The article is based on qualitative research conducted among Armenian families who have members living abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic. Qualitative methodology was applied to grasp subjective interpretations of feelings and meanings behind social remittances. This approach helped to problematize loyalties to official guidelines on “new normality”, and study less formal pandemic-coping strategies. Through in-depth interviews, it was possible to generate an understanding of narratives on how transnational families coped with the coronavirus, with special attention given to family narratives from February 2020 to October 2020. We asked questions about the information and practices circulated between the migrant and non-migrant members of households, perceived dangers and anxieties towards the pandemic, and how pandemic-coping practices have been negotiated and changed within the selected families.
The research included13 in-depth interviews with non-migrants residing in Armenia. The interviews were conducted with representatives of Armenian transnational families that have migrant members in Russia (5), the Czech Republic (5), or Belarus (3). Selecting families that had migrant members in different countries provided a more rounded and comprehensive understanding of the characteristics of social remittances in times of pandemic, and their alignment or conflict with official strategies of coping with the outbreak. Included among the selected families are low-skilled migrants (6) and high-skilled migrants (7). This approach was selected as the literature on social remittances places significant attention on high-skilled migrants that play the crucial role in transferring ideas and practices (Holdaway et al., 2015; Wong & Levitt, 2014), while low-skilled migrants are believed to affect “basic transnationalism,” mainly restricted to the family- and household-levels (Ambrosini, 2018). The interviews included people who had survived being infected with the coronavirus and those who had not been infected. The interviewed families (non-migrants) reside both in urban areas, such as the capital city of Yerevan, and in rural areas of the Gegharkunik region, which includes one of the higher number of migrants in Armenia (NSS of RA, 2019).
Covid-19 response in Armenia, Russia, Belarus, and the Czech Republic
In 2020, COVID-19 moved rapidly across the world despite many countries perceiving the outbreak as a far-off threat. While most national COVID-19 protective measures have followed the World Health Organization’s standards, policies and practices of coping with the pandemic can vary. Russia, Armenia, and Belarus share a common Soviet past and similar health systems, and were expected to implement similar responsive measures (Åslund, 2020). In all three countries, the first cases of coronavirus were found in February 2020. Belarus’s government demonstrated a complete denial of the COVID-19 pandemic, as all mass gatherings, such as the Belarusian Victory Day parade, took place without any delays (Dellanna, 2020). In a now-famous speech, President Aleksander Lukashenko openly expressed his skepticism towards the pandemic by asking if anyone could demonstrate that coronavirus existed, and suggested that people drink vodka and go to the sauna to stay healthy and stave off the virus (Haltiwanger, 2020). The policy of skepticism hasn’t changed in Belarus since the start of the pandemic, and until now no special measures or lockdown have been imposed (Kramer, 2020; Khurshudyan, 2020).
Overall, pandemic policies in Russia and Armenia appear similar. Both Armenia and Russia denied the seriousness of the virus for a long time by playing down its possible health impacts. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, continued to hold meetings without masks, and similarly in Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held mass meetings for a constitutional referendum (MassisPost, 2020). However, both Russia and Armenia changed their approach and started taking the pandemic more seriously since March 2020: both countries declared a state of emergency since March 2020, mainly coordinating their actions with the standards of the World Health Organization. The fight against coronavirus was conducted through the following mechanisms: isolation, wearing masks, disinfection of hands, maintenance of physical distance, restriction of free movement, and prohibition of large events. Although the Armenian government initially implemented strict control mechanisms, the large influx of labor migrants (mostly from Russia) allowed the virus to spread (Aslanyan & Mirzoyan, 2020). As a result, Armenia was among the top ten countries in the world in terms of COVID-19 cases per capita (World Health Organization, 2020a, b). Due to gradual improvements, the state of emergency was replaced with a state of quarantine on September 11, 2020. Restrictive measures were relaxed due to the outbreak of war over Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27, 2020 and haven’t been reinstated since then (Aslanyan et al., 2021).
