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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie

ZANTHRO Comments Nr. 3


What is it like to be on an ethnographic fieldwork trip in China when an epidemic breaks out? How are people with different levels of proficiency in German experiencing the COVID-19 outbreak in German-speaking Switzerland? What patterns of immobility and mobility emerge when your family is spread across two countries during a time of unprecedented travel restrictions? In this second part of the Pandemic Perspectives series, Amy Doricic, a Masters student in Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich, and Aline von Atzigen and Hatice Soeylemez, PhD candidates at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, share their unique experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though these reflections are centred on personal experiences, they each illuminate underlying structural inequalities in different ways. What each author illustrates is the importance of connection and communication between people, and perhaps with nature, in times of crisis.


A poster about COVID-19 at a Vietnamese restaurant in Zurich. Photo by Molly Fitzpatrick.

Experiencing and Sharing the Abnormal Normality of Chinese Daily Life in Times of COVID-19

By Aline von Atzigen


Aline von Atzigen is a Research and Teaching Assistant at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. In her PhD project she investigates the practices and human-environment relations of migratory beekeepers in Provence/France and Yunnan/People’s Republic of China. She is currently in China to visit the field and improve her Chinese language skills. In the following comment, Aline relates her experiences of being in China when the COVID-19 epidemic emerged in Wuhan, many kilometres away from her site, yet still affecting her daily life in profound yet unexpected ways.


I arrived in Shanghai on January 18, 2020. Two days later my Chinese friend Li wrote me a WeChat message and asked me if I had already heard about the virus. He was worried about me and suggested that I should buy facemasks to protect myself – “it is serious”. This virus slowly started to enter my lifeworld, first mentally and then more and more with virus-related practices. After initial hesitation, I started to look for facemasks in pharmacies. But facemasks were already sold out in Shanghai. Luckily, I managed to get a thin facemask from the hotel staff for my train journey to Kunming a few days later. The facemask felt weird but at the same time gave me a strange sensation of protection and put me mentally at ease. Nevertheless, the new coronavirus was still far away from me. And, geographically speaking, I was about to go even further away from it, to Yunnan province in the south-west of the People’s Republic of China.

Roughly a month later, including two weeks of lockdown, I had adapted to the new and abnormal normality of daily life in times of COVID-19. I got used to wearing a facemask whenever I went outside. I got used to getting my temperature checked several times a day. I got used to scanning a code upon entering and exiting a shop, restaurant, bus, or hotel – or at least most of the time, because the scanning was not always thoroughly imposed or practiced.

Technological outsider

Technologically, it became more complicated for me when, in mid-March, the system changed from scanning a code upon entering or exiting a place to just showing an automatically and algorithmically updated health code on an app. Unfortunately, because of my foreign passport number and Western name, I could not register on the app to get a health code until mid-May. Until then I became somewhat of a technological outsider.

In the beginning, this often resulted in long and in-depth questioning with regard to my health condition and previous whereabouts and included a lot of paperwork. When visiting the tourist hotspot Huangshan mountain in mid-March, for example, I had to go through a complicated process of filling out paper forms – first at the local police control station when entering the town and then again at the tourist site itself. While I was struggling with the paper forms, the Chinese tourists around me were no less confused and stressed, battling with downloading and registering themselves in the health app. While for me the technological turmoil consisted in my lack of access to the technology, for them it was exactly their (initial) access to that new technology that caused trouble.

After a while, I learned to work my way around these technical restrictions. I changed my plans and stopped travelling to avoid the complicated procedures of questioning and filling out paper forms. In my daily life I avoided certain shops or restaurants where the health code was controlled. And at least once I played the “foreigner card” by pretending to be unable to speak Chinese when a bus driver asked me if I could show him my health code. However, temporarily – from about mid-March to Mid-April until the borders were closed for foreigners – my status as an outsider was not only technological.

Insider - Outsider

In mid-March, I started to feel a shift in how Chinese people engaged with me. When visiting Huangshan mountain, a woman queuing before me literally ran away from me when she realized that I am a Wàiguórén (foreigner)! While waiting in line for the tourist bus, she was hiding in front of her husband, using him as a protection shield between her and me. I was suddenly no longer able to book a hotel room. Once, I was not allowed to walk through a park when I tried to register at the entrance. And only after explaining my situation in great detail, with the help of my Chinese friend Li who was accompanying me, was I allowed to visit Taishan mountain.

