In Depth

Coronavirus: how the pandemic is changing attitudes about immigration

Anti-immigrant sentiment turns in favour of foreign workers - for now

A video showing UK residents of foreign heritage reciting an anti-racist poem has emphasised the role of immigrant workers in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

The poem, Darren James Smith’s You Clap for Me Now, features workers of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, including doctors, nurses, teachers, shopkeepers and delivery drivers, many of whom have previously experienced discrimination, says The Guardian.

The video begins: “That thing you were afraid of…something's come from overseas, and taken your jobs, made it unsafe to walk the streets”, echoing the language used by racists to refer to the coronavirus.

The hashtag #YouClapForMeNow was trending on UK Twitter on Wednesday morning, as the video was shared by users celebrating its pro-immigration message.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it to go viral, but am so glad that it has as I feel like it’s such an important message to send out,” said the video’s producer, Sachini Imbuldeniya.

Changing attitudes to immigration

The coronavirus outbreak has shifted the conversation on immigration, with broadly right-wing commentators lauding the good that immigrants are doing in the fight against the virus.

“In a country where anti-immigrant sentiment gave rise to the Brexit movement, Britain’s healthcare system depends heavily on foreign doctors, who are now on the front lines fighting the epidemic,” says The New York Times.

“When people were standing on the street clapping for NHS workers, I thought, ‘A year and a half ago, they were talking about Brexit and how these immigrants have come into our country and want to take our jobs,’” said Dr Hisham el-Khidir, whose cousin Dr Adil el-Tayar, a transplant surgeon, died on 25 March from coronavirus in London.

Piers Morgan, who has previously dismissed acts of solidarity with immigrants to the UK as “utterly absurd”, according to The Independent, is now touting the benefits of immigration.

“We forget about this extraordinary work force who comes from all round the world to help the NHS,” he said on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“And at the end of this I hope we have a different sentiment, a different feeling about what immigration has done for this country.”

“I think we particularly value them right now,” said Morgan’s Good Morning Britain co-host Susanna Reid. Whether we will continue to value immigrants after the pandemic remains to be seen.

Even the right-wing Daily Mail, which analysis shows has led the way in negative coverage of asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants, is now lauding the benefits of migrants coming to the UK.

The paper carried news of “150 ‘critically important’ Romanian fruit and vegetable pickers” being flown into Stansted to join a “land army battling to save Britain’s harvest”.

Is the change here to stay?

Some commentators are sceptical that the new-found appreciation for immigrants in the UK is genuine, or that it will last when the pandemic is putting less pressure on the country.

“Tories love immigrants now. Really?” writes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The i, pointing out that before the new coronavirus, “NHS surcharges were imposed on migrants working in the UK, including nurses, doctors, care workers and ancillary staff.

“Six months ago these men and their cabal were placating bigots and nationalists and didn’t appear to give much of a damn about the NHS,” she says.

Even now, foreign doctors are paying thousands of pounds in visa fees, and an NHS immigration surcharge for the right to use the health service they work for.

And while immigration may now be lauded in some spaces, coronavirus has had the opposite effect in some notable instances. Earlier this year there were racist attacks on people of East Asian appearance in Italy, and even in the heart of the UK’s metropolitan and diverse capital, London, reports The Guardian.

Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student in London, was last month punched and beaten by men shouting “coronavirus” in an attack which police are treating as “racially aggravated”. Mok told the BBC that the coronavirus outbreak has been used by some as an excuse to “further hatred for people different from them”.

Alibhai-Brown says: “The contributions of migrants always fall into oblivion. These corona heroes will go the same way.

“The Government will revert to perfidy and duplicity. Phase 11 of the hostile environment will be here sooner than we think.”

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