Grid View

The AIDS pandemic and its echoes today

Interview with Jens Rydström, Professor of Gender Studies

Marta:           You are currently working on a research project about the AIDS pandemic in Sweden. I wanted to begin by asking what it is like to research on AIDS-pandemic in times when another pandemic is unfolding? Does it have any impact on you? Does it make your research different in any way?

Jens:              That was a good question… maybe… but not consciously, let’s say. But it does influence how I have read and understood the pandemic we are now in. I obviously see the parallels to what happened in the 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic came. But – especially in the beginning, when there were many discussions about the Danish and the Swedish example – I thought it was interesting because it was a little bit the other way around compared to the government politics surrounding the AIDS pandemic. Back then, Sweden became known for the harshest, the most coercive methods. They introduced forced isolation without trial. They banned and closed down the sauna clubs. They had possibilities to isolate people, and the medical officers (smittsskyddsläkarna) made a raid to a venereological health clinic. It was a clinic run by gay doctors who received gay men who were worried or who suffered or were HIV-positive. They had anonymous testing because otherwise, they argued, people would not dare to go there, but this was against the National Board of Health and Welfare policy. So, the medical officers made a raid there and took the journals and checked them. But, of course, they were anonymous, so they did not find much. But these were ruthless methods in Sweden. And it was highly politicised. Very soon after the first cases occurred in Sweden, the government set up the so-called AIDS Delegation directly under the Ministry of Health. Whereas in the neighbouring Norway and Denmark, especially in Denmark, they cooperated with gay and lesbian organisations, kept the sauna clubs open and used them to distribute condoms and information about HIV and AIDS. So, it was ultimately the other way around. And now, during the pandemic, it is Sweden that has become known for trusting the Board of Health. Fighting the Covid pandemic is highly politicised in Denmark but not so politicised in Sweden. It is a mystery to me why it has been like that.

Marta:             So, when you notice this kind of a reverse reaction to the pandemics in Sweden and Denmark comparing to how it was during the AIDS pandemic, how do you explain it? Do you have any hypotheses?

Jens:              No, not really… There are structural things, such as traditional ways of regulating pleasure. Some historian would say that Sweden and Denmark have very different traditions here. And that’s true. This is something that I tried to discuss when Don Kulick and I wrote our book about disability and sexuality politics, which is also very different in Sweden and Denmark. Let’s say that it boils down to the regulation of pleasure – drug use, sexuality and alcohol – these things are dealt with in very different ways in Sweden and Denmark. I have tried to explain that earlier by pointing out that the liberal traditions are much stronger in Denmark actually. There was never a very strong liberal tradition in Sweden, but Social Democracy inherited a somewhat hierarchical conservative state and could begin to implement a very radical reform politics. I’m not saying that the Social Democrats have been conservative, on the contrary, but that the loyalty with the state is very strong in Sweden and also that people are used to that the government decides somehow.

In our project, we studied men who have sex with men and the regulation of sexuality and the organisations for other so-called risk groups: drug users, haemophiliacs, sex workers, etc. And for all of them, the AIDS pandemic meant massive changes. Swedish drug policies were very strict and based on zero tolerance, whereas, in Denmark, they had harm-reduction ideal, free syringes etc. So, when discussion emerged in Sweden in the mid to late 1980s about free syringes and methadone, the official attitude was that it was entirely against the Swedish way of dealing with this stuff and that it would send the wrong signals. So, Swedish authorities would not allow for changing syringes for drug users, and they were very restrictive with methadone. Except for Skåne, in Malmö, maybe because it is so close to Denmark. Doctors here in the south started to distribute free syringes without the consent of the National Board of Health and Welfare.

Marta:             I started kind of in the middle of everything – with the comparison between the two pandemics – but before we continue on this track, maybe you could say something more general about your research project that focuses more specifically on civil society and the AIDS pandemic in Sweden, right?

Jens:                The reason for this specific focus is that when I was beginning to plan my research about the AIDS pandemic, a very impressive PhD thesis had just been published by David Thorsén, Den Svenska aidsepidemin Ankomst, bemötande, innebörd (The Swedish AIDS epidemic. Arrival, Response and Meaning). Thorsén had turned every stone in studying government politics and AIDS, so that was already done. I and my colleague Lena Lennerhed became more interested in civil society, especially since we had both been active in some of the organisations – Lena had been chair of RFSU, and I had been involved in RFSL’s international solidarity work in the 1980s. So we ‘switched’ organisations, so that I studied RFSU and Lena RFSL, just to avoid any possible bias. The focus on civil society has become much more interesting than I had thought from the beginning since the AIDS pandemic coincided with the start of what you could call the neoliberal era, or the hybridisation of the welfare state when the state begins to practice outsourcing of publicly funded services. Not as yet to private profit-driven actors, but rather that they needed the competence and outreach that the NGOs had gathered over the years. We could see it very clearly, when we looked at the way that different NGOs acted, how they were given more responsibility and more funding, lots of money which sparked a process of professionalisation and sometimes led to bitter conflicts between volunteers and paid staff. Some of them already had a lot of experience running large economies, like the drug-users association RFHL (National Association for Help of Drug Addicts), which is a mixed organisation with ex-drug users and social workers. From the 1970s onwards, they established treatment homes, collectives, etc., where drug-users could come to get the motivation to stop using and not to relapse. The whole idea was that you needed support for this, and they already had a large economy. When the AIDS pandemic came, they got even more. In one of their publications, they wrote that “This HIV-initiative was funded by the large wallet of the state that has now been open to us”. So the government pumped up money in the civil society to help out with the AIDS crisis.

 I said that the Danish government cooperated much better. It was true in some sense. In Sweden, the RFSL (Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Rights) has been in constant conflict with the AIDS Delegation; it had to do partly with personalities, but also very much with the fact that it was a sexually transmitted disease and the gay and lesbian movement was all about allowing gays and lesbians to have sex, to fall in love and to exist. It hit them so hard. It was, in a sense, easier to tell a drug user to stop using drugs or at least use clean syringes. But to tell a young person to stop having sex was almost impossible. So, the conflict was very much about what it meant to practice safer sex. RFSL insisted that there was such a low risk of infection with oral sex, so they regarded it as safer sex, which resulted in very harsh criticism from the medical doctors in Noaks Ark. First. However, the RFSL were considered to be very responsible when they recommended their members to stop donating blood. But then they advised their members not to take the test. Since there was no cure and since you never can be sure that your partner is not infected, everybody should practice safer sex all the time, they argued. To test positive would only create trauma for you without helping you to get better care. Everybody should be responsible, but the test was contra-productive at that stage since there was a test, but not the cure, so it was a death sentence. And, of course, telling the members not to take the test did not fall very well for the authorities. There was this constant conflict between the RFSL and the government, and some other organisations like Noaks Ark.  

Marta:             Interestingly, you say that there was a lot of financial support from the state. I guess a lot of the knowledge about the mobilisation around AIDS comes from the United States. And there, it seems like it was a huge thing that there was no response and no support or funds, so you had ACT UP mobilisation that was aimed at drawing attention to the problem.

Jens:              In a sense, it is a historiographical problem. We are so influenced by American historiography. It goes for many other things. It’s the same for the gay movement, with the idea that the Stonewall rebellion was the beginning of the gay movement. Of course, the Stonewall was important. But it is yet another example of how American historiography becomes hegemonic. When it comes to the AIDS epidemic, there is a lot of history and very wonderful histories from the United States about the mobilisation of volunteers and lesbian solidarity, etc. But you cannot apply this to Scandinavia or Europe as a whole, where there is a well-functioning hospital system, where nobody dies in the streets if they did not have money. In the United States, there was a very conservative government, with Ronald Reagan who would not pronounce the words ‘condom’ or ‘AIDS’ until several years into the pandemic. So, there they depended on volunteers who had to find their own funds. In Sweden or Scandinavia, activists were expecting the government to fund their activities. I mean, it was a completely different picture there. When it comes to the AIDS epidemic, I would say that yes, we did have very well-functioning hospitals or the health sector. Still, there was a lot of knowledge that was lacking in that sector about how drug-users use their syringes or about how gay men have sex – it was not so obvious that the people in epidemiological boards knew anything about these things. It was also a question of trust. Especially regarding gay men, I think. Being gay was so stigmatised, or being bisexual or having sex with other men, because many men who had sex with men were married and very much in the closet, and they were really afraid to become exposed. There was also extra stigmatisation of bisexual men, who sometimes were described as the people who brought the disease into the heterosexual family. So that’s why you had these clinics run by gay doctors and with anonymous testing.

When I look at this epidemic that we are living in now, I hear echoes from that period. Of course, the pandemics are very different. AIDS was not very contagious, it was mainly spread via sexual contacts when exchanging bodily fluids, but it was deadly. And COVID is very contagious and not so deadly. Many people die, of course, but it is much less deadly. So, the two pandemics are impossible to compare in a sense. Still, I can hear some echoes. I mean the stigmatisation. Stigma was a recurrent theme in the AIDS pandemics, and it worked differently for different groups. The risk groups at that time were much more defined and very stigmatised because men who had sex with men were stigmatised, and drug users were stigmatised.