These restrictions were not related to me being a technological outsider and they did not reflect any official governmental rule. Rather they were expressions and reflections of fear, uncertainty or other feelings triggered by the ongoing COVID-19-situation. I am sharing these examples not to blame these people, but rather to point out that this COVID-19 outbreak had and still has a deep and multifaceted impact on all of us beyond mere aspects of health. But mostly, the examples I share show the shifting context and discourse around COVID-19 within China. In mid-March, COVID-19 was largely under control in China. The main problem now was the threat of (re)imported cases. This resulted in shifting the focus on COVID-19 from being a local to a foreign problem. However, it was not just a shift of focus, discourse, or perception, but also one of behaviour. To me, it seemed as if COVID-19 temporarily became a foreigner problem: a problem of foreigners and therefore one with.

After initial shock and anger, I later just felt sadness that these people were afraid of me. For me it marked a discrepancy between feeling like an insider - a foreigner experiencing and sharing this COVID-19-outbreak with the Chinese people I engaged with during my stay – but being perceived like an outsider. While I myself felt like an “insider”, some Chinese people did not see that; they only saw the foreigner, the outsider, the threat. That threat seemed to be so huge that some people did not dare to talk to me or even dismissed me when I proactively tried to talk to them. Others, however, did talk to me and mostly asked where I come from. At first I perceived this question to be motivated by mistrust, fear or rejection. But after a while, talking to more people, I realized that they actually wanted to express their compassion and worries for the worsening of the situation in Switzerland, Europe and the rest of the world.

Sharing the abnormal normality

In the end, what I cherished most in this time of crisis were the small moments of abnormal normality I shared with old and new Chinese friends, for example walking through the rapeseed fields outside of Luoping – while eating sunflower seeds and endlessly posing for pictures without a facemask – in the middle of the lockdown with the Bai family, who welcomed me in their hotel not only like a guest but a family member during the COVID-19-outbreak. Feeding the seagulls in Kunming with my friend Yunqun and her family. Eating hotpot with my new friend Xiaomei on the cold and rainy days during our stay in Huangshan. Visiting the Dai temple in Tai’an with Lady Wu, whom I occasionally met there. Or just chatting with Mister Gao, the friendly security guard, whenever I left the house or came back home.

It is the memories of these special moments, and overall the Chinese people’s enormous generosity and kindness, which impressed and touched me most during my time of experiencing and sharing the abnormal normality of Chinese daily life in times of COVID-19.

feeding seagull
Feeding seagulls in Kunming. Picture by Huang.

Communicating COVID-19

By Amy Doricic


Amy Doricic is a MA student in Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich. As an upper-intermediate German speaker from Canada, Amy reflects on her experiences of the way in which information about the COVID-19 pandemic was communicated by government officials and institutions in Switzerland.


At the onset of the pandemic in Switzerland, I had been living in Zurich for around eight months. Prior to this, I had been travelling between Canada and Switzerland for over five years to visit my Swiss partner. Despite being grounded in Switzerland, much of my life still revolves around travel and alternate time-zones: my entire family lives in Canada and my future master’s project, slated to begin in June 2020, is in Malawi. I have thus been trying to build an understanding of how each of these countries has been addressing the pandemic and how such circumstances affect me. In doing so, I noticed that the amount and timeliness of information in Switzerland varies greatly, depending on the language. In some cases, this also applied to information content.

