The Coronavirus crisis can help us relate to the stasis and uncertainty commonly faced by refugees and other marginalized groups, a theme in our Academy of Finland funded project on marginalized groups and social organizations supporting them. Our interviews in Finland, Austria and Lebanon revealed a distinct and debilitating experience of time among refugees and asylum seekers. Lacking the stable, predictable flow of time that nearly all European citizens have taken for granted, many refugees feel trapped in a hopeless existence. The current pandemic provides an opportunity to reflect on the lives of marginalized individuals.
The Coronavirus outbreak has caused death and suffering, imposed economic strain on companies and individuals, and limited our abilities to travel, work, and socialize. Besides these concrete hardships, the crisis has had effects on our experience of time; in the words of Hamlet, ‘time is out of joint.’ The flow of time is at once unpredictable and suspended, with the future on hold. As the pandemic has disrupted our plans and created new uncertainties, it has revealed how dependent our experience of time is on the society around us.
We are told that we are dealing with ‘an invisible enemy’ that will stay with us for an indefinite period of time. Being locked up indoors with our movements restricted, our plans are postponed and our lives seem to be in stasis. At the same time, this suspended future appears full of risks and indeterminacy. Families with members in ‘risk groups’ are facing the terrifying threat of unwittingly infecting their loved ones at the slightest relaxation of discipline. Scientists plead for patience and refrain from giving definite predictions. The cadres of professionals and government experts that we have relied on for economic and social wellbeing now confess uncertainty. The predictions we were given have changed abruptly. For once, nobody knows, and the future seems beyond our control.
The uncertainties and disruptions we are now experiencing, although temporary and often modest, provide a glimpse into the commonly overlooked hardships of marginalized individuals. Research on refugees and asylum seekers, in U.N. refugee camps in developing countries and receptions centers in the West, highlight the impact of impermanence and uncertainty on individuals. Lacking the rudimentary institutions that provide the rest of us with stability and predictability, refugees struggle to find meaning and to exert a sense of control over their lives.
Families who flee a war or a famine caused by the climate crisis give up their possessions and the stability that a life rooted in a personal history provides. Uprooted from the past, refugees and asylum seekers face a present in a stasis of forced passivity. Unable to plan ahead or to meaningfully shape their lives, time crawls. In many cases, these individuals are also faced with unpredictable and frightening futures, threatened by violence and crime in refugee camps, and by deportation in asylum centers. Radical uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness over one’s own future are each enough to cause anxiety, hopelessness, and depression. The combination can be devastating.
Although diverse NGOs, activists, journalists, and artists have done tremendous work in bringing to light the experiences and hardships of refugees and other marginalized groups, the current crisis provides a new opportunity to relate to the largely invisible psychological and social costs that the lack of desirable and predictable futures creates for marginalized individuals. It is easy to overlook ways in which the less fortunate are excluded from the smooth, continuous flow of time that our society provides to its well-off members. We often find it easier to empathize with hunger, homelessness, and sickness, because these are immediate and visible hardships. In contrast, we may too often attribute the passivity and hopelessness of marginalized individuals to their character and psychology, rather than to the uncertain and bleak futures that the society imposes upon them.
As our flow of time is disrupted by the Coronavirus, perhaps for months, let us seize this moment to consider the lives of marginalized individuals who have lived years without a clear future. And once the crisis is over, let us not forget these people. We need to find ways to better support refugees and other marginalized groups whose futures are full of radical uncertainties, robbing their present moments of meaning. The lack of a future to aspire towards is a terrible debilitating condition that nobody should face. Our society and businesses should aspire to create desirable futures for everyone.
About the authors:
Farah Kodeih is an Associate Professor at IESEG School of Management in Paris, France, and a Visiting Professor at Aalto University School of Business.
Henri Schildt is a Professor at Aalto University both at the School of Business and at the School of Science.
More information on the project website: https://aaltosocialvalue.net