Coronavirus across Europe: How the pandemic has affected those living abroad

Coronavirus across Europe: How the pandemic has affected those living abroad
A deserted Venice, pictured from above. MARCO SABADIN / AFP
Our journalists and reporters around Europe sum up the impact of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted life across Europe, particularly for international residents, who have no idea when they will be able to travel home or even stay in their adopted countries.

'Living abroad tends to put life on a higher difficulty setting anyway. We're feeling that now more than ever,' Clare Speak, Bari, Italy

Foreigners living in Italy right now, under Europe's longest quarantine, often say the hardest thing is the worry about family and friends in more than one country. As one reader from the UK put it, “watching the crisis worsen back home was like reliving what happened in Italy. I feel like I've been through it all twice.”

At the same time, readers and friends report dealing with everything from stalled home purchases and lost revenue from the tourism industry, to having family members stranded abroad, or suddenly needing to navigate the social security system in Italian.

Living abroad tends to put life on a higher difficulty setting anyway. We're feeling that now more than ever. And yet, I'm struck by how positive peoples' attitudes to the situation have been.

One family friend who moved into her new home in Italy just days before lockdown told me: “this isn't quite how I pictured my new life abroad. But I'm thrilled to be here, even if I hardly have any furniture. I've “met” my new neighbours by waving to them from the garden.”

A lot of Italy's international residents work in or provide services to the tourism industry, or work as self-employed tour guides, teachers, or translators. Many lost their incomes overnight.

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Italy has offered some financial help, and although it isn't as much as in some other countries, there is the feeling that at least the government is trying. I heard from readers this week who've claimed the 600-euro bonus payment for the self-employed – all said it's better than nothing, or that they hadn't expected a cent.

One reader from India added that it's not just about finances, saying the payment is “a gesture that comforts and reassures me that I haven't chosen the wrong nation to live in for the rest of my life.”

In fact, many readers told us they're happier than ever with their choice to live in Italy, after seeing how Italians, and the government, responded to the crisis.

There are also high hopes the shutdown will eventually result in some positive changes, and spell the end for things Italy's foreign residents frequently cite as downsides to life here – pollution, terrible public transport, a lack of online services or cashless payments. A more sustainable approach to tourism, too, is on many peoples' post-crisis wish lists.

But even if Italy just resumes normal service after this – smog, traffic, and spontaneously combusting public transport included – I think we'll still be glad that we're here.

Grass grows through the cobblestones in Rome. Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP

'The pandemic has made life abroad tricky: people are worried about their livelihoods, visa extensions, what it means for Brexit or studying', Rachel Loxton, Berlin, Germany

I should be in Australia right now. Obviously, like many people across the world, my holiday plans have been wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Planning to hit the beaches of Byron Bay feels like a distant memory. I accepted it early on – so I’ll miss this holiday, maybe I’ll go later in the year. 

But now the realisation is hitting that I’ve no idea when I’ll travel again, or when I’ll see my family in Scotland. 

It’s a feeling shared by many international residents in Germany. 

“Today I acknowledged the fact I won't be able to spend Christmas with my family in Mexico this year,” said one reader on our Facebook page on Thursday. 

This week Germany has been gradually reintroducing public life, with shops opening up and plans for pupils to go back to school. 

But borders remain shut and at this point we’re not even meant to travel out our neighbourhood, let alone get on a plane. 

It’s not just about being able to hug – or even see – loved ones in real life though, there’s a feeling of helplessness of being in a completely different country. 

When I read the UK news, a knot forms in my stomach knowing that my family is living through it, and I’m not there to do helpful things like go shopping for my mum and dad. 

“My only concern is that I am not able to assist my elderly parents in this time of need,” said Local reader Phil Cooper, who lives in Schömberg and also comes from the UK.

Abandoned chairs in Munich as part of a hospitality industry protest. Photo: Christof STACHE / AFP

Megan McLean in Wiesbaden echoed that feeling, saying: “I am very worried about my parents in the US and wish I were closer to them.