Haemophiliacs had their stigma based on vulnerability, and it was a different kind of stigma, of course. Their situation was really very different. It was around 120 people who got the HIV infection via blood products, via transfusion or medicaments. They demanded reparation and were the only ones who had a legal process running. On the other hand, many of them didn’t want to be connected to gay men or drug users. Their stigma was heavy enough as it was, they claimed. Women selling sex was another risk group. They had a small, very weak organisation in Sweden, which was older but restarted in the 1990s. They were allowed to use the meeting rooms of Noaks Ark, but it was very hard for them to get support, and people were very suspicious of sex workers on the whole. So that organisation collapsed. A new organisation started up in 1992, called Kvinnocirkeln, Women with HIV, that consisted of drug-user women, women who got contaminated by their partners and women who sold sex, and the latter were the ones who were targeted in a way.

The very tough AIDS policies in Sweden, with forced isolation, the ban on sauna clubs, etcetera, were widely criticised. In reality, not many people were forced to be isolated, but those forced to be isolated were drug users, women selling sex, and immigrants from Africa. So, in practice, it was a very racist and classist implementation of the law. An individual doctor could decide to forcibly isolate a person if the doctor thought he or she would not follow his orders.

Marta: How did the isolation work?

Jens:                They were locked up in a closed ward in the so-called Yellow Villa near Danderyd Hospital in Stockholm. There weren’t many of them, but some people sat there for years. Of course, some people were a bit crazy and irresponsible, but the problem was that there was no way to have the doctor’s decision legally tested in the court of law. As far as I know, this possibility still exists, according to the Communicable Diseases Act (Smittskyslagen), but now it has to be tested, and it can be appealed to in the court of law.

Marta: Going back to stigma. You said that you could see some parallel?

Jens:                As I say, it is not the same, but you have a stigma connected to the Covid 19 pandemic. All discussions about testing and coercive measures, like compulsory testing for school kids. The discussions about the Covid-passport… All these discussions were there back then, even more vulgar. There were discussions about sending all HIV-positive people to an island and even suggestions of tattooing the HIV-positives to safeguard their partners. And all the blame was on the disease carriers. That I can see is a little bit a parallel – whose fault it is if I get infected. It is about this concept of “irresponsibility”. The gay men were considered to be irresponsible because they did not want to stop fucking. Drug users, of course, were seen as ontologically irresponsible. They could not manage their own lives, and they would do everything to get drugs. They already had the strongest stigma – the drug users stigma. But, in reality, within the group of drug-users, they were completely open with who had HIV, and they wouldn’t share a needle with this person. The spread of AIDS never, sort of, exploded among the group of drug users. They prepared a large facility outside Stockholm with many beds for HIV positive drug users, but they never managed to fill them. After a couple of years, they dismantled it because of the catastrophe that they were waiting for never happened. The same thing goes for sex sellers. Most sex-sellers are very well-informed about STD and have a high awareness of safer sex. The problem was assumed to be bigger than it was. And I see it now in letters to the editors in Sydsvenskan [a daily in Southern Sweden], now and then, there are very angry letters about young people and how young people are irresponsible. So young people are seen as the irresponsible ones: “Why do they have to party?” And this is the age when you are supposed to go out, dance and meet other people. Young people suffer from isolation much more. They suffer from isolation much more than at least us sitting in front of the computers working and getting bored. Maybe older people who cannot meet their children and grandchildren suffer as much. But it is interesting how young people are described as irresponsible.

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The “Same Boat” Doesn’t Exist – International students’ experiences during COVID-19

By Anna Daley Laursen and Rikke From

            The COVID-19 pandemic is truly an international phenomenon with wide reaching consequences that have left no one unscathed. For us, the impacts of COVID-19 are most salient as international students – one of us (Anna) a US student studying in Lund and the other (Rikke), a Dane studying in the US and Sweden. Our encounters with COVID-19 have been framed through national belonging, senses of safety and security, imagined and real, and of course the new realities of higher education, all underlined by extreme levels of uncertainty as we navigate daily life and look towards the future. We first met through Zoom at our bachelor’s thesis defense and found ourselves enrolled in the same master’s program this fall. Though we both experienced the pandemic as international students in Lund and the US, our individual and shared experiences made us think about the nature of this pandemic, the discourse of being “in the same boat,” and the experiences of other international students. COVID-19 has shed new light on our ideas of community and how we see ourselves as not only international students but world citizens. Below we will share some of our own insights, as well as those of three other international master’s students from China, Italy, and Nigeria who shared their reflections, thoughts, and worries about studying at Lund University this year.

Initial Experiences

In February 2020, UC Berkeley healthcare center asked students to avoid being afraid of “Asian looking people.” A couple of days later, I, Rikke, walked into class and disrupted a group of students from Wuhan silently following the death counts in their region from a laptop. I later witnessed a group of Italian students listening to national news while holding hands as Italy became a European epicenter. I didn’t realize how bad the pandemic was until Denmark locked down and closed its borders. In the international student accommodation, friend groups split up and suddenly sat in groups based on nationality and acted like representatives from each of our countries. By the end of the term, a new level of worrying emerged as visas and health insurance expired, and we involuntarily overstayed departure dates and watched the cost of international travel rise rapidly. When I was talking to the Danish embassy, they referred me to the embassy of my home university but as a non-Swedish citizen, I was in an in-between space. Turning in assignments and attending online lectures wasn’t my greatest concern but the regularity and normality in continuing a schedule created a sense of stability. While I experienced a comforting sense of constituency, others considered it disrespectful to expect students to deliver the same academic performance despite the situation and its grave consequences.

When I moved from Berkeley to Oakland in March, I witnessed how the shelter in place order ignored Oakland’s homeless population. I also noticed that acquiring masks to follow the new restrictions was a privilege. Meanwhile, hospitals were calling for donations of PPE, the same equipment that was now demanded by the city to be worn by all inhabitants. Throughout the semester, I kept getting severely sick but I never witnessed pressure on the hospitals and healthcare centers. As the student population diminished, the university health center had fewer and fewer patients and by May I was often the only patient. Going home from the healthcare center, I passed a city children’s hospital with a constant and disproportionately long queue. The contrast between my direct access to the empty healthcare center and the lines I saw at the children’s hospital highlights how poorly medical resources and personnel are distributed in the Bay Area. Decades of gentrification had already made inhabitants extremely vulnerable to crisis, and death rates, risk of transmission, and economic impact differed depending on racial and class positions, increasing insecurity, instability, and policing in the area.

* * *

            I, Anna, felt connected to the seriousness of COVID-19 early on because I have a close friend living in China. At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, I heard her talk about the increasing lockdowns and severity of the situation there. However, like most of the West, I did not anticipate just how impactful and consequential it would become. I distinctly remember speaking to a fellow exchange student in early March about what it would look like when the virus got to Sweden, and we felt confident that no matter what, our exchange wouldn’t be impacted. Two weeks later, we received an email from our home university informing us that we had five days to pack up and return home. The feelings of alarm, shock, and anger are hard to describe. To say it was upsetting to have my education and life disrupted on such short notice is an understatement. Despite fighting for the right to remain in Lund, the next week I found myself on a flight home to Idaho, to navigate the coming months with my family. My friends and I were the first to get that email, but over the course of the next month I saw nearly all the exchange students I knew depart from Lund.

The situation in Idaho was tense– the inequality and strains of rural health care systems became clearer than ever and my town became polarized with many people refusing to acknowledge the reality of the public health crisis or take measures to protect themselves and others. Academically, my thesis gave me a concrete goal to work towards, but the feelings of disconnection and nostalgia that resulted from writing it at the same desk where I used to do my high school homework were off-putting, contributing to the strangeness and uncertainty of the situation. Importantly, I got to spend a lot of time outside and spending lockdown with my family largely staved off feelings of isolation. I knew I was returning to Lund in the fall, which also gave me something to move towards and in a way provided an end date to my own lockdown.

* * *

Lin told us about being in Beijing, China during the initial months of the outbreak. They felt unsafe about having to go to work and being exposed to transmission while the rest of the region was in lockdown and the rest of the world wasn’t aware of what was coming. Lin explained the strict lockdown meant that China was able to return to normalcy while the rest of the world  locked down and experienced second and third waves. This was evidenced by the fact that they were able to vacation in Yunnan Province with their partner early on in the pandemic. While Lin felt Chinese people were willing to stay home, it seemed as though Swedes weren’t willing to sacrifice as much.

* * *

Alex spent the beginning of the pandemic in Italy and explained that the first lockdown in March was easy to cope with and navigate because they were with their family. The summer in Italy was overwhelmingly affected by the requirement to use masks in all public places, still, it was more relaxed than the initial months of the lockdown. Alex expressed that the far-reaching and sudden restrictions felt like a reaction solely to the state of panic, which made it harder to trust the Italian government’s ability to handle the crisis.

* * *

Adi is from Nigeria, but was already in Sweden during the initial months of the outbreak. Like Lin, Adi got the impression that Sweden didn’t understand what was coming at the beginning of 2020. Even after the pandemic reached Europe, they thought that the Swedish government used denial as a mechanism to impose normality.

* * *

            COVID-19 changed everyone’s thought processes and preparation for the fall semester. Because of Sweden’s approach, everyone was expecting and looking forward to in-person classes. The prospect of still getting to meet and study with classmates from around the world was a big draw for Alex, Adi, Anna, and Lin and provided something to look forward to. Alex did question whether coming to Lund was really the best decision, but ultimately thought they would still get a valuable educational experience. Lin and Adi were confident in the decision to start their studies in Lund and were disappointed when studies moved online in November.

