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They have the will and resilience, but are more isolated and alienated than before these terrifying times.

The underprivileged are experiencing intense social and cultural isolation, alienation, and loneliness. Among those who are suffering the most are asylum seekers and recently settled refugees. If I were to write a full description of what I have heard and witnessed over the last couple of weeks since the self-isolation restrictions were introduced, I would need weeks to sit and write many pages. So, for the time being, I just content myself with jotting down the following.

Terms such as “separateness”, “cut off”, “abandoned”, “confused”, “loneliness”,  “helpless” “anxious”, “fearful” and “isolated”, just to mention a few, have gained new meanings since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. They are of course old familiar terms, but they now speak to new devastating impacts on many of us. The world as we knew it before the spread of this pandemic has changed forever.

Fear, anxiety and uncertainty have been rapidly increasing amongst the most oppressed citizens in the closed and despotic societies as well as the most marginalized and underprivileged who reside in the open and democratic communities. This crisis, we well can imagine, is profoundly worse for people living in oppressed communities under despotic rule.

The new forms of social and cultural alienation have just begun. As we are aware, there are political, economic and racial dimensions to this crisis that can result in emotional and psychological breakdown. 

Alienation takes many forms, some of which follow directly when people are not free and denied the ability to fulfil their basic needs; they are forced out of their jobs, their day to day interactions with each, and the community in which they live is violently disturbed, and they are pushed to leave the security and protection of their home. Tragically, this has been the reality for many people living across the world, as millions have been forced to flee their home countries and seek protection and safety in countries including Australia. 

I don’t know what the concept “unprecedented” means any more.  I have experienced so many tragedies and witnessed so many complex events in my life that I can label as “unprecedented”. For example, experiencing the 1979 revolution in Iran, the violence that ensued after that as the revolution was hijacked by Khomeini and his followers to impose a fundamentalist Islamic regime rather than a democratic and inclusive and secular government. For my own safety I was forced to flee from my country of birth. I lost everything I had, including my best friends, in the war which ravaged my city. The experience delivered trauma and suffering I have endured since. But COVID-19 delivers a new “unprecedented” situation even for those of us who have lived through the violence and trauma of exile.

Experiencing social and cultural self-isolation and now “social distancing” is genuinely appalling. The restrictions result in multiple forms of distress. To experience constant uncertainty, economic hardship, social and cultural alienation have always been distressing and traumatic for many asylum seekers, refugees and members of marginalized communities. But the consolidation of isolation is something altogether new. 

Since the government’s announcement of “self-isolation” and “social-distancing” measures I have been approached by many asylums seekers and refugees who have sought my advice and support how to deal with this new crisis in their lives. As humanly as I can, I have been doing my best to assist them.

I think the displaced community urgently requires emotional, psychological and moral support to help vulnerable people deal with the overwhelming impact of this situation in their lives.  In conversation they emphasize the anxiety and uncertainty they are experiencing and want to know how they can handle this critical situation they suddenly find themselves in. They feel confused, they feel profound rejection, abandonment and helplessness.   

I have observed a significant and very worrying decline in self-esteem, an anxiety deeper than before, among people with minimal skills and resources for coping with the situation. They still have some internal resources to draw upon, but desperately want to know how to handle these strange times and gain some positivity in their lives so they can look to a better future. I have been doing my best to assist them to remain resolute and decisive, encouraging them to be realistic, remain hopeful and think about how they can get through this, just as they did in critical situations in the past. It is reassuring that they listen to me and feel comforted that some of us still care about them. As always, I have been doing my best to encourage the people I work with to pay attention to small, achievable strategies for coping with the challenges they face.

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Mammad Aidani is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.


Against Social Distancing Mammad Aidani