On top of this, the pandemic has made life abroad tricky: people are worried about their livelihoods, visa extensions, what it means for Brexit or studying. 

There are no answers at the moment although the German government has extended deadlines for some life admin tasks, which is helpful.

There’s one thing that seems to be clear, though: foreigners feel lucky to be in Germany.

With its comparatively low death rate, strong health care system and policy on widespread testing, it’s no wonder that a recent study ranked Germany as one of the safest places in the world to be during the pandemic.

Khaled Bhar in Potsdam said although he wants to be with his family and friends in Tunisia, he “feels safer” in Germany.

There is some comfort in chatting to relatives on the phone and receiving pictures of my niece and nephew.

I just wish my family were with me in Germany.


'Foreigners here in that unenviable place known as the ‘limbo’,' Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland

My neighbour Brigit is Dutch and she has a sick brother in the Netherlands. She has been trying to find a way to visit him for the past two weeks. Brigid is even ready to drive the 980 kilometres to Amsterdam, but she’d have to cross the German border, which is closed right now.

And then there’s my own mother who lives in an elderly care facility in Florida. My plans to fly there over the Easter holidays fell through, and it is not certain when flights to the United States will resume.
 
This concern over the inability to travel internationally — something that we had long taken for granted — is also echoed in posts on Switzerland’s English-language expat forum: “I'm supposed to be driving to and from the UK, leaving in a couple of weeks from now, and would usually go for a small distance through Germany before hitting
France, and then of course the channel crossing” one expatriate wrote.
 
“I'm heading there to provide care support for a family member, but cannot see if that would fall into the bucket of non-essential travel,” he added.
 
Not being able to visit family and friends abroad is a major concern for the foreign community here. And it is all the more frustrating because, even as the lockdown is gradually being lifted, the Swiss government has not provided any timeline on the re- opening of borders and the resumption of air travel.
 
Switzerland is getting ready for the first phase of the de-confinement process on April 26th , with two further phases — on May 11th and June 8th — already planned.
 
But the future of cross-border travel is not on the table.
 
The Federal Council has said that re-opening of borders is not a top priority right now and, in any case, it depends on when the other nations in the Schengen zone decide to relax travel restrictions.
 
That leaves the foreigners here in that unenviable place known as the ‘limbo’.

'Attention is split between what is happening in Spain and their country of birth,' Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

The arrival of a new baby is always a time for family to get together but for Anna Weers the lockdown has made this impossible. 

Her second daughter Olivia arrived on March 1st, two weeks before Spain imposed one of the most drastic restrictions in the world to try to contain the coronavirus. 

Six weeks later, she has not been able to show off her baby daughter to the wider family who live in Germany and other parts of Europe.

“It is a shame but obviously that has been impossible. It is a little sad but we are keeping in touch by video calls,” said Weers, who lives in Barcelona. 

Her experience echoes that of the estimated 300,000 foreigners who live in Spain, whose contact with wider family has been put on hold – for now. 

Telephone or video calls have had to make do but perhaps do not completely compensate for seeing loved ones face to face. 

There is also a sense, from speaking to many people in Spain, that their attention is split between what is happening in their adopted country and their country of birth. 

As the epidemic took hold in Spain, it left those of us living in here trying to impress the seriousness of the situation on relatives back in Britain. 

For a time, the UK authorities did not seem to grasp the nettle – and neither did many people back home. 

That has, thankfully, changed. Elderly parents and relatives who are classed as high risk have not ventured out for weeks. 

Perhaps what remains the great unknown is when we will meet each other again. Trips back to the old country have been delayed and holidays to see the family also look doubtful this summer. 

Even if you have your own family in Spain, it dawns on you that these are the moments when living abroad has its downsides. It is worse for some people who have stuck working in other parts of Europe.

Of course, it would be the same if you lived near your relatives in your own country. 

But planning those journeys to see your parents or other family might prove hard.

Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

'Many of her foreign friends in Norway feel “incredibly isolated”,' Stine G Bergo

“I think it’s hard for people to grasp that even though life in Norway is easy even under coronavirus times – after all, we can go outside, much is still open, and we have a lot of freedom still – we, as foreigners here, carry the burden of our home countries too.”

These are the word of my my American friend, Indigo, who has lived in Norway for nearly four years. First as a student, now she’s working. 

The past six weeks have been challenging for everyone, and especially for those who are living in a country that isn’t theirs. 

“Every day I get so upset by the news coming from the USA. There’s nothing we can do. And we know dozens of people in those countries who are struggling and even dying,” Indigo said.

“I know this is similar for Norwegians, but it is on a smaller scale in a way because after all, healthcare here is so much better. And free. Meanwhile, I hear my grandma talking about using vacuum cleaner filters as masks,” she said.

Indigo considers herself as lucky. While many of her foreign friends in Norway feel “incredibly isolated”, she has a network that she has built up for years. 

She also has job security, which is not the case for everyone. As the corona crisis has hit the economy hard, many people – and particularly foreigners – in Norway are now in a tough economic situation. 

While Norwegians that have been temporarily laid off work can access unemployment benefits from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), this doesn’t apply if you’re a citizen from outside the EEA.

There are 12.640 skilled workers from outside of the EEA with a work permit in Norway, the state channel NRK reported this week. These people aren’t allowed unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs. If they go six months without a job they lose their work permit and can be forced out of the country.

International students are also in a tight spot because they often depend on part time jobs, which provide little security in times of job cuts and downsizing.

In addition to all the emotional challenges posed by the coronavirus, Indigo worries about the practical consequences if she does decide to go home to visit her family. 

“Emotionally, it’s very tough. I get an irrational fear that I might never see my family again. I don’t know when I will be able to – even though the US would currently let me in, I don’t necessarily want to go any time soon for fear Norway might not. The rules seem to change so rapidly, it feels too risky,” she said.

“If I leave, can I come back? For now, yes, but later?”

'If you tell foreign professionals there’s no need to speak Swedish, make sure to live up to that even in times of crisis,' Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden likes to think of itself as an open, welcoming and modern country. Whether we’re talking about attracting international tech talent or people fleeing war-torn nations – at least before asylum policies were tightened after the 2015 refugee crisis – the official message tends to be clear: There’s a place for you here.

I once attended a panel talk where one of the Swedish panellists remarked on how easy it was for international talent to integrate in Sweden, you don’t even have to speak Swedish.

The person did not notice how many in the audience rolled their eyes.

The truth is: It does work out that way for many. Generous parental leave, gender equality, flat hierarchies and the work-life balance are not just stereotypes – they are policies that improve lives. Many of The Local’s readers tell us they’re happier here than anywhere else.

But telling a country’s story means telling the whole story.

Sweden’s coronavirus strategy has largely been built on voluntary measures, with a few exceptions. When other countries’ police have ordered people to confine themselves to their homes, Sweden has strongly asked people to please respect health guidelines.

The approach has been partly explained by the word ”trust”. People in Sweden trust authorities to make the right decisions, and authorities trust people to do the same.

But when you can’t find a job because you don’t speak the language, when you can’t follow recommendations to socially distance yourself from the elderly because you live three generations in a tiny apartment, when you face a three-year wait to gain citizenship, when you lose your work permit through no fault of your own: How do you trust?

When immigrant communities in some of Stockholm’s most vulnerable suburbs are overrepresented in the number of coronavirus patients, when the Swedish government says that despite billions of kronor of investment and law changes to help people make it through the crisis, it is not considering making changes for those work permit holders who risk losing their right to stay due to coronavirus-fuelled unemployment: How do you ask for their trust?

It is true that overall there is a high level of trust in Sweden, and it is one of my favourite things about living here. I wish more people could be given a reason to feel that trust.

Trust means going the full distance. If you convince people to move to an international, welcoming and equal country, don’t break those promises. If you tell foreign professionals there’s no need to speak Swedish, make sure to live up to that even in times of crisis.