Closed Borders and Border Crossing

My trip home from California included four flights over four days. Since flights from Heathrow to Copenhagen were cancelled, I, Rikke, had to decide between staying a night in Hamburg or Stockholm. My decision was based upon familiarity of and the sense of being close to home rather than concrete safety considerations. Even though Hamburg was closer to Copenhagen and Stockholm was an epicenter for transmission at the time, Stockholm felt safer solely based on the feeling of familiarity.

I live in Sweden but work in Copenhagen and despite the closed Swedish/Danish border, I still cross it daily to go into work. At first, entering Denmark was strange as the passport check divided Danes and foreigners into two different checkpoints, forcing the Danish passport carriers to move ahead to the next checkpoint closer to the destination. Another manifestation of power and policing was the heavy and demonstrative guarding by uniformed soldiers visibly carrying weapons. The strange experience of entering Denmark made me reconsider the act of border-crossing altogether. Beforehand, crossing the border was so normalized that I didn’t feel like I was crossing a border. The attention drawn to the physical and symbolic border during the COVID-19 pandemic made the it tangible for me. When Sweden banned the entry of Danish citizens, I decided to avoid speaking in Danish publicly while in Sweden because Danes, as I was told by an angry man at Lund station, weren’t welcome in Sweden just as Swedes weren’t welcome in Denmark. Deciding specifically what nationalities are unwanted and calling the virus and mutations according to their origin not only reinforces fear of the virus, it enforces a fear for certain nationalities by identifying “them” as a threat to public health.

* * *

Alex’s experience travelling to Lund in August was peculiar because of the amount of documentation required at the Swedish/Danish border. They described being treated as an “outsider,” despite being an EU citizen. Though the suspicion was a new experience, it made them realize that for racialized, non-EU citizens it was common and expected. Knowing and recognizing their privilege and suddenly having it taken away highlighted the differentiated and discriminative border crossing process. Perhaps now more people will have more of an understanding of the precarity that others experience when moving across borders.

* * *

I, Anna, had similar thoughts while traveling home in March and back to Sweden in the fall. As a young, white woman I have never worried or given much thought to the implications of border crossing on an individual level. However, upon my return to Lund after the EU had banned United States citizens from entering the bloc, for the first time ever my passport was a disadvantage to me. I did not want my fellow travelers to know I was American because of the poor handling of the crisis in my country as I felt it would increase suspicion towards me. In a globalized world and continent, the passport you carry means borders are either merely checkpoints or tangible and consequential. COVID-19 has turned all travelers into suspects, creating a lack of trust and an increase in group policing between fellow passengers and between travelers and border guards.


A lot is yet to be said about international students’ vulnerable position in Lund during the crisis. Concerns about loneliness and isolation far away from one’s home country and family, healthcare and insurance, visa requirements and academic performance, accessing news and understanding restrictions as non-Swedish speakers. Ultimately, lack of familiarity with Sweden, Swedish institutions, and society makes it even harder to navigate an unprecedented time for all. The discourse that we are “all in the same boat” ignores fundamental differences: some lost loved ones, others didn’t; some worked from home, others lost their jobs; some have access to healthcare, others do not; some can watch the news, others can’t; some worry about rent, still others were deported. We are all struggling, but in countless different ways.

While to some degree the idea that we are all in the same boat as we continue to

experience and navigate COVID-19 is true – everyone is impacted and is living with uncertainty – examining our own experiences and those of other international students makes clear that identities and positionalities are as central as ever in shaping daily realities, contexts, and decision making. Our privileges and vulnerabilities impact access to healthcare, traveling, education, and our sense of safety and security. As the pandemic continues to dominate our lives and as we continue to understand its true consequences, this will be important to remember. Even those bonded by national identity or educational location and experience are impacted in various ways. Intersectional feminism will be a crucial tool in understanding, examining, and addressing the impacts of this moment in history – without it, any analyses about COVID-19 will be incomplete. Moments of turmoil can be opportunities for challenging and transforming the structures and systems that bind and constrain us all, and the pandemic is certainly a moment ripe with potential.

The world’s response to COVID-19 makes us wonder about other pressing issues of our time. What if we treated the climate crisis the way we treated COVID-19? Would it change the response and potential for solutions? What would happen if death counts resulting from starvation, poverty, or police brutality were distributed on a daily basis? There are many crises that have not gripped the world’s attention in the same way this pandemic has, but that have equally disastrous effects. We hope that as a community we can take what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and apply it elsewhere.

Note: We used aliases for the participants and opted to use they/them pronouns for everyone.

Anna is from the United States and studied international relations and gender studies in her bachelor’s. Rikke is from Denmark and studied gender studies in her bachelor’s in Lund and in the United States during the academic year of 2019/2020. Both are now studying in the Gender, Migration, and Social Justice master’s program at Lund University.

February 21, 2021

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Au pairing in times of the pandemic

Terese Anving. Photo.

By Terese Anving

In times of crisis, it is already vulnerable groups who are hit the hardest. Examples from the different parts of the world show that during the pandemic, domestic workers, such as au pairs, have suddenly been made both jobless and homeless, while others not have been allowed to leave their employer’s home in order to take time off. Many without any social protection or income support. In a blog post on the International Labour Organization (ILO) homepage the domestic worker Liliam Marrero, working in the Dominican Republic, writes what it means to work in a sector without the same labour rights and protection that other groups of workers have, of not being able to take a Covid-19 test due to it being too expensive or having lost the job and not being able to make ends meet. 

While domestic workers are not a new category of workers, the buying of domestic services has grown substantially in Sweden during the last decade. The most important reason for this is the introduction of the RUT tax deduction in 2007. Since it was introduced, the amount deducted has risen considerably, in 2010 1,3 billion SEK was deducted and in 2018 the sum was just over 5 billion SEK. From January 2021, the amount that can be deducted per person has been raised further and the number of services has been expanded to also include services such as laundry services and installation of furniture. While the cleaning sector is the largest sector for domestic work in Sweden, other markets have grown too. Together with my colleague Sara Eldén I have studied nanny and au pair work in Sweden after the introduction of the RUT tax deduction. 

In Sweden, the term nanny refers to a live-out, privately employed child care worker, without formal education, usually working in a family a couple of afternoons per week but sometimes more. The term au pair refers to migrated, live-in ‘workers’ who are officially on cultural exchange, meaning that they are in Sweden in order to learn the language and about Swedish society while also studying Swedish and living with a family helping out with ’light housework’. While this is the official understanding, the actual practice of au pairing often turn out to be something else, and many studies, our own included, show how au pairs are a particularly vulnerable group of workers, mostly consisting of migrated women from different parts of the world. They are generally paid 3500 SEK in pocket money, food and lodging. While the official working time is 25 hours per week they often work far more, with 50 hours or more not being unusual

At a first glance, the number of au pairs in Sweden seems to be rather few. This is mainly due to the fact that only au pairs from outside of EU are (if in Sweden legally) visible in the statistics, as au pairs from within the EU are invisible due to the free movement of labour. This means that it is very difficult to know exactly how many au pairs there are in Sweden, but qualitative studies indicate that it is a growing phenomenon. Au pairs are a group of workers that are very weakly regulated and they are hard to reach as they work in their employers’ home and often informally, they are not part of a union and not in practice understood as workers (even though they are in a legal sense, in Sweden, considered as workers). 

At the same time as the Covid-19 virus outbreak in Sweden in March 2020, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published a series of articles describing the situation of au pairs from the Philippines placed in the wealthier suburbs in Stockholm. The au pairs described a work situation that did not in any way correspond with the official description of au pairing. They told about working up to 13 hours per day, six days a week for food, lodging and 3500 SEK per month. “I am not an au pair, I am a full time maid and nanny” as one of the interviewees said. The interviewee further said that she wanted but did not dare to bring up her work situation with her employer. Most of the women interviewed also told about sending money back home to their families. This situation is not unique for this specific group of au pairs. In our research we have listened to many stories like this. While not all au pairs interviewed spoke of  working so many hours of overtime, the flexibility expected from the parents employing them, in most cases, meant that they worked much more than agreed upon. Often, they were not paid any extra, and in some cases when they were paid some extra money, the parents saw this as reason to have full control of their time; “if they [au pairs] get paid SEK 4000, then I don’t want any complaints about the hours they have to work […] Not that they have to work themselves to death, but show some good will”, as one employing mother said. 

While au pair working conditions are precarious and demanding from the outset, the pandemic has brought attention to what this means for young migrant women who live in their work place, for whom the working conditions and hours are seldom defined and who have no third party to turn to in case a problematic situation arises. This is also a group of workers whose families are dependent on the remittances they send, and this is not only the case for au pairs from the Philippines. In our study we met with au pairs from, for example, Spain who sent remittances to their parents who had lost their job during the financial crisis in 2008. In the series of articles in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the interviewees spoke about one of the reasons she did not complain about her working conditions: her 7-year old child waiting for her in her home country. Though the work conditions were terrible she was determined to stay the agreed upon time in order to later on get another job and then be able to bring her child to Sweden and build them both at better future. 