As a Canadian student at the University of Zurich (UZH), I have had the privilege of studying in my mother tongue of English. As a linguaphile and an anthropologist, learning German has been an important aspect of immersing myself in German-speaking Switzerland. I have been continuously learning German, at varied intensities, for over five years. According to the UZH Language Center, my language level is around a B2, which is considered as basic fluency for an upper-intermediate user. While this level is higher than the spoken language requirement for Swiss citizenship, it has not been high enough to allow me to be informed on all of the ongoing changes occurring in Switzerland during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I started to really pay attention to the news regarding the coronavirus at the beginning of February, when the first cases were diagnosed in Italy. Over the following month, the amount of information in Swiss news escalated to the point where it dominated every outlet. Guidelines were constantly being adapted, changed, and revised. Local and international news was being updated hourly. I found that the best way to keep up with everything was to listen to the daily press conferences, but there were some major gaps in my language comprehension due to new vocabulary and the faster rate of speech. Terms that I had never heard before, such as Infektionsketten (chains of infection) and Handlungsempfehlung (recommended action), became a part of everyday language that I needed to constantly translate in order follow. Although these small misunderstandings were reduced when I started consulting the written points associated with the broadcastings, I was worried that there were major points that I was missing that could give me better insight into the future trajectory of the pandemic in Switzerland. To address this, I spoke about the situation with some of my friends and colleagues who had a more limited comprehension of German; these individuals consulted online English newspapers, such as The Local[1], translated articles, or the official governmental website[2]. While they did find information, I found that they often did not have the same understanding of the most recent discussions by the Swiss government and, at times, were unaware that certain actions were being explored. This did not reflect a lack of initiative on their part, but rather delayed access to current discussions during a critical time. Additionally, information that was available in English was often presented in far less detail than its equivalent in German.

In light of this, I began wondering what resources are available for individuals who not only have a limited comprehension of the official languages of Switzerland, but also are not comfortable communicating in English.[3] Considering that one quarter of the population of Switzerland is migrants, it is crucial to ensure the availability of adequate information for all members of society.[4] After searching, I found attempts to create resources in different languages; for example, the official Federation of Public Health website for coronavirus offers information regarding the current situation in 24 different languages.[5] However, these resources are limited in content: while French, German, Italian and English speakers can experience an interactive website with timely edits, videos, and games, information for the other 20 languages is presented in PDF form with links that connect readers to further explanations in one of the aforementioned languages. Diaspora TV, a business start-up in partnership with the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH, or abbreviated as BAG from the German), offers video updates in nine different languages on the virus, suggested behaviours, and new government mandates.[6] Since the onset, this platform has offered three different videos in each of the nine languages; although this is an effective and important way to inform the population, there is still a limited amount of information available. Finally, the news website SWI (Swiss Info) offers articles in ten languages.[7] This platform frequently provides information on Swiss press conferences, international and local research on the coronavirus, and society during this time period. The catch? Not all articles are available in all languages – the front page of the newspaper in English looks very different than the front page in Arabic. The result of this is that not everyone has access to, or even awareness of, the ongoing state of the virus in Switzerland.

In writing this comment, my goal is not to criticize the communication efforts of Swiss authorities and companies, but rather to draw attention to ways in which present linguistic limitations may have affected members of the Swiss population during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has amplified the impact of linguistic inequality in Switzerland. There is a difference between understanding the basic premise between health policies and political regulations, and fully having access to the process and events. In order to allow all members of society to understand health risks, respond to government decisions and recommendations, and assess how Switzerland’s response fits in with the rest of the world, there must be more initiatives to provide timely information in more languages.



[3] While English is not considered an official language in Switzerland, it is recognized as a lingua franca that has a strong presence in political, economic and educational domains, particularly in the German-speaking region.

[4] The information on the official Swiss website regarding migration in 2019 is available in German, French and Italian. The multilingual online news platform also provides informative article about immigration to Switzerland in 2019, available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. For official data, see also





Turkish passports. Picture by Hatice Soeylemez.

Rethinking Mobility and Immobility in the Time of COVID-19

By Hatice Soeylemez


Hatice Soeylemez is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. She is currently writing her dissertation on the proliferation of alternative education in Turkey. In this piece, Hatice gives an intimate account of her life as a parent of young twins under lockdown in Switzerland. Her experiences are complicated by the fact that her family is spread between Turkey and Switzerland in a time of uneven travel restrictions.


When I first heard about the coronavirus, I was in Turkey for the Christmas holidays. I wasn’t alarmed by news about the virus: human history has continuously been dealing with viruses. Furthermore, the virus was affecting China, which seemed, at the time, quite far away.