As Prime Minister Stefan Löfven himself said earlier this week: “Together we'll get through this because together we have to get through it.” That means leaving no one behind. No one.

'French people are being told not to plan summer holidays, but for foreign residents travel is not just for a holiday,' Emma Pearson, Paris, France
Make no mistake, lockdown is tough for everyone and all people – whether they are parents or living alone – have their own difficulties.
 
But those of us living in countries other than the one we were born in face our own set of challenges.
 
France has instigated a strict lockdown with some specific rules and a fairly complicated procedure for going outside.
 
To add to the confusion, the rules were changed and tightened up every few days at the start of the lockdown and many local authorities then brought in extra restrictions. 
 
While there was widespread confusion across the country, for people who don't speak fluent French it was even more difficult to find out what was going on.
 
This lead to a deluge of emails from readers asking “Can I leave my house to . . .” as they tried to work out the regulations and avoid those painful €135 fines.
 
Things are now a little more settled and most people know what the rules are, so thoughts are now turning to travel.
 
French people are being told not to plan summer holidays, but for foreign residents travel is not just for a holiday.
 
Those of us who don't live with our partners are now facing up to the fact that it may be several months before we see them again and those with sick or elderly relatives in another country are also likely to be apart for a long time to come.
 
Making the decision to leave behind loved ones to move countries is always a wrench but we usually console ourselves with the thought of all that quick, easy modern travel that would make staying in touch simple.*
 
Now in a world virtually without travel we are faced with just how far away we really are. 

 

A market in Bordeaux. Photo: GEORGES GOBET / AFP

'Job losses resulting from the Covid-19 epidemic are also a potential threat to the status of people on temporary visas in Denmark,' Michael Barrett, Copenhagen.

Denmark is now into its second week since easing lockdown by opening some kindergartens and school classes and more recently certain types of business.

Numbers of hospitalisations, ICU admissions and patients on ventilators are thus far continuing the steady decline which
began at the end of March.
 
Meanwhile, glorious spring weather has resulted in a firm rebuke from Danish Police Union chairman Claus Oxfeldt, who described harbourside areas of Copenhagen on Thursday as “flypaper”.
 
This weekend could see a few fines being handed out.
 
It is probably (in my lay understanding) too early to see any potential impact on infection numbers of the reopened kindergartens and school classes, or of what appears to be the increasingly laissez-faire attitude of Copenhageners.
 
These things could impact future stages of reopening the country, where gatherings of more than 10 people remain banned until at least May 10.
 
I became a dad on March 10. In the subsequent days it felt like the world was changing irreversibly in more ways than one, as Danish society closed down and its borders creaked shut.
 
That closure meant that my infant daughter has yet to see her grandparents and probably won’t for some time to come.
 
I’ve been optimistically checking for any signs of travel becoming possible again in future, but the reopening of kindergartens and hairdressers offers little encouragement in this regard.
 
The Danish government has taken considerable steps to support businesses and also appears sensitive to the rights of its foreign contingent, as evidenced by the decision to temporarily scrap mandatory handshakes at citizenship ceremonies.
 
There are some issues which appear to skew towards impacting foreigners.
 
One of these involves a rule which enables international students with EU citizenship to receive the Danish state student grant, SU, provided they fulfil certain requirements involving part-time employment. I’ve been contacted by students who have lost their jobs due to the crisis and are now facing uncertainty over whether they can still receive SU, which is likely to be their primary income source.
 
Job losses resulting from the Covid-19 epidemic are also a potential threat to the status of people on temporary visas, green card holders, and those applying for permanent residency.
 
There are signs of the economy wobbling.
 
Shipping giant Maersk on Friday announced 250- 300 redundancies in its offshore crew pool in Denmark, Norway and the UK.
 
It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about the medium- and longer-term prospects for foreign nationals, but Denmark’s relative control over the virus spread certainly gives some reassurance.
 
For now we just have to keep waiting – and remember to stay away from popular parks.
 
 

 

 


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