We do not know what has happened to the au pairs from the Philippines that were portrayed in the series of articles in Svenska Dagbladet. Being an invisible group from the start, no unions or other parties have raised their voice on their behalf.  But the pandemic has made clear that although the crisis has hit us all it has certainly not done so on equal terms. Instead, effects of precarious working conditions have become clearer than ever. Although studies show that the RUT tax deduction is not self-financing, as was argued when it was introduced, and mostly used by people in the higher income strata it seems as if it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. RUT has led to a change in people’s attitudes towards buying domestic services, whether it is in the forms of cleaning services, nanny services or having an au pair. This points towards the need for social protection as well as social solidarity. For au pairs, one step would be to enable them to organise also formally. Au pairs in our neighbouring countries Denmark and Norway have been organised through a subsection to the labour union that help and support with different matters at the work place, something that has also put au pair working conditions on the agenda and lead to stricter rules for au pairing. I would argue that the crisis we are in the midst of has made the need for such an initiative in Sweden more necessary than ever. 

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Being human in times of crises and pandemics

By Vasna Ramasar

As we enter 2021, it is inevitable that one looks back at the year that has passed – and what a year it has been. 2020 brought us the full impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It was an extraordinary crisis on top of the Black Lives Matter protests; a worsening climate and ecological disaster; and deepening fascism and xenophobia around the world. It was a disease that set the world to a standstill, with everyday life being turned on its head. Inevitably we saw the entrenching of patterns of discrimination in the exposure, rhetoric and treatment of people at risk from the disease and its consequences. Politics and capitalism ruled in many settings in decisions about how to respond and how to protect the economy and lives (sometimes the economy over lives). Blatant corruption and elites operating above the law became a feature of long-established democracies such as the US and UK. To many of us, there was despair as long-standing struggles for social and environmental justice were burdened by these multiple crises and traditional ways of organising and mobilising were discouraged or made illegal.

However, as I reflect on 2021, I cannot help but be awed by the deep solidarity, care and connection that I watched and experienced being built around the world. In many ways, big and small we saw humanity flourish. From the care work that Rebecca Selberg wrote of in September to the way civil society and film stars stepped in to help Indian migrants making their way home as described by Riya Raphael in December and the rapid organisation of the C-19 People’s Coalition in South Africa, we saw widespread responses to reach out and help others. Many of these responses can be viewed with a critical eye for the limits they have and the dependency they may create but at the core, there was still a response that was outside our own personal well-being and focused on the care of others.  

I experienced life through lockdowns in Denmark, online teaching in Sweden and separation from my family in South Africa with no timeframe for when I would see them again. There was a sense of loss that I couldn’t hug someone because of distance or fear of spreading a virus. And yet, it was also a time of rapid and deep connection. Irina Schmitt spoke of the challenges for teaching and yes, there were tears and frustrations amongst students and colleagues but also a willing and open vulnerability and reaching out to others to navigate the uncertain times. In a world that for many of us had gone online, it was surprising and humbling how quickly and without reservations, people were open to engaging. Yes, many of us experienced Zoom fatigue and of course, the online interaction cannot replace meeting in person. However, I got to listen to many amazing thinkers and engage in multiple discussions that stretched my mind and relocated my nexus of thinking in a far more global way – connecting across continents and time zones. Several of these online interactions, especially through the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, were incredibly rewarding and allowed me into other worlds that are possible. Stories that stick out for me were the immense collective solidarity showed by the communities of the Potato Park in providing food for urban residents affected by lockdowns in Peru and women farmers of MAKAAM in India mobilising to ensure that people had access to seeds, markets and jobs during the pandemic.

In South Africa we have a saying “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which roughly translates to the notion that we are people through other people. As a shortened form, “Ubuntu” is a homegrown African alternative way of making sense of what it is to be human. It places emphasis on the collective experience and approach as well as engaging with a way of being and belonging that is deeply relational to people and the non-human world. Ubuntu has the potential to offer African ontology and epistemology to the process of seeking post-development pathways – the other worlds that are possible. At the same time, it comes with a recognition that Ubuntu comes from a pre-(colonial) development path in Africa and must be understood in terms of the situated knowledge and experience of oppression and as a means of reclaiming a sense of personhood. Through this year of crises, our personhood has been tested and revealed in its best and worst colours. 

Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic being a portal. I would like to believe that this situation has given people pause for thought and change. What I am hopeful about is that for many, we have re-visited our sense of being people through other people. 2020 has given us a reminder of our collective humanity and our dependence on each other to survive and thrive in this world. If we can start to understand our humanity and ourselves in a relational way, we are more open to practising the praxis of hope and scholarship of hope advocated by many including Professor of Gender Studies, Diana Mullinari. Can we see this as an opening to think about what it is to be human rather than to be a consumer or a citizen for example? What possibilities do these open to our understanding of our commitment and responsibility for human and non-human life on the planet and for establishing social and environmental justice as a basis for decision-making. Audre Lorde said “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”  I would like to interpret that to partially connect to the idea of Ubuntu that “I am because we are”. The little and big acts of solidarity of 2020 have strengthened this and open up for radical alternatives to the hegemonic system. And these alternatives can be realised through resistance and action, as we have seen in the pandemic where struggle and conviviality can co-exist.

The state and capital can no longer be relied on to offer the social safety net for humans to survive. It can be argued in this period of crises, high modernity, neoliberal economic systems and the elevated status of individualism, Ubuntu and other concepts have the potential to offer emancipatory pathways from our past and our present so humans can thrive. The time of civil society and community working for our common humanity at local and global levels is now. We can and must mobilise in different ways and from a place of love, empathy and care to create alternatives and real utopias and the pandemic and crises have offered us a reminder of this.

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Bordering in the pandemic: abandonment and containment

By Maja Sager

The global pandemic is a mirror that reflects back a magnified, high contrast image of the world we live in. The vulnerabilities, inequalities and deficits that were already there are now clearly visible to all: unequal division of unpaid care labour; domestic violence; precarious labour conditions; vulnerability and exploitation in the gig economy; underfinanced and privatised healthcare; the racialization of poverty, of housing, and of access to healthcare. And, as I will focus upon in this post, the vulnerability of migrants from the global South subjected to border control inside the European Union. 

European bordering processes are stretching simultaneously outwards and inwards. Outwards, through processes of externalisation – as the ongoing shift of bordering responsibility to third countries surrounding EU is called – and inwards, through the increased pressure on those migrants that are deemed either undesired or desired only as cheap labour. The inward forms of bordering are reinforced further by the general neoliberal turn and withdrawal of the welfare state, which creates divisions and inequalities that have consequences for migrants but also for structurally disadvantaged citizens. 

Some examples of bordering that put pressure on asylum seekers and precarious labour migrants from outside the EU in most European states today are the temporalisation and conditioning of residence permits, the conditioning of family reunification, shrinking access to welfare services and to social rights. Policy changes provoking this pressure are often explicitly presented as aiming to create ‘incitement’ for migrants to return or not to come in the first place. 

A particularly explicit example is the way in which the British Home Office over the last decade has shaped their approach to asylum seekers and irregularised migrants residing in the country within what Teresa May’s government called a ‘hostile environment’. This hostile environment was created by shrinking the spaces within which migrants could exert a sense of autonomy, community and access to basic welfare services, such as healthcare, housing and education – by withdrawing rights and expanding border control points to welfare institutions. Today, as Yuval-Davis, Wemyss & Cassidy note people working in schools, universities, hospitals and as landlords are often pushed into the position of border guards. 

In Sweden, deportations, limitations of rights and conditioning of residence permits and family reunification have been articulated less through explicitly expressed hostility than through a patronising, allegedly benevolent form of hostility. In 2016, when Swedish migration legislation was severely restricted in the field of asylum and family reunification, the argument was to make Sweden less attractive for refugees. However, despite that explicit aim, the policies are often still presented as being for the benefit of all. As an example, in November 2020, news media reported that around 32 000 applications had been turned down due to the tougher conditions for family reunification, which include a requirement of a secure income and accommodation (P1 Morgon, 2020-11-24). Morgan Johansson, Swedish migration minister, commenting on this, remained positive about the effects on ‘integration’ of these requirements. When asked about people who worried for the safety of their family while being separated from them, the minister answered: ‘Well, then [if one is worried about one’s family] there are even bigger reasons to make sure to establish oneself’ (P1 Morgon 2020-11-24). 

What do these examples of governing through direct or indirect hostility and cynicism have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, they point towards the extent to which bordering processes in Europe are already happening inside a racist logic of shaping and conditioning migrants’ lives by taking away basic rights, but also by a kind of administrative dehumanisation. This sense of dehumanisation can be defined by the lack of a ‘right to have rights’, and through the exclusion from a political community. This is a central context within which migrants’ and asylum seekers’ experiences of the pandemic need to be understood.  

Johanna Saunders, senior advisor in social rights at the Swedish Red Cross, is working with a project to map the consequences of the pandemic for people in migration. The study consists of interviews conducted during autumn 2020 with the organisation’s own networks: asylum seekers, refused asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and persons with temporary residence permits who are in contact with the Red Cross, as well as employees and active members in local Red Cross groups. The report will come out in early 2021 in Swedish and in English, as a part of a compilation of national studies organized by the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Migration Lab. I talk to Johanna Saunders over a zoom link:

– Could you tell us about the work with the report and share some of the preliminary impression after having conducted the interviews?

– The focus of the Red Cross in general is to support those most vulnerable in situations of catastrophes or crises. People in migration are one such group and we initiated the study because we saw early on in our local groups that the pandemic brought a lot of serious consequences for this group. Initially, when the pandemic started to accelerate, the main problem people in migration had was that they did not get any information, and if they did it would often not be available in their languages. Maybe they ended up only having information from their home countries which then didn’t correspond to the recommendations in Sweden. This generated a lot of worry, of course.

