the “parallel society list” is generally dominated by negative stories (Mechlenborg & Stender 2022). Our analysis of media clips shows that during Covid-19, the negative media coverage of several of these neighbourhoods increased significantly. In the media and political debate, density, behaviour, and cultural norms were often pointed out as problematic aspects of these areas during the pandemic. Gellerup was one of the areas that had increased negative media coverage during the pandemic. Together with Vollsmose, this neighbourhood is often used by the media and politicians as a prime example of a “ghetto”, generating media attention also in stories that do not specifically relate to that exact place (Mechlenborg and Stender 2022). Several politicians thus refered to Gellerup and Vollsmose during the pandemic. Some of the leading stories pointed at the behaviour among the Somali community in Gellerup as problematic, reinforcing the existing stigmatized image of “a parallel society” with residents of “deviant” cultural norms. The residents we interviewed were frustrated with this; some argued that the problem was not a matter of ethnicity but rather related to how they live, thereby pushing the stigma from the ethnic group to the built environment. As one man from the Somali community in Gellerup said:

The infection rates peaked at times due to how we live: People live on several floors, and they use the same elevator, cough, sneeze, and then the next one gets infected. And then he goes home to his family and everyone there is infected. That’s how it is, when you live like this… Not because of your brown skin…There was some bad publicity – 15 minutes of fame for the usual politicians. They disgrace minorities because we are 100 people attending a funural, but afterwards they post photos from a social event they attended themselves… But apart from the stigmatization, it actually also created better collaboration within the area – we helped dispel rumours and misinformation. A Corona-task force was established to provide information.”

As this resident stressed, the pandemic did not only have negative consequences but also occasioned new types of collaboration between the housing society and the residents. In several cases, the risk of public stigmatization even fuelled such initiatives. Ringparken was one of the few areas that managed to change the negative media coverage to a more positive one during the pandemic. Here, the housing organization and volunteers were determined to create positive stories as they started several initiatives and helped each other. For example, volunteers gathered to clean the playground and all the stairs in the neighbourhood twice a week and gifts were handed out to infected residents. These efforts generated several positive media stories.

Even though the pandemic increased stigmatization of the neighbourhoods, it also in some cases strengthened or mobilized the communities, networks, and social resources that may otherwise remain unnoticed. Both as a response to – and prevention of stigmatizing media coverage, but also as a way of handling issues of infection and isolation. This can be seen as a matter of social infrastructure.

The negative media coverage increased in Gellerup during Covid-19 compared to before Covid-19.
Illustration 1: The negative media coverage increased in Gellerup during Covid-19 compared to before Covid-19. (red = negative stories, yellow = ambivalent stories and green = positive stories)
Media coverage in Ringparken before Covid-19 and during Covid-19. Ringparken is one of the few areas with increased positive media coverage.
Illustration 2: Media coverage in Ringparken before Covid-19 and during Covid-19. Ringparken is one of the few areas with increased positive media coverage. (red = negative stories, yellow = ambivalent stories and green = positive stories)

Social infrastructure

Social infrastructure is typically defined as public institutions and places like libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, sports facilities, courtyards, sidewalks, and recreational areas (Klinenberg 2018). All the places where we gather and meet each other. We know from our studies in these areas that many residents depend more on welfare services and local networks than in other neighbourhoods. Most social infrastructure of this type was however temporarily closed during the pandemic lockdown, and all organized social activities were cancelled. This makes the importance of such infrastructure even more evident. As Star (1999) points out, social infrastructure tends to be invisible until it breaks down. The lockdown thus made the social infrastructure more visible. In a recent article (Stender & Nordberg 2022), we map social infrastructure in three neighbourhoods before and during Covid‐19. The mapping shows that different (but existing) meeting places were activated during lockdowns, and that digital platforms were used to support social networks.

Illustration: Formal social infrastructure before/after (I) and during the lockdown (II) in Ringparken
Illustration 3: Formal social infrastructure before/after (I) and during the lockdown (II) in Ringparken.

Physical places like stairs, corridors, and laundry rooms acquired a new meaning as meeting places and spaces for exchanging help. But also informal social networks, often mediated by phones, Facebook, and other apps were critical. In Ringparken a new telephone line offered grocery shopping to the elderly, and in Mjølnerparken, WhatsApp was used to make daily competitions (for instance: count the number of stairs to the fourth floor) among a group of women. Formal social infrastructure is essential in these areas, but the pandemic has underlined the need to pay more attention to the spaces that are part of daily routines closely related to the private spaces. Our research corroborates that technological platforms can activate these spaces and support social networks, thereby generating informal social infrastructure.