In the Czech Republic, stricter safety measures were introduced by the central government at the end of February 2020. The state of emergency or “blanket quarantine” as it was termed in the Czech Republic was declared on March 12, 2020. The strict restrictive measures worked quite well during the first phase of the pandemic in the Czech Republic, to the point that around 2000 people gathered at a 500-m-long dinner table on Charles Bridge in Prague for a party billed as a “symbolic farewell” to “the crisis” in June (Shotter, 2020). The slow-down in the spread of infection was attributed to the initial government response to the coronavirus. Despite this, the Czech Republic tightened lockdown measures later on, as the government battled the world’s worst surge in COVID-19 infections (Kottasová, 2021).
The study revealed that the attitudes of migrants’ families in Armenia towards the pandemic measures in Russia, Belarus, and the Czech Republic varied. According to the interviewees, Armenia, Russia, and, to some extent Belarus, have more similarities than differences in the fight against the virus. Migrants living in those countries shared with their families in Armenia a number of stories regarding how their governments long-denied the danger of the virus. The attitude towards the coronavirus was largely summed up as “something like a flu that will pass soon.” A few respondents claimed that the ineffectiveness of the fight against coronavirus was influenced by cultural practices established in Soviet Union for 70 years: a lack of discipline and responsibility, as well as distrust towards state information channels. Sasha, a 76-year-old man, shared his perception:
In the 1990s, when the Soviet state collapsed, I emigrated from Armenia with my family, and lived in Russia for about 20 years. Then I lived in Belarus for 8 years because my daughter was married there. Now my son lives in Russia, my daughter in Belarus, and my wife and I have returned to Armenia after retirement … We can overcome COVID-19 only with discipline and civil responsibility. It is still lacking in Russia, Armenia, and Belarus, because my generation was taught something else during the 70 years of the Soviet Union that the state is responsible for everything. Now they say you have to take responsibility for your health. (Sasha, 76-year-old man)
Generally, respondents believe that pandemic management measures have been less coordinated in Armenia compared to the Czech Republic, as during the initial outbreak period the Armenian government did not have a clear policy to fight against COVID-19 and demonstrated uncertainty. The differences between national responses were more pronounced at the level of implementation on the ground as opposed to the policy level. Karine, a 60-year-old woman whose son lives in the Czech Republic, revealed:
Starting from the very beginning I think it was stricter and better managed in Czechia. Of course, here we had the same measures later, but here people just don’t like following the rules. When you compare two countries, some differences become even more obvious. I know that in Prague you can’t go around without a mask, but here it seems that people stopped caring about safety. We need a stronger government response to control the situation. (Karine, 60-year-old woman)
Similarly, Armine, a 48-year-old woman whose brother has lived in the Czech Republic for about 10 years, revealed:
My older brother lives in the Czech Republic. According to him, after learning about the coronavirus, they were not allowed to gather with a friend in a cafe or stand on the street to talk. He was very surprised when I showed him the streets of our village and Yerevan, where very few people wore masks. We can enjoy our time especially in Yerevan like this, but I think people’s lives are the most precious things, so they are right to follow those rules. (Armine, 48-year-old woman)
Transnational families described their circumstances as unique compared to families that lived together, as the transnational families were aware, worried, and considerate of not only local regulations, but regulations in countries where other member(s) of their family reside as well.