A few weeks later, my two-and-a-half-year-old twins, my husband and I were back in Switzerland, where I am pursuing a PhD. Both of my kids went to the university-owned day-care centre, 9 to 5 from Monday to Friday, allowing me to work on my dissertation and to focus on my teaching. No interruption, little unpredictability! However, immediately after my husband’s departure to Turkey for a week in mid-February for work, the coronavirus became a major fact for our daily lives. COVID-19 was swiftly spreading all over the world, and governments were expected to take urgent actions against it. By March, with the increase of the worldwide death toll, corona-related worries took us by storm and the world began shutting down.

On the evening of March 13, in the wake of the national lockdown, the University of Zurich and all of its day-care centres closed their doors. At home with my two toddlers and my ageing father who had come to visit, I was now confronted with a chaotic situation, wondering how I could continue providing my weekly seminars or whether I would have any chance to work on my PhD thesis in the months to come. To what extent would my children and I adjust to this turn of events? Would my father be safe, here with us, now that it seemed impossible for him to return to Turkey?

With my father in Zurich and my husband still in Ankara, what worried me most, in fact, was that European countries had closed their borders within days and stopped issuing visas. Our application for a family reunion visa, filed with the Swiss authorities six months earlier, was still pending. Although we did not know why the visa process had been taking so long, days before the national lockdown in Switzerland we decided to cancel our application in order to apply for a tourist visa for my husband, as the latter were generally issued faster. When my husband went to the Swiss consulate to apply for a tourist visa, however, it was already too late: all applications had been suspended until further notice. No room for discussion, nowhere to reach!

During corona times, I have read many commentators stressing the fact that the pandemic deepened pre-existing disparities and structural inequities. My family was directly confronted with that. The control of human mobility – the decision over who can and cannot move – was a key dimension of the fight against the spread of the corona virus, and it unequally affected different populations, especially in regard to class. Millions of people faced the danger of losing their jobs, especially daily wage workers with no means to survive and millions of refugees battling to meet their basic needs. Also, and although many states had introduced serious measures to prevent contamination and people all around the world were kept unwillingly immobile, those with wealth and privilege were still able to travel nationally and prompted fears that they would spread the virus in thus far unaffected areas.[8]

For us, the closing of borders meant that we could not live together as a family. We were afraid of getting sick apart from one another, and we could not find the proper words to explain all of these things to our two-and-a-half-year-old twins. What made the situation worse, by all means, was not knowing when, and indeed even if, it would end.

While cross-border mobility was suspended in the name of the fight against the pandemic, many states, including Turkey, have also declared travel bans and restricted the free movement of people within countries, e.g. prohibiting simply walking on the street. In comparison, I felt lucky being in Zurich during these times: we were granted “local” mobility, being allowed to go to parks, forests and play areas for children. Despite the fact that I experienced great anxiety, isolation and a lack of social support as a consequence of being separated from my family, being able to enjoy nature was really helpful in handling the situation. I highly doubt I could have successfully gone through it elsewhere. My kids enjoyed staying at home and going outside every day. Hence, although geographically separated, we experienced, as a transnational family, a different intimacy that ultimately strengthened our relationship.

Like most migration regimes, the European migration system privileges some but excludes the majority. For the past two decades, European citizens have faced few visa requirements when travelling. The fact that many have gotten used to unrestricted cross-border mobility became particularly visible during the pandemic, when EU citizens’ new experiences of closed borders led to a public outcry.[9] In other words, in the wake of corona, the restrictive border policies that matter for the majority of people living in the Global South became an everyday occurrence for European citizens holding the most powerful passports in the world.

At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the borders to be re-opened so that we can apply for a visa for my husband to come here. For family members of EU\EFTA citizens, Swiss borders were already opened after May 11, 2020 – but Turkish citizens like us, and many others, have to continue waiting.

Through our personal experience as a family during these times, we have empathized a lot with the refugees who have had to flee from their countries due to war, political dissent, famine or else, have left their families behind, and are now stuck in limbo, waiting for access to asylum. Although human rights organizations have strongly criticized the treatment of refugees during the pandemic, this does not seem to have greatly affected political decision-making processes within Europe.

Let’s nevertheless hope that all of us can unite with our loved ones again soon. As for me at this moment, I really want a long, relaxed sleep, a supportive hug and a stronger passport!