Illustration 4: Informal and shared spaces (I) and non‐physical platforms (II) in Ringparken.
Illustration 4: Informal and shared spaces (I) and non‐physical platforms (II) in Ringparken.

Stuckness

Though these informal spaces and social networks are of great importance, it is crucial to note that they do not necessarily include everyone. Not all residents participated in these new creative ways of socializing, and for many the lockdowns were mainly about being stuck at home. Steiner and Veel (2021) coin the concept of pandemic stuckness as the experience of being stuck to places, stuck to things, stuck to people, who may be simultaneously subservient, caring, exploitative, and exploited. As they argue, this stuckness tells us something about the limits of our relationships to things, places, economies, and each other. Indeed, it is a sign of our dependencies on embodying conditions and on social relations.

To many residents, this stuckness was a frustrating and even tragic experience that has left lasting imprint. As a social worker in Mjølnerparken describes it: “Some were forced to stay home, and it went bananas. Conflicts at home escalate when you are forced to stay together. So now there is work to be done… For instance the children who took refuge in the screen: now they are just not used to go out and get fresh air and social relations.” Other groups of children and youngsters almost got stuck in the outdoor areas, which to some people was experienced as problematic, as this elderly resident explains: “It (youngsters hanging out) has become worse due to Corona, as they cannot go to the club. So, they hang out here and vandalise….The children have been out of school, and that is something you can really feel.

This situation with the youngsters hanging out illustrates that it was not just families but also the neighbourhood and community as such that could feel the breakdown of infrastructures like schools and clubs.

Residents in these areas were stuck within the walls of the home, but also behind national borders. This goes for all of us, of course, as travelling was not possible during the lockdowns. Yet this had especially grave consequences for people who have close family relations in other parts of the world. As the illustrations in a publication from the University of Copenhagen exemplifies (Jeppesen et al. 2021), some residents were frustrated about being separated from family members or not being able to attend weddings in their country of origin. Others were afraid to fall ill and die, especially as they could then not get buried in their country of origin.

The analytical consequences of this stuckness are twofold. On one level, the pandemic has taught us that we should take advantage of the freedom of movement to leave the home as we like. On another, more fundamental level, the pandemic lockdown was an occasion to study how the phenomemon of “home” extends beyond the physical boundaries of the dwelling unit and the social ties of the family. The home is linked to and depends on other spaces and social relations. Just like social infrastructure tends to be invisible until it breaks down (Star 1999), the lockdown made visible the home’s links, dependencies, and relations that might otherwise have remained unnoticed.

Notes

1 Danmarks Almene Boliger. n.d. ”Parallelsamfundslisten”. Accessed 26 January 2023. https://bl.dk/politik-og-analyser/temaer/her-er-listen-over-parallelsamfund.

2 Aalborg University. n.d. ”RESPOND”. Accessed 26 January 2023. https://vbn.aau.dk/en/projects/respond-rammerne-for-den-nye-hverdag.

3 The ’parallel society list’ was previously called ’the ghetto list’ and a number of housing areas were even listed as ’hard ghettos’. In 2018, new legislation called the Parallel Society Agreement (PSA) was passed, introducing new measures such as evictions, tenure mix, and targeted demolition aimed at opening these areas towards the surrounding society and obtaining a more socially balanced composition of residents.

References

Jeppesen, M., Sandholdt, C., Malling G., and Lund, R. 2021. Jeg tæller stjernerne, mens jeg venter. Coronafortællinger fra et almennyttigt boligområde. Copenhagen: dkPrint. https://strit.ku.dk/documents/Jeg_taeller_stjerner_til_Coronafort_llinger.pdf.

Klinenberg, E. 2018. Palaces for the people: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarisation, and the decline of civic life. London: Penguin Press.

Mechlenborg, M., and Stender, M. 2022. “Holes in the spaces of the welfare state: Media coverage and residents’ responses in the so-called hardest ghettos in Denmark”. In Space of the Danish Welfare: 1970-Present, edited by Raahauge, K., Lotz, K., Simpson, D. and Søberg, M., 160-174. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.

Star, S. L. 1999. “The ethnography of infrastructure”. American Behavioural Scientist, 43 (3): 377–391. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326

Stender, M., and Nordberg, L. 2022. ”Learning From Covid‐19: Social Infrastructure in Disadvantaged Housing Areas in Denmark”. Urban Planning, 7 (4): 432-444. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v7i4.5687

Steiner, H., and Veel, K. 2021. Touch in the time of Corona: Reflections on love, care and vulnerability in the pandemic. Berlin: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/ 9783110744767



Cite this blog post
Marie Stender & Lene Wiell Nordberg (2023, February 2). Not because of your brown skin… Pandemic stigma, stuckness, and social infrastructure. STAY HOME Research Blog. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ukew

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