Then, more recently, the main problem has instead been that people don’t have the material conditions in place to be able to follow the regulations. The conditions at reception centres and immigration detention centres haven’t enabled keeping distance or isolating*. Also, a lot of people in migration are homeless, which means most of the recommendation can’t be followed. Even people who live in their own accommodation often lack the conditions for staying safe and isolate. 

The Red Cross’s study has focused mainly on the level of access to basic services for people in migration, aiming at mapping the access to basic support, such as health care, support from welfare authorities, housing. Saunders continues describing the image that has emerged in the interviews with people in migration:

– When it comes to access to health care, there is a lot of worry and a concrete lack of possibilities for testing. Of course, before it started up properly this autumn, testing has been difficult to access for most, but it has been particularly hard for people in migration. Also, now, when the main option is to log on with a bank id to order a self-test, it remains more complicated for those who don’t have a personal id number or easy access to digital services. Even if there exists an option to book a test by phone, it has been harder to get a test that way. Many of the people I talked to are also worried about the vaccination, and we share that worry at the Red Cross – will people in migration get access to the vaccine? 

Why do you think so many groups of migrants have been left outside of the strategies for tackling the pandemic?

– Well, both in Sweden and globally, the migration politics have become extremely restrictive and inhumane over the last years, so then, when a crisis comes, it reinforces that vulnerability in a range of ways. Both the risk of getting the virus and the consequences of the restrictions hit migrants hard. 

In the Swedish context, it is a consequence of the migration policies, like these different forms of legal limbo that many people get caught in, but it is also a consequence of the general dismantling of the public welfare system.

Saunders explains that the study results also point towards secondary effects of the pandemic clashing with already ongoing difficulties for undocumented migrants and refused asylum seekers:

– The pandemic has coincided with an already initiated period of ever stricter assessments of social welfare support to people in migration. Refused asylum seekers have earlier been eligible for social welfare in some municipalities, including Malmö, but over some time the decisions on economic support for subsistence and housing have become increasingly strict. Families that received that support over long stretches of time in Malmö are now suddenly told that they have been around too long and have to leave the country. But social welfare services also reject those who apply for the first time this autumn. When that development coincides with the pandemic it is drawn to its extreme. One could imagine that the social welfare services would lean towards the more generous interpretation of the policies that they have worked with earlier, but instead they press on with these harsher assessments despite the unproportionate consequences!

I have tried to have a dialogue with them and underscore that even if they don’t care about the humanitarian aspects, it is crazy to push people into homelessness in the middle of a pandemic.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the way in which they have handled the situation in detention centres. When the Migration Board had to limit the number of detainees to make the centres safer, they just suddenly let people out – of course I am sure most of them wanted to leave, but it is hard if you are more or less thrown out with no warning, we even heard of events when people had been let out in the middle of the night! And then they haven’t received any support, or valid LMA cards [the kind of temporary id card that asylum seekers get to access health care]. Many of our local Red Cross groups have told us that people suddenly have knocked on their door: “Hello, we have been let out of the detention centre, but we have nowhere to go”.

Another kind of secondary consequences is the general crisis on the labour market created by the pandemic. The growing difficulties to find a job means that it is harder to fulfil criteria for permanent residence permits or family reunification. Unaccompanied minors, in particular, have problems. Many in this group have been included in a special provisional legislation that stipulates they can stay as long as they study or if they find a job right after their studies. Those who study find it difficult to follow online studies if they are homeless or have no computer or internet access. Those looking for a job find it hard when the kinds of jobs normally available are disappearing, like service and restaurant jobs.

Migrants’ and migration rights movements’ responses to the different expressions of hostile environments across Europe consist often in building up alternative and parallel forms of community and support. Social centres, meeting points, language cafes, informal housing venues, etcetera work as spots for community building, information exchange, places to reload and plan the next step or just rest or have fun. Another worry with the pandemic is that those kinds of initiatives become limited due to guidelines restricting meetings in larger groups or close down during lockdowns. In this sense the pandemic risks causing even more isolation and precarity. I ask Johanna Saunders if she has noticed this shift in Malmö and she confirms this general image:

– Yes, many of these meeting places are closed. Normally there is a network of organisations we can direct people to if they want to get support or organise, but now many places are closed or have very limited accessibility.

Have people managed to counter this problem and get together anyway in safe ways?

– Well yes, many organisations are aware of how important the meeting places are and try not to close completely. Digitalisation has been one way to stay in touch, another has been to arrange activities outside. Red Cross has moved its homework support project online and several unaccompanied minors have continued attending in that format as well. But of course, digitalisation comes with many limitations in terms of access and what you can do. We have tried to reorganise activities aimed at assisting people with basic needs, like providing food, so that one has to book an individual appointment and these are spread out over the day. That takes away the element of collective social space, but at least enables people to stay in touch individually.

Will the report suggest any specific strategies?

– Well, again, the elements of strict asylum and migration regulation is a given background and often the root cause, but we address those issues in other reports – they are always at the core of our local work – so in this report it will be more of concrete recommendations in relation to the pandemic. It will deal with providing for basic needs by the social services, like a daily allowance, somewhere to stay, access to testing and vaccination. 

I think it is also important to just be loud and push on about this. I was in touch with the public health authorities already in the spring. Then they seemed to be a bit taken by surprise, like ‘oops, didn’t think about that’. But now migrants, including undocumented migrants, have been explicitly included in the instructions for crisis support that was just launched. 

What was most surprising to you when you were conducting these interviews?

– I realized that it is those who are or have been in the asylum system that describe the most negative effects of the pandemic. But we also talked to some migrants who never applied for asylum, they live and work irregularly in Sweden, and some of them described that the pandemic didn’t have so big consequences on them. Don’t misunderstand me, it is mainly because they had already lived in a situation characterized by precarity so they didn’t see a big difference, but it also seems to be that those who live more kind of outside of the radar of the migration authorities are somehow less at risk right now. The very institutions, the accommodation and detention centres, are places where many people have felt exposed and worried about the virus – and unable to take control of their own safety. For those outside of all that it might be easier in some ways.

Migrants are often exposed to unsafe spaces and left without the conditions necessary to follow the Covid-19 regulations. One could understand this state as a politics of abandonment – a politics in which it becomes an inescapable reality that some lives are less cared for. But it is also pertinent to talk about a politics of containment – a politics in which being placed within certain categories in relation to border control can mean being placed in a net of structures and regulations that circumscribe one’s autonomy in a range of ways. These categories of migrants are not only ignored and abandoned, but also held back and stuck in places of risk. 

*For additional information on the situation in Swedish migration detention centres see Asylkommissionen’s report in Swedish here and blog post in English here


December 8, 2020

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Outsourcing Empathy

By Riya Raphael

In spring 2020, in between streams of phone, Zoom, Teams, Skype, WhatsApp-calls, a close friend and I talked deep into one April-night about the apple farm on which she works. The apple farm is located on a tiny island up north near Turku, Finland. With the onset of coronavirus, local and national lockdowns, there was uncertainty on the apple farm whether seasonal workers from Estonia, Latvia and Moldova will be able to travel and work during harvest season in the fall. By late summer however, some workers managed to get to the apple farm from East Europe. To compensate for the low numbers of East European seasonal workers this year, a contract agency arranged for Vietnamese seasonal workers to work in Finland. Low-cost, flexible labour can always be found for Western Europe, even in times of a pandemic, as long as the workers return back where they came from after picking apples for the Finnish market. Ironically, even Brexiting-United Kingdom flew in Romanian fruit pickers to work on Britain’s farms to avoid food shortage.

As spring went by, I spent far too much time watching, listening and reading blaring news as lockdowns got imposed, then removed, then imposed again. What does this mean for people who cannot work-from-home? Apart from healthcare workers, micro and local level service providers also form part of a wide variety of essential workers. These services include: transportation of goods and services, food and grocery sellers, street vendors, agricultural workers, cleaners, temporary workers in factories and processing units. Most of these low-skill, low-income jobs are overrepresented by migrants from neighbouring regions or those who cross borders to make livelihoods for themselves and their families. States seemed far too eager to impose lockdowns and restrict borders. As economy and transportation came to a halt millions of low-wage informally employed migrant workers went jobless.

         I remained glued to the news. Videos and images of people moving with their kids and luggage appeared from all across the globe. From Thailand where workers from Myanmar left for home after losing their jobs; from Chile, where workers from Bolivia were stranded as borders closed. While many Venezuelan workers returned to Venezuela, many continued to stay in various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. States could now conveniently use the excuse of the virus to further shed the little responsibility they seldom presumed towards migrant workers.

Even within borders, states struggled with internal migration of labour. Around 10 days after the announcement of the Indian lockdown, a close friend from Delhi, the capital city, uploaded an Instagram-story of migrant workers walking past the road in front of his house. When the lockdown in India got announced on 24 March 2020, did the state consult advisers on what would happen to the workforce? What was ‘work-from-home’ for the 11% (around 10 million) of the total urban employment in India who worked on streets? In the country, majority of the low-income workspaces are overrepresented by migrant workers who travel from poorer regions to more affluent cities and towns for jobs. Did the executive decision-makers think of these statistics, (let alone people) before calling for lockdown? By the end of that week in March, hundreds and thousands of migrant workers gathered at bus and train stations eager to return home. As transport networks were unreliable, thousands of migrants started walking home by foot.

