This piece, by Georgie Wemyss and Nira Yuval-Davis, is the first post in a new series on the SSAHE blog looking at the COVID19 virus and its impact on racialised and migrant communities in the UK and globally.
In our recent book Bordering (Yuval-Davis, Wemyss & Cassidy, 2019), we discuss the paradoxical phenomenon that, under neoliberal globalisation, borders did not disappear but rather proliferated off-and in-shore, from consulates across the globe to everyday spaces like railways and places of work. We described the functioning of bordering as processes rather than static boundary lines that, like computer firewalls, are invisible to some, impermeable to many others. We showed the ways these have crucially contributed to multi-scalar – from the global to the local – inequalities and precarities, forcing more and more people to be precariously stuck in limbo grey borderzones with no possibility of building regular lives with civil, political and social rights.
It is important to examine the ways the pandemic has affected these processes of everyday bordering, both locally and globally. Of course, it is far too early to know, or even predict, the longer-term transformations in bordering that the pandemic will bring. However, it is safe to say that, as after earlier major crises, such as 9/11 and the AIDS crises – to mention just two major transformatory crises in recent decades – the ‘new normal’ is not going to go back to how things were, in several major ways. Everyday bordering, from the lockdown of individuals in their homes to the lockdown of regional and national borders, is at the heart of the technologies of control used to try to contain the pandemic and it is thus hard to believe that free movement would be restored any time soon.
Except that, as we’ve shown in our book, free movement has never been free for most people. Border controls have been operating like computers’ firewalls, invisible to some, blocking many others, with money and required skills for the neoliberal economy being the main facilitators. We can see these firewalls continuing to operate today as well – at different ends of the scale, the super-rich flying in private jets able to travel without being subject to the usual restrictions and seasonal workers from Eastern Europe being flown into the UK by the farming industry to ensure that fruit is being picked. Two weeks into the lockdown, the Home Office published its guidance for post-Brexit immigration rules aimed at preventing low paid workers – the key workers on which healthcare services are depending – from working in the UK.
These are just some of the paradoxes of ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ policies. On the one hand, a neo-liberal governmentality that puts the onus of responsibility on the individuals, where people are required to isolate themselves at home and keep away from others, while others are forced to carry on working – not only because they fulfil essential medical, social and economic roles, but also because many of them would not get any money to live on if they stop working.
This is just one of the intersectional growing inequalities impacts of everyday bordering. Given their disproportionate presence in frontline health and public services, the percentage of BAME people who have died under the pandemic is still unknown but feared to be to very high. Of course, this is not just due to the kind of jobs they do, but also their poor and crowded living conditions, as well as a distrust of governmental and scientific authorities which have not helped them in the past.
In addition to unequal class and racialised effects, the lockdown bordering has also had a major gendered effect, such as a sharp rise in domestic violence, as can be expected when nuclear family members are locked down together.
In our book we discussed the ways everyday bordering as a top down technology of control has been reinforced by and reinforces the growth of bottom up nativist extreme right movements, which have brought to power authoritarian rulers in many countries in the globe and arguably Brexit in the UK. Blaming and scapegoating the ‘Others’ have been a major multi-scalar reaction to the pandemic, from Trump calling the corona virus ‘the Chinese virus’, to social media blaming George Soros in the traditional antisemitic blood conspiracy theories, to street hate crimes, including health workers reporting abuse from strangers for leaving their homes.
One of the positive ‘side effects’ of the lockdown has been the development and reinforcement of mutual aid groups in local communities. Neighbours have got to know each other, help elderly and vulnerable people with their shopping etc. However, the other side of the strengthening of local bonds has been the rejection of ‘others’. Local media report people crossing county borders’ violating lockdowns – Kent Online reported ‘Lockdown louts from London have been fined after once again invading the county’ and being found by ‘enforcement officers from the council who were patrolling the area’. This is aided by regional bordering policies, which in some countries, such as Italy, has meant the official closure of regional borders for non-essential traffic, while in the UK, Sussex police, for example, praised ‘the amazing community spirit across Sussex’, whilst noting that ‘Unfortunately, a small number of people from outside of the county deemed it appropriate to visit the area’.
The aim of this blog post is not to oppose bordering policies in the age of the pandemic, but rather to argue that using it as almost the only counter-pandemic measure is dangerous, both at present and for the future.
At present, we have seen that when voluntary lockdown policies are used, without mass testing and sufficient protective equipment for those who are not in isolation, they cost many lives as well as create psychological, social and economic hardships. In comparison, other states, including Germany and South Korea, have used mass testing and contact tracing to slow down the rate of infection.
Moreover, these borderings, like the borderings we described in our book, are an intersection of political projects of governance and of belonging. Very few states, including Ireland and Portugal, have recognised all migrants to be full entitled members of society during the pandemic; only a few states have recognized the right of all members of societies for minimum income during the pandemic, and policies aimed at exclusion and deprivation of all those in national and global grey limbo zones endanger the lives of millions across the globe.
Everyday bordering policies are evolving in which the surveillance of people is reaching sci-fi dimensions. Similar COVID-19 related technologies are being developed globally by authoritarian and liberal governments. While Israel has authorised counter-terrorism surveillance to track corona virus patients, compulsory colour-coded health apps determine whether individuals can travel in China, while Russia uses face recognition technologies to enforce self-isolation. In Hong Kong and Singapore, COVID 19 apps identify locations and contacts of individuals. European governments are copying these apps whilst also collecting telecom data and using drones to spot transgressors.
Such developments combine with rumours and debates about national and global digital monitoring of vaccinations, adding force to Yuval Noah Harari’s speculations that the epidemic may normalise biometric surveillance with authorities becoming able to detect people’s emotions as well as their lifestyles and whereabouts. This would be the utmost paradox: a borderless world with the most tightly operated everyday bordering technology.