The study of coronavirus practices shows that transnational families largely develop a special form of transnational social remittance, or as we term, “pandemic transnationalism.” The latter represents the transfer of ideas and exchange of caring practices across national borders related to coping with the pandemic. Mary’s husband is a jeweler in the Czech Republic. Reflecting on the initial months of the pandemic, Mary shared:
My husband has been constantly advising us what to do: put on a mask, keep your distance... do not go anywhere and avoid outside trips unless necessary. He is especially worried about me visiting the beauty salons. I did not go to the hairdresser for a year, he said the most dangerous places are beauty salons. I went secretly for the first time, otherwise he would be worried … For the last year our conversations are always about the same things: wear masks, do not go anywhere. (Mary, 48-year-old woman)
Non-migrants’ narratives reflect the multiple challenges they face when their family members are abroad during crises. Not only does having family abroad change family dynamics, but it also imposes alternative caring arrangements that migrants and non-migrants want to ensure for their family back home or in the host country. Karine, whose son lives in the Czech Republic, revealed:
If my son had not been abroad, I wouldn’t be so worried about coronavirus. But he was reminding me all the time about the rules, that’s why we were very alert. Also, we were worried about not getting sick, as it would have been hard for him to come to Armenia in these conditions, it is difficult to travel during the coronavirus. Not only him, but I was also checking the news all the time on the Czech Republic, the number of cases, new regulations. (Karine, 60-year-old woman)
“Pandemic transnationalism” is maintained through phone calls, emails, social media, and through sending necessary personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, and sanitizers, to protect families. During a pandemic, these “emergency” remittances are migrants’ ways of demonstrating their responsibility to other members of their families. No matter how little the difference is between gloves or masks sent from abroad or ones made and purchased in Armenia, the interviewees often underlined and spoke with enthusiasm of the “symbols of care” sent from abroad. Vahram, whose son lives in the Czech Republic, shared:
My son sent a box with N95 masks, because they told him that N95 or N99 is better than a usual mask. He keeps sending masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and many vitamins. You can find vitamins also here, but I guess in this way he expressed his anxiety. (Vahram, 64-year-old man)
The dissemination and transfer of personal experience has proven to be a critical skill in dealing with the pandemic among transnational families. The spread of information through informal networks happens on a large scale, particularly in rural areas. International migration and exchange of practices also change the perception of what is wrong and what is right. The practices of migrants and their families are not always in line with the laws and regulations of either the host or sending countries. In her book on “Transnational Villagers,” Levitt (2001) presents the study of Dominican migrants in the US that adopt practices that are against US law, such as selling drugs over the counter that require a prescription in the United States. They see these minor infractions as rule bending, not rule breaking, and as necessary for their daily survival (Levitt, 2001, p. 120). Levitt (2001) finds that most migrants balance these against-the-law stances without dissonance. The perception of what is wrong and what is right is quite applicable to the practices of transnational families coping with the pandemic as well.
When in our village the virus started spreading, the first 2-3 infected people went to see the doctor, and the rest just used the same medicine to cure the virus, they were just taking the same medicines from the same pharmacy. When another person came to ask the pharmacist to give him the same medicine, the pharmacist asked him where he is from. The pharmacist later reported these details to the responsible bodies, and when they came and tested people, they saw that the majority of the population have the virus, and they immediately imposed quarantine. (Lilit, 33-year-old woman)
The research shows that practices are not only transferred from transnational family units to Armenia, but are also largely consumed in informal settings. A possible reason for the spread of informal practices was the lack of information provided by the state and distrust towards health regulations in Armenia. During the crisis, new information provided by migrant family members was quickly accepted by families in Armenia and spread among their social networks. Razmik, a 45-year-old man who survived COVID-19, relied on the advice of a relative based in Russia. Even though these practices came from an unverified source, he said he overcame the virus and shared the “prescription” with his friends and families:
My brother had coronavirus too, and he suggested that in Russia they have already developed the strategy, and he immediately contacted his doctor and asked him one more time for the exact procedure. Then I did the exact steps here … I was drinking a lot of liquid with lemon and, mostly, green tea. Almost 5 liters per day, and the vitamin complex in the morning. And on the second and third day I started taking amexine, and then on the fifth, sixth, and seventh day plaquenil... And for the eighth and ninth day I used antibiotics. I would advise people not to forget about drinking lots of water. (Razmik, 45-year-old man)
The research reveals that in case of pandemic transnationalism, both low- and highly- skilled migrants try to deliver the pandemic-coping practices of their country of residence to their families in Armenia. The status of a migrant in their country of residence can affect the dissemination of ideas through an informal setting. These differences between low- and high- skilled migrants are demonstrated in the cases of Armine, whose brother is a designer residing in Prague, and Sasha, whose son is a seasonal construction worker in Russia. Armine shared:
High school students in our village organized a big event dedicated to Women's Day, March 8th. My daughter had to perform too. The hall was full of parents and students. Days later I met the mother of one of my daughter's classmates in the store, she said she felt very weak and had a fever, the same was with me but I thought I had a little cold. My brother called from Prague, and said that it is very possible that I got infected with coronavirus. I heard about the coronavirus on TV, but I did not take it seriously, like everyone else. My brother urged me to go and take a test. I went to the hospital, but they said they did not have a test sample yet. He called and told me that he had consulted with a doctor he knew, and they advised me to drink water, take vitamins, eat healthy and more. I called also the mother of my daughter’s classmate and told her what to do. (Armine, 48-year-old woman)
To the question of whether their acquaintances immediately trusted the information Armine provided them, Armine replied “they know my brother very well, they know that he is an educated person... also the Czech Republic is more advanced, so they trusted and then they gave the advice to others.” In contrast to this story, Sasha shared:
My son does not have a permanent job, he is doing construction or repair work … Once, during a conversation, he learned that his uncle was sick with coronavirus. He said that every day they are advised on TV what to do to overcome the coronavirus. Then I called my brother and told him what he shared. My brother said he would do it, but I felt that he was kind of skeptical, maybe he thought that my son might have confused something, he would not remember well. (Sasha, 76-year-old man)
Thus, the interviews show that the status of the person who transmits information plays an important role in the spread of social remittances in an informal setting, as people believe that coronavirus-coping practices transmitted by highly-skilled migrants may be more accurate and less likely to be disinformation.