         The Indian state and it’s highly-educated economic advisers seem to have been taken aback by the vast number of people walking home through the Indian summer. Either this was sheer callousness, lack of knowledge of widely available data, or explicit decision-making by the sovereign. Who will be saved and whom it will let die? As days went by some regional governments, NGOs, activist groups and local residents started distributing food and water to people who must have walked for tens and hundreds of kilometres. On a summer afternoon, yet another close friend, this time from a town in northern India, tells me over the phone that her family and the local religious houses had been distributing food and water to the migrant workers passing by. During the various phases of the lockdown, the neoliberal, right-wing Indian-state has conveniently not only privatised natural reserves and drastically reformed labour rights but has also outsourced empathy to private actors.

Migrant workers working on a field. Photography.
Migrant workers working on a field. Source: zenpix, Mostphotos.

Surely, the government could have fixed the public railways and regional transportation to ensure that jobless migrant workers get back home safely? When the buses and trains finally arrived, it was too late as many migrant workers had died on their way home. However, the Government of India sent aircrafts to various continents to bring back home expats. I wonder if this is what neoliberalism looks like mixed with extreme-right politics. This is to argue that not only is the neoliberal state only interested in ensuring that healthcare gets privatised, but also who deserves to be airlifted in the face of immediate crisis. It is not surprising that the lower income migrant workers are predominantly lower-castes, while the vulnerable expats emerge from mostly upper-castes and upper-classes. The landscape of the Indian extreme-right and fascist politics seeps into economic decision making on where investment flows and who needs to be saved from COVID-19. In September, the Indian state announced that they had not collected data on the number of migrant workers who died on their way across the country. According to one source, at least 238 migrant workers died on their way home, not due to coronavirus but due to exhaustion or road and railway accidents. For the right-wing neoliberal state, even the deaths of the working class is not worth counting.

         Whether it is the walling up of the borders of Brexiting-UK, at the backdrop of arranging charter flights to fly in Romanian workers so that strawberries can be harvested. Or it is the Indian state that watches silently as migrant workers walk past the capital city to their villages, I wonder if we are observing the establishment of right-wing executives and neoliberal legislatures indulging in necropolitical-economics.

Migrant workers walking through the capital city on their way to their hometowns. Video by Shubham Kumar, souced from the photographer.

Note: all the friends who have been referred to above have given consent to be part of this blogpost.

December 2, 2020

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Violence during covid-19: on immunity and community

By Maria Wemrell

While we have all experienced consequences of the covid-19 pandemic, the force of its impacts have been decisively different across individuals and groups. Corona has exacerbated existing societal inequalities, with stark disparities being seen in death rates and possibilities to maintain economic livelihoods during lock-down and social distancing. It has furthermore been widely recognised that lock-down measures during covid-19 have aggravated the suffering of many through the increasing risk of intimate partner violence (IPV). Domestic violence during covid-19 has been referred to in terms of a double or shadow pandemic, as an increase in prevalence has been reported in many countries. Although professionals from IPV support organisations in Sweden attest to, so far, having seen varying effects of covid-19 on the demand for support, an increase in IPV has been signaled here too.

A major reason for the elevated risk of IPV – alongside additional and interrelated sources of covid-19-related stress such as illness, financial or employment issues and increased responsibilities for child-care and domestic work – lies in people’s increased confinement to their homes, potentially together with or under the increased control of abusive partners. In descriptions of typical IPV dynamics, social isolation is a central aspect. Through such isolation, which often increases over time together with the violence, the ability of victims to ask for and receive support becomes increasingly limited. Meanwhile, their vulnerability to processes of normalisation of violence and internalisation of the perpetrators’ interpretations of events are heightened. During covid-19, social isolation has been further augmented through difficulties in accessing support organisations, both due to more restricted movements in public spaces and the current pressure on healthcare institutions. Confinement to the home has also accentuated vulnerabilities to online violence and stalking. In the words of Olga Persson, chairperson of the women’s shelter umbrella organisation Unizon, “the measures against corona are of benefit to violent men”.

While IPV support organisations in Sweden have worked to adapt their services to the new conditions, having received some additional governmental funding for the purpose, it is questionable whether these efforts have been sufficient to match the heightening of IPV risk due to covid-19 control measures. Particularly because IPV as a public health issue has already been inadequately addressed in the absence of covid-19, in Sweden as elsewhere. With regards to deadly violence in Sweden and other European countries, for example, other forms of homicide show variability over time while intimate partner homicide numbers have remained “more stable”. And as noted by a women’s shelter professional with regard to IPV in Sweden, before the onset of covid-19, “nobody is immune to it”. 

In his book Immunitary Life, the British sociologist Nik Brown writes about the blending of biological, legal, political, philosophical and metaphorical notions of immunity, which he argues to be central for the understanding of medicine and biopolitics in our time. Brown picks up Roberto Esposito’s concepts of immunitas and communitas, and Peter Sloterdijk’s notions of immunity and community, as respectively denoting complementary if not polarised forces at work in medicine and society. Immunity is here related to historical and cultural shifts away from community or “the commons”, in favor of biological technologies and political movements encompassing personal isolation, security and defense.

Coming from a primarily legal and philosophical vantage point rather than a medical one, Esposito traces a common etymological root (munus) of the concepts of immunitas and communitas, assigning to the latter a meaning of gift giving, mutual obligation, service or reciprocity. Communitas thus denotes a notion of belonging through mutuality, but also of potentially burdensome duty. The notion of immunitas evolved, according to Esposito, to encompass protection or freedom from such obligatory reciprocity. Existing in a relationship of “tension with the communal or solidaristic ethos of collective openness, of mutuality and of shared interests” (Brown 2018, p 3), immunity denotes – in medical and judicial, corporeal and institutional senses – exemption and separation. To Esposito, this concept of immunity – or of freedom from duty – is central to the logic of the modern Western political order, with regards to issues of property, security and individualism. 

Brown emphasizes that Esposito posits communitas and immunitas as both having positive and negative aspects, and as being involved in continuous and complex interactions. Immunitas represents a power which is crucial for the preservation of life. Still, if taken too far, the so called immunitary paradigm can, Brown notes, align with the undermining of social circulation and with excesses of isolation, containment, enclosure and privatisation, alongside martial law and fascist authoritarianism. Towards the end of its scale, defensive protection can become destructive to the point of “the sacrifice of the living” (Esposito in Brown, p 23). 

Brown continues to write, with reference to Sloterdijk, about market capitalism and particularly neoliberalism as entrenching the forces of immunity to the detriment of community, through the erosion of common spaces and experiences. Neoliberalism drives a wedge, Brown writes, between those who are able or privileged enough to construct their own immunity regimes and those who are dispossessed of such. Immunity is, in other words, made unevenly available in a market-place where some can afford to pay to be protected from others who are excluded from such spheres of immunity. The fragile mutualities of welfare states, and the collective distribution of risk underpinning social insurance, are thus hollowed out together with forces of community.  

As noted by ethnologist Britta Lundgren during a recent conference address, efforts towards addressing covid-19 have largely prioritised immunitas, to varying degrees and in different ways across nations and contexts. Meanwhile, many have observed that the weakening of welfare states affected by recent decades of neoliberal reform have become evident through, and have exacerbated the effects of, covid-19. Negative effects of neoliberal policy on health-care, and on its ability to respond to crisis, have thus been pointed to in the context of, for example, the UKthe USA and Sweden. According to Carlo Caduff, the “destruction of lives and livelihoods” (2020, p 2) imposed by covid-19 and the measures taken to control it are largely attributable to neoliberal policies which have created fragile, underfunded and understaffed health care systems unable to cope with the pandemic. Notions of solidarity have indeed been used during covid-19, Caduff continues, but in the sense of a joint defense towards the threat to a societal body under attack, while the unequal pressure placed on different people by such defense efforts have largely been obscured. In this context, the effects of neoliberalism have been referred to as a form of structural violence directed particularly against the most vulnerable segments of society. Meanwhile, with regards to IPV, (neo)liberal rule has been tied to a shift away from understanding the issue as a structural problem involving gender and power, towards conceptualising it in terms of obstacles and vulnerabilities pertaining to individual persons and groups. Thus, IPV has arguably become seen as less of a problem of the community, and as more of an issue from which most of “us” are likely isolated if not immune. Such understanding of IPV, as an issue involving particular individuals, has obviously affected how we as a society deal with the problem. As Brown or Sloterdijk might have put it, then, forces of immunity – or of the hollowing out of the commons – had gone far before the arrival of covid-19, with severe effects on our ability to preserve life and livelihoods during the pandemic. 

A major question, then, lies in how we in the face of the recent and massive forces of immunitas can mobilise a complementary and sufficiently powerful drive towards communitas, for the purpose of sustaining life and alleviating violence during and after covid-19. 

Brown writes, with Esposito, about whether or how immunity can be used in service of relatedness. How can we use a politics of immunisation against oppressive forces that place a higher value on some lives than on others, or that aim for “power over life” rather than for a “politics of life”? In other words, how can “the individual and the community [be] immunised against the risk of exclusion, negation and banishment”? (Brown 2018, p 25). Along related lines, how is it possible to strengthen movements towards “immunity” against micro-sphere power dynamics in the form of IPV, through reinforcing notions of relatedness and community?

