Isolated twice: international students in Switzerland during Covid-19

We live in a German-speaking canton of Switzerland. As the Covid-19 pandemic gained momentum in Europe, one of the first things we stopped doing as a family with our baby girl was attending the sessions of the local Krabbelgruppe – literally a “crawling group”, with regular meetings for babies and their families.

The place shut down in March, when we heard that scientists suggested that babies were less at risk of developing symptoms from Covid-19, but could still be carriers. This could be particularly risky for the elderly, especially if grandparents were in regular contact with the babies.

“Too bad, my baby Maria will lose touch with the Swiss German language for an unforeseeable amount of time”, we thought in our Brazilian household, where we speak Portuguese and English. As a mother with Migrationshintergrund (“migrant background”), I live in the anticipation of school exclusion and discriminatory practices that will affect her in case that she is unable to speak or understand German, the canton’s official language.

Then there is the double-consciousness: she passes as white and has a German-sounding family name. Racism will probably affect her less directly than it has affected me, a Brazilian Afro-indigenous first-generation migrant to this country.

Will she blame me one day because I spoke to her in Portuguese, the “less cosmopolitan” language of my grandparents? Will she see me in the gendered way that society sees women, namely as the bearers of “culture” and “national heritage”?

Social distancing has always been the easy part - what made me fairly aware of my position in this host society was the quarantine. Switzerland imposed a lockdown between 16th March and 26th April, followed by a three-step easing of the restrictions.

At the height of Covid-19 restrictions, I understood certain important aspects of my life in this country as a racialised immigrant woman from outside the European Union. I have the undeniable privileges of the members of this group, who are commonly referred to as “international students”.

I am in possession of a yearly renewable student permit, the same one that is given for family reunification. I speak the national languages: I get to watch the daily sessions of the Bundesrat (Swiss Federal Council) on Youtube, and I keep informed on whether or not the curve has flattened. I have a Swiss degree and I am enrolled in a PhD programme. I am on the payroll of a Swiss university in this country. I get to work from home.

I have these “rights” in a wealthy country where hostility against immigration (especially from outside the European Union) has been rising in recent years, a country that has never considered the progressive stance that Portugal has taken during the pandemic – the Portuguese government guaranteed temporary residency rights to all immigrants and asylum seekers who had applied for residency before the Covid-19 state of emergency.

International students are stereotypically perceived by many Swiss people as opportunistic and selfish, thinking about their own careers and upward mobility, often causing trouble in their home countries, or at the very least not caring much about what happens “back home”.

These views often come with a parallel erasure of the role of Swiss and European NGOs and solidarity groups in the countries where they operate. The relations of power, inequality and dependency these groups perpetuate in Brazil and other countries of the global South are glossed over, as if they are not part of the various issues that affect these places.

There is also a mistaken assumption that the middle classes in the global South are somewhat structurally equivalent to the middle classes of the global North. If you are an international student, then you must come from a privileged background – this is the common perception.

And if you are a member of the discriminated racialised groups and become to some extent a “privileged nomad” in the North, then you are often made to feel guilty: the assumption is that you should feel lucky and grateful that you are not in worse living and working conditions.

While many Swiss middle class people imply a certain naïve equality with their Southern counterparts, what is also erased from the conversation is the fact that international students pose a threat to Swiss white-collar jobs.

One way to avert this threat is to frame our movement within the dominant narrative of the “brain drain”: we have a duty to go back to our countries of origin to help rebuild countries allegedly ravaged by war, corruption, violence, gender inequality and so on. We are not supposed to stay on here, in Switzerland, competing for middle class jobs.

But even if we do decide to stay on, we will face the negative effects of what I call “handicaps” in the labour market for being non-native speakers and non-white – I use the term “handicap” here from the realm of disability as a way to mark a common trend in European literature about migration, often defining migrants as “unable to” do this or that.

What Covid-19 has done is putting into stark relief these pre-pandemic inequalities and structures of discrimination. In the Swiss conversations and media debates I followed, it is as if coronavirus in Brazil is something completely different from what it is in Switzerland.

The emotional and intellectual distance of Brazil in the Swiss imaginary, often mediated by stereotypical NGO discourses, also erases the long-term ties between the two countries: few people in Switzerland remember that there were Swiss colonies in Brazil. They prefer to acknowledge this history through the language of “cultural remnants”.

There is a general lack of empathy for the tragedy Brazilian migrants are facing in their home country: with over 69,000 coronavirus deaths at the time of publication (10 July 2020), it is as if we should just forget about what is happening in Brazil, and focus instead solely on Covid-19 “here”, in Switzerland – despite its privilege, Switzerland too has lost many lives, nearly 2,000.

I was staying indoors because I was mandated to do so by a government that I did not elect. With borders closed, returning to Brazil is not even an option. Am I witnessing the end of the “globalised” world as we know it, the same ideal that pushed me to go study abroad in the first place?

Covid-19 has reminded me that my quarantine existed way before it became a reality for everyone else. And that individual isolation and diasporic nationalism may be ways of migrant’s self-care in the face of pervasive xenophobia.

Annelise Erismann is a Woman of Color, a Brazilian national and Maria’s mom. She has studied political sciences at the Free University of Berlin, and works as a graduate student at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her twitter handle is @lapetitejuge

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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