Research shows that “pandemic transnationalism” is a two-way process, as not only do migrants send remittances to their families, but rely largely on remittances sent from home as well. Cross-border flows of comments, narratives, and gossip create a collective sense of coronavirus-coping strategies. Migrants often try to overcome the pitfalls of their country of residence’s health policies. This was particularly relevant for families with members in Belarus, as they were anxious about their relatives and expected that the pandemic in Belarus would worsen in the near future. The level of anxiety about the coronavirus was higher among families who had elderly relatives living in Belarus, and they were more in favor of introducing additional health measures in Belarus. Laura and Anna, two women who both had parents living in Belarus, were extremely worried about the country’s approach towards coronavirus. They both said that they advised their parents to limit going out in public unnecessarily, visiting shops, and using public transport. Laura and Anna also shared that they sent medicines and antibiotics to their parents in case they needed them urgently. They sent the medicines with their friends and relatives to Belarus, as travel between both countries was not prohibited, and it was easier to find these medications in Armenia.
The reverse flows of pandemic transnationalism were also noticeable among some families who had members in the Czech Republic. Karine, an interviewee, shared that she asked her son to wash everything he buys from supermarkets with white vinegar as it acts as a disinfectant that can destroy the COVID-19 virus. As a result, in addition to all of the measures advised by the World Health Organization and the Czech government, he also followed advice provided by his mother.
The study also shows that the transfer of social remittances in times of pandemic is very much context-specific. The narratives that followed the COVID-19 outbreak and the nature of transnational connections dramatically changed once the war in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in September 2020. As one of the respondents revealed:
When I think about it the dynamics have changed a lot. During the war it seemed that COVID-19 is a minor issue. Also, my daughter was mainly speaking about the situation on the border line, as it was a more urgent topic. Our 18- to 20-year-old youth was fighting on the frontline. During that period, we were dreaming about the times when corona was our only problem. (Araks, 64-years-old woman)
The interviews indicate that family-level social remittances or what we call “pandemic transnationalism” were replaced by collective remittances sent from abroad in support of the homeland.
Mask, distance, shame, gatherings: “new normality” versus socio-cultural norms?
The general guidelines published by the World Health Organization are simple at first glance, including stipulations such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well-ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue (World Health Organization, 2020a, b). However, these simple guidelines require individuals to make sense of a new situation and to negotiate it within the cultural and social norms of their society. Transnational families were caught in the middle of experiences, knowledge, and the state policies of at least two countries. The cases in this study often revealed that health restrictions were in conflict with certain cultural norms, which made it difficult for people to renounce these customs. The distribution of gender roles between men and women and the fulfillment of certain responsibilities towards relatives and friends were in direct conflict with the “new normality” imposed by the pandemic. In this regard, we looked at some of the rituals that migrant families struggled to renounce during the pandemic.