Through the reevaluation and rebuilding of care, solidarity and mutual rights and obligations, in movements that promote non-violence alongside the value and welfare of all, forces of immunitas need to be blended with those of communitas. In the words of Tithi Bhattacharya, with reference to covid-19: “We don’t need social isolation. We need physical isolation and social solidarity”. 

Maria Wemrell, Senior Lecturer, Gender Studies, Lund University

September 30, 2020

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Covid-19 and the contradictions of care

By Rebecca Selberg

In the 1990s, just around the time of the Swedish financial crisis, researchers noted a growing public and political interest in the nursing profession. “One had to look back to the days of Nightingale to find a corresponding attention directed at the care work performed by nurses”, according to a Lund University dissertation published in 1992. Why was there, in the tumultuous years of the early 1990s, such a sudden interest in nursing – an occupation usually taken for granted? The answer could be that nurses enter the spotlight whenever there is a major crisis, only to recede into the margins of public and political consciousness during times of equilibrium.

Sweden in the 1990s witnessed a major shift of resources from social reproduction commons to sectors of accumulation, as well as the ascendance of logics of private capital within the public sector. This would lead to a structural under-investment in healthcare, as well as a “renegotiation of working conditions” negatively impacting female-dominated public sector- and welfare state workers. At the same time, public sector restructuring opened up new career paths for nurses. NPM’s focus on managerialism meant that nurses and not only physicians could become managers, because management was seen as a general skill instead of as an expression of professional hierarchies. In line with neoliberal ideology, NPM also centered on the individual, which in the healthcare system translated into patient-centered care. Nurses were no longer supposed to simply care for patients; they were the ones who would aid in empowering them.

The crisis of the 1990s brought a lot of attention to nursing in Sweden, but only for a brief period of time. Soon, researchers would conclude that nurses again felt invisible and under-appreciated. Their working conditions became increasingly complex, contradictory and intense, but their wages remained low, as did their status within the healthcare system and in society in general. While new career paths had opened up for some nurses, others were stuck in repetitive, physically draining and emotionally demanding positions. Their dissatisfaction grew, and a decade into the new millennia, Sweden started to witness new forms of labor protest: nurses organizing mass-resignations, die-ins in front of hospitals, and so-called salary protests wherein nurses promised each other not to accept job offers if the offered monthly salary was below SEK24k.

The Corona pandemic seems to be part of this pattern. After years of unsuccessful demands for recognition, sustainable working conditions, and higher salaries, the complex and highly challenging covid-19 care interventions delivered by nurses, especially in intensive care, brought a renewed interest in nurses’ and other care workers’ essential contributions to public health. As in Italy and many other countries, public initiatives and politicians’ praise meant that at the height of the pandemic, nurses were applauded and given free lunches – literally; people would applaud and companies provided complimentary lunch boxes. Nurses’ were invited to share their stories in newspaper articles and radio shows.

But the attention was not matched by actual contributions to sustain nurses in their day to day, night to night work situations. Instead, as soon as the hospitalization rates and death rates slowed, nurses’ in major hospitals were given news of significant cut backs or even given notice.

How do we account for this pattern? Most would probably agree with the statement that nurses are important, essential even, to the health and well-being of all people; at some point in our life, we will depend on a nurse. But oftentimes, nurses’ efforts are taken for granted – and sometimes, their work is thought of as expressions of women’s natural abilities, rather than hard-earned skills. At the level of economic policy, their labor is conceptualized as a cost best reduced. With the help of feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser we can think of this contradiction between nurses being revered and nurses being disregarded as a contradiction between capital and care, or between accumulation and reproduction. Capitalism is dependent on social reproduction – all those activities, paid and unpaid, that sustain life. However, the sphere of social reproduction has for long been severely under-invested and under-emphasized. We are facing, according to Fraser, a crisis of care, expressed in lack of time, resources and capabilities needed for people to recover and care for each other. Since the 1990s, neoliberal dominance has meant that institutions of social reproduction such as hospitals, elder care homes, schools and childcare arrangements should not cost, it should simply function, or even generate revenue for private shareholders. But when social reproduction is systematically undermined, it is also harder for people to function in the productive sphere and in society as a whole. In fact – a society that undermines social reproduction undermines the entire economic sphere, very much including private enterprising. The crisis of care is built on the contradiction within the capitalist system, wherein “capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies”, as Fraser puts it.

The concept of contradiction has been important for researchers in understanding situations, processes or events wherein seemingly opposed forces are present. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights precisely such a contradiction: nurses are essential, but treated as if they are dispensable. But in the theoretical tradition in which the concept of contradiction has been developed, it is also a hopeful concept; it is what leads to change. Hopefully, what the pandemic may shine a light on, is care workers’ significance to a sustainable society, and their vital role in keeping people healthy and able. Whenever we face incompatible accounts of nurses and nursing as both oh so important and oh so difficult to properly fund, we should identify this as a contradiction and a crisis – and proceed to protest, to create change. Nurses are indispensable, and our society’s resources should be at their disposal.

Rebecca Selberg, Senior Lecturer, Lund University

September 15, 2020

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Struggling through COVID 19: challenges Ukrainian LGBTQ people face during the pandemic

By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

On June 21, 2020, a Ukrainian NGO KyivPride, that for several years already has been the main organizer of the Pride week and Equality march in Kyiv, posted a video in which a drone carrying a large rainbow flag flew over various districts of the Ukrainian capital. The flag ended up placed on top of the Motherland Monument, a Soviet-era war memorial in Kyiv. The monument is a large steel statue of a symbolic mother holding a sword and shield. The drone flew in front of the sword so that on the video, it looked as if the mother was waving a flag.

As in many places across the world, Pride month in Ukraine was moved to an online format forcing the organizing committee to be extremely creative. For more than a week, Ukrainian activists hosted zoom-conferences and interview marathons as Ukrainian cities were under strict COVID 19 lockdown. Despite screen fatigue, online events had quite decent attendance. As everybody was talking from the comfort of their own rooms and flats, it was the first time that none of the Pride Month events were disrupted by conservative right-wing groups’. The safety and accessibility of online meetings also allowed for the participation of people who could not make it previously due to health conditions or not being able to afford it. For example, a Ukraine-based NGO I am working with, Parents’ Initiative TERGO, for the first time in seven years of its existence hosted a series of online meetings of parents of LGBTQ people. Bringing together parents and activists from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania. Of course, in theory, it could have been done before COVID, too. Still, it took a pandemic to push people to finally overcome their fear of technology and learn how to use online communication tools.

In other words, like others, LGTBQ organizations in Ukraine had to adapt to a new reality and had quite a few unexpected gains. At the same time, similar to other spheres of life, the pandemic highlighted problems, that had previously not been so obvious, even for the LGBTQ community itself.

First, isolation. Ukraine introduced a complete lockdown in all regions between April and May 2020, forcing people to spend more time with the members of their families or flatmates than they were prepared to. For many LGBTQ Ukrainians, who had not come out to their families yet or whose parents knew about their sexual orientation or gender identity but did not accept it, the COVID months became a real struggle. The only place where they were able to find support were community centres or groups of friends. However, during the pandemic, communication with friends via social media was restricted – even simple phone conversation was impossible for many due to the risk of being heard. As mentioned before, many LGBTQ-rights-related NGOs have worked actively online and organized multiple events for their audience of different ages. Nevertheless, many LGBTQ youngsters either did not have access to a private computer or tablet or would not risk opening the pages of those events, in fear of finding themselves having to provide explanations to family members.

Many LGBTQ people, both youngsters, and adults, faced increased levels of domestic violence, verbal as well as physical abuse, threats, and insults. The number of calls to hotlines increased several times, yet human rights defenders and activists were powerless to provide any help other than psychological support. There is only one LGBTQ shelter in Kyiv, sponsored by foreign donors and crowdfunding, and it has a limited capacity. COVID 19 strengthened restrictions and worsened the living conditions in the shelter since, usually, those living there could leave during the day, some even had full or part-time work. Therefore, during the lockdown, the shelter was rather crowded. While limited, LGBTQ adults have the option to move out and live in shared flats with their friends. But human rights NGOs in Ukraine cannot do much for minors, as work with this audience requires special legal authorization. The social workers on a hotline told me that they had an unusually high number of calls from teenagers whom they, in fact, had to convince not to come out to their parents during the lockdown. They were too worried about the safety of these teenagers – some of them already had faced domestic violence from their parents, usually fathers, in the past.

Most disturbing, though, has been the situation of trans and non-binary people in Ukraine. According to a survey conducted during the lockdown, many of them faced a sharp decrease in income making it impossible to cover even basic needs, such as paying rent, getting hormonal therapy, and doing groceries. Even if they had economic means, they still faced numerous issues filling prescriptions for hormonal therapy, medication for mental health issues, and other medications. They also had to deal with the lack of funds for medications and doctors, lack of access to doctors and significant fear of ending up in the hospital and whether they will receiving quality care in the case they contract COVID-19; and lack of reliable information about COVID-19 and its risks for trans and non-binary people. Finally, almost everyone reported a meaningful decline in psychological wellbeing related to stress, fear for own health and future, psychological violence, threats of physical violence, uncertainty, bodily issues, and issues with starting or continuing transitioning.

There is no help from public institutions, the police in particular. New guidelines were developed to prevent and combat domestic violence in Ukraine, and a chat-bot was created to connect victims directly with hotlines. Still, there were not enough police officers to address the increased number of calls since they had to patrol the streets. LGBTQ people in Ukraine have all the reason to distrust police eagerness to handle the cases of homo- and transphobic violence, so the majority of those cases either were left undisclosed or were only documented by human rights organizations.

Ukraine is currently considered a ‘safe’ country for LGBTQ people by the European Union when it comes to granting asylum to queer refugees. Indeed, the country has anti-discrimination law (though not mentioning neither sexual orientation nor gender identity directly). Until the pandemic, Kyiv hosted a handful of marches of equality where state security forces protected people walking under the rainbow flags. Yet while the government of Ukraine still refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention, aimed at protecting women and LGBTQ people from domestic violence, the representatives of the ruling party, “Servant of the people”, found time during the pandemic to register a draft of a law that would ban vaguely defined “propaganda of homo- and transsexuality.” The question remains, though, how safe is the country for the people who are always overlooked by the government and whose needs are rarely addressed by public policies and actions even during ‘normal’ times, not to mention during the COVID 19 crisis.

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

September 3, 2020

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On COVID 19 and commercial surrogacy in Ukraine

Image: Unsplash

By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

In 2013 I returned to Ukraine from Budapest, Hungary with an MA in Gender studies – not surprisingly it sounded strange to my friends and parents as it did not seem to make me very employable. A month of fruitless job searching made me desperate enough to pay an entrance ticket to a job fair in Kyiv, where I was given an actual newspaper full of job announcements – something I had completely forgotten about in the era of the Internet. Out of curiosity, I looked through it. I stumbled upon a two-pages full of ads promising USD 9 000,00 to women under thirty who already had at least one child and were ready to work as surrogate mothers (as a comparison, an average monthly salary in Ukraine was around 300-400 US Dollars at that time). That was when I found out that surrogacy was a legal practice in Ukraine. As the recent reaction of numerous Ukrainians in social media and on news forums demonstrated, this was news to them too, even though, for the past two decades, Ukraine had already been a popular destination for thousands of foreign couples unable to conceive a child.

Surrogacy scandal in COVID 19 times

Surrogacy has been a legal practice in Ukraine since 2000. Being a cheaper option (surrogacy in Ukraine costs around USD 50.000 compared to USD 100.000 in the USA), Ukraine became an even hotter spot after other popular destinations, such as India, Nepal, and Thailand, banned compensated surrogacy for foreigners. Moreover, this is not only the price tag that made Ukraine such an appealing option. Here is a quotation from the ‘Surrogacy and Egg Donation. Why Ukraine?’ section of BioTexComs’ (a so-called ‘human reproduction centre’ in Kyiv) website. “Ukraine is a European country. This is true… that people’s mentality is very similar and easily understandable for most of the European and American patients… Slavic ladies are famous for their beautiful, slim complexion, smartness, and you will be able to find your best egg donor in our database. Generally, patients prefer to choose a good-looking and intelligent egg donor with strong and healthy family roots to ensure good genes for their future baby.” Such phrasing is not that surprising if one recalls a recent claim by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, during his visit to Paris in June 2019, claimed beautiful women as “part of a country’s brand.” Nevertheless, before the COVID-19 scandal, there was little or almost no public discussion on the need to address assisted reproduction practices in the country.

‘Dozens of surrogate babies are stranded in Ukraine amid lockdown.’ In May 2020, the news reports portraying rows of cribs with newborn surrogate babies being cared for at a hotel in Kyiv went global. BioTexCom released the scandalous videos trying, according to their director, to attract the attention of the authorities. Due to COVID 19 restrictions, parents from the United States, the EU, and elsewhere could not travel to Ukraine to collect the infants. It took almost a month of joint efforts between the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights, Ludmila Denisova, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Mykola Kuleba, respective embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine to figure out have to grant permissions for around 100 foreign citizens to enter the country despite quarantine restrictions. Finally, thanks to specially arranged flights, many families could reunite with the babies born to surrogate mothers. On June 11, BBC posted a touching video portraying an Argentine couple that made it to Kyiv ten weeks after a baby was born for them. The parents cry happily, eager to forget their troubles with red tape and travel arrangements. Yet not every story has such a ‘happy-ending’. Right afterwards, the BBC shows a 4-year old girl whose biological parents refused to take her from the clinic due to health issues. The girl lives in a Ukrainian orphanage, hoping to be adopted.

Surrogacy and female empowerment?

In reaction to the video of stranded babies, the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights Ludmila Denisova wrote a post on her official Facebook page calling for the changes in the current legislation. She justified it by the fact that once the babies are taken away from the country by their foreign parents, “it can lead to violation of human rights of children and a situation in which Ukraine is unable to protect its citizens.” According to Denisova, the surrogacy services in Ukraine should only be available for Ukrainian citizens. Her words, quoted by the media, caused a broader debate on ‘selling Ukrainian children abroad.’ The Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Mykola Kuleba went further demanding from the government to ban surrogacy completely. Apart from the violation of the human rights of children that can end up in a “family of homosexuals or rapists,” he also spoke of women’s rights, arguing that women are exploited and used as incubators.

While the debates around Kuleba’s claims were predictably divided, in broad terms, between those who supported him and those who did not see anything wrong in commercial surrogacy, it is probably more interesting to hear the opinion of women involved in the business as surrogate mothers.

As it comes out from multiple videos and written interviews with such women, they all oppose the possibility of banning commercial surrogacy in Ukraine. Some of them have been surrogate mothers more than once, mainly because they needed money. Though surrogacy in Ukraine is comparatively cheap and surrogate mothers receive only a small part of the entire cost – from 9 to 15 000 US Dollars – most of them would not be able to earn that amount of money in nine months. At the same time, many women prefer to also frame their motivation as a desire to “help the families that would not be able to have children otherwise,” and some even suggest that they be called “helpers” rather than “surrogate mothers.” They claim their right to decide what to do with their bodies and emphasize the difference between their own children and surrogate babies.

Nevertheless, all of them admit that the working conditions most of them face are far from great. Although the agencies promise to provide comfortable living conditions for surrogate mothers, often, it is not so. Usually, they live in their own homes until the sixth month and then move to poorly furnished flats rented by the clinic. Should the baby be born unhealthy or there are consequences to the surrogate woman’s health, the agency does not pay any additional compensation. During the COVID19 crisis, the situation has become even worse,  as most of the mothers had to become full-time carers after giving birth without any additional payment (not to mention the emotional stress related to this experience). Accommodation costs were not covered during Covid-19 and women had to wait until (when? Until the babies were picked up by the parents?) to receive the remaining sum promised for the surrogacy.

Legal gaps revealed by pandemic

Apart from low pay and even worsening living conditions during the pandemic for surrogate mothers in Ukraine, closed borders, preventing the genetic parents from entering the country, revealed numerous legal issues that have been overlooked for decades by the government. While Ukraine is one of few countries where compensated surrogacy is legal for both foreign and Ukrainian heterosexual couples (or, specifically, couples consisting of a cis-woman and a cis-man), the COVID19 crisis has demonstrated how poorly this field is regulated.

According to different sources, there are around 60 fertility clinics in Ukraine at present. However, they do not report their data to any authorities, so it is impossible to know how many babies were and will be born during the quarantine. As the quarantine began, each clinic was to decide how to proceed, and most of them chose to continue working in a reduced capacity. But, clinics are only responsible for medical procedures related to surrogacy. The rest, including what happens to the baby and surrogate mother until the genetic parents take custody, is the responsibility of the surrogacy agencies. The work of the latter is often even less clear. Their area of responsibility is not clearly regulated under Ukrainian law and very lightly monitored, which results in a wide range of consequences. At the end of April 2020, for example, the Ukrainian police, along with the Department for Combating Human Trafficking shut down a group in Kyiv who used artificial insemination, surrogacy, and false marriages with Ukrainian women to further spirit infants to the People’s Republic of China. Currently, more than 140 Chinese citizens are under investigation alleged to have purchased children. The infants that were supposed to be sent to China are now in an orphanage.

The most active of surrogate mothers have created an NGO “The Power of Mothers” that, apart from providing psychological and emotional support to women newly engaged with surrogacy, also calls for the revision of regulations related to rights of surrogate mothers and the responsibilities of the clinics and agencies.

A simple solution?

Clearly, it does not exist. For a short period, the COVID 19 crisis highlighted a long list of the issues related to commercial surrogacy practices in Ukraine. It is, however, not in the government’s top-10 issues to be carefully investigated and discussed. Neither the reproductive agencies nor surrogate mothers themselves are particularly interested in actively engaging with the authorities out of fear that substantial restrictions or a complete ban will be imposed on the industry. While several proposals from different initiative groups have been submitted to the government, they have been created without including main stakeholders and experts in the discussion. Hence, it is difficult to predict whose interests the laws may serve in the future. The complete ban, as the story with the babies trafficking to China shows, is not a solution either as this will make a large part of the surrogacy industry? Move to the black market, hardly providing women with more protection. In other words, seeing an evident urge for changes and reforms in this area, one yet has to realize that the problem has deep socio-economic roots. Until women in Ukraine face dilemmas like giving birth to a surrogate child or being unable to pay for her parent’s hospital bills or own kids’ education, the surrogacy market, either transparent or not, will most likely continue to exist.  

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

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