In the context of COVID-19, elderly people were considered the most at-risk group by the World Health Organization, but some elderly individuals maintained a conservative attitude towards safety guidelines despite the risks to their health. In that regard, Sasha, whose son lives in Russia, shared his story.
My neighbor living in front of me died last month. We were very close with our families. We could even share our last meal during our hard times. My son lives in Moscow, he said that despite the virus it wasn’t appropriate to not to go to his funeral, what would the neighbors think of us? Many people from the village participated. (Sasha, 76-year-old man)
The interviewees highlighted that it is not easy to continually negotiate coping strategies within the “new normality.” Expressing condolences to the relatives of the deceased during a funeral ceremony is accompanied by a handshake, which many people are ashamed to perform with gloves, or to regularly disinfect their hands in front of everyone. Armen, a 30-year-old man from Yerevan, revealed:
My brother lives in Prague. When he found out that one of our relatives had died in Yerevan, he ordered a wreath for him, and he told me to greet people with gloves. I went, but almost no one was there with gloves on. I was ashamed to wear them, I had not seen a couple of people for a long time. Some days later, I had a fever and thought I had a cold, but it turned out that I was infected with the coronavirus. (Armen, 30-year-old man)
Among interviewees, those whose family members migrated to Russia between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s had developed dense ethnic networks, which made following pandemic guidelines more difficult. Araks, a 64-year-old woman whose daughter lives in Russia, shared the story of how her daughter was infected with coronavirus. She blamed the relatives of her daughter who invited her to a party, as the daughter felt uncomfortable refusing them:
I spoke with her the day before, and asked if she is comfortable about attending a party while the cases of coronavirus were rising in Moscow. She said that they are their relatives and she just can’t refuse. (Araks, 64-years-old woman)
Similarly, while comparing the behavior of people in Armenia and the Czech Republic, Lilit, a woman whose husband lives in the Czech Republic, found it is an “Armenian thing” to have a hard time following guideline, unless they are mandated by law:
As I understand it is not something strange for them in the Czech Republic to stay at home, avoiding any kind of guests. My daughter tells me that even in the same building mother and daughter do not visit each other. Even if two friends walk outside, they need to follow the rules of keeping the distance and wearing masks, because if you don’t keep [the distance] you will be fined around $500. The rules are there and you need to obey whether you want to or not. (Lilit, 33-year-old woman)
Another problem that arises in the cultural context is that family members and relatives are ashamed to speak out about being infected and keep it a secret as much as possible, as people change their attitude towards families with infected members by restricting contact and labeling. Silva, a 68-year-old woman, revealed:
My family and I have been living in Russia for 20 years. In January 2020 I came to Armenia to see my relatives, but I could not return because there were no flights and the borders were closed. My daughter works as a saleswoman in a shop there and she was infected [in Russia]. My husband said to not tell anyone about it and not to tell my relatives here that my daughter was infected, as they may change their attitude or feel differently towards us. (Silva, 68-year-old woman)
The study highlighted that there was a hidden masculine resistance to wearing masks, as in certain environments wearing marks was viewed as something shameful and unsuitable for a man. Masculinity and COVID-19-related health behaviors have been underlined by Capraro and Barcelo (2020), as they found men that live with more traditional masculine norms are more likely not to wear masks, as doing so is viewed as a sign of weakness. Due to these circumstances non-migrants find it difficult to follow the guidelines imposed by the state, but social remittances in the form of ideas that travel from countries with more restrictive measures have the potential of changing local dynamics.
My son has been studying marketing at one of the universities in Prague for three years... He told me that when the coronavirus spread there, everyone started wearing a mask. From the beginning, I was kind of drawn to it, but in the place where I live, it is not very common to crawl with a mask for a man or to catch a raincoat, they are perceived as a loss of manly qualities. But I got used to it a little bit, wearing a mask became normal for me. Every time he talked to me, he was insisting, explaining the benefits of avoiding the virus. But I have several conditions, so he is right, I gave up and now I wear the mask. (Alen, 58-year-old man)
The interviews show that one of the factors that make following COVID-19 guidelines difficult for transnational families is cultural and social norms that travel across borders. Social remittances can make a profound difference in adapting to a “new normality,” be it in favor of following safety guidelines or against.