The fairly global lock-down triggered by the pandemic reshuffled the privileges, power, borders and hierarchies of (im)mobility. Human mobility, as Zygmunt Bauman has noted, “climbs to the rank of the uppermost among the coveted values – and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late-modern or postmodern times”. In other words, while mobility is an index of power, prestige, and privilege, it can simultaneously be a punishment, depending on race, gender, religion, the passport you hold and whether you are from the Global North or the Global South.
To illustrate, refugees and migrants from the global south are racialized subjects that have been traditionally excluded from the safe and expeditious venues that organize the journeys of privileged travelers (European and North American travelers). Many individuals and groups from the Global South are routinely excluded and discriminated against in the ‘global (im)mobility regime’ as they are targeted by ‘externalization strategies’, which come in several forms such as formalized migration policies, pricey and opaque visa regimes, and outsourcing migration policies to third countries. Perversely, these ad hoc procedures and measures are designed to stem the tide of migrants, including asylum seekers and restrict their freedom of movement.
As the coronavirus continues to unleash disruptions and disarray, we could be on the verge of an overturning of mobility privileges, the emergence of two sides of immobility, and the realization of what we call “immobility justice”.
The immobility paradox
In these heterotopic times, it is puzzling that immobility also emerges as a form of “privilege”. That is to say, citizens from the Global South, whose elementary freedom to move had been historically curtailed due to the imposition of visa/passport travel regulations/restrictions (Schengen zone system as an example), now enjoy a kind of safety as the immobility shields and protects them from the vastly infected Europe and the USA. Moreover, in an unprecedented way, the coronavirus prompted young Moroccans to carry out reverse migration from the supposedly ‘European Eden’ to Morocco in order to escape the epidemic that has ravaged the old continent. In other words, the “home country” has become their refuge and haven.
The entanglements of immobility are not a new phenomenon, especially in Europe. Consider the deadly waters of the Mediterranean Sea that criminalized migrants crossing in the hope of a better future, only to undergo the violence of what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbemebe labels as the ‘necropolitical’ EU border control apparatus. ‘Necropolitics’ implies a political violence being administered to a particular group by depriving it of the opportunity or freedom to improve its hazardous or miserable condition. Besides all that, at the present time, there is a high risk of contracting Covid-19 if one makes it across to Europe.
Conversely, the relatively privileged native-born citizens of the Global North, whose passports permitted them to roam the world with almost no restrictions, are confined within their closed geographical borders. Numerous African countries shut their doors to Europe and America in order to combat coronavirus, other countries plan to close borders to European tourists until the end of the epidemic.
As Borriello and Salihoglu have noted, the ‘Western’ border-maker and the ‘Eastern/Southern’ migrant have swapped roles, at least momentarily. From being highly privileged and mobile travelers, citizens of the Global North have become paradoxically the ‘undesirables in the time of Corona’; the ones who hold liability for being massive carriers of the virus. Therefore, what Covid-19 has laid bare is that people from the Global North are feeling fairly the very same entanglement that was imposed on citizens from the Global South. Those who once described migrants trying to reach Britain as a ‘swarm’ or those who planned to Isolate unwanted migrants on a small Island, are may be drinking from the same pot of bitterness.
Interestingly, this could be viewed as a form of ‘immobility justice’. Immobility Justice is a new way to understand the deep flows of inequality and uneven accessibility in a world in which the mobility commons have been enclosed. It is a call for a new understanding of the politics of movement and a demand for justice for all.
The “revenge” of the South
The coronavirus pandemic has additionally collided with a reversal in travel privileges. For some people, a passport is a portal to the world. For others, it is a barrier to the travel freedom they seek. The fact remains that today, depending on the type of passport you have on you, you can have access to between 28 and 173 countries, which draws a world of variable geometry: some can, without a visa, have access to 4.3 billion people and discover 73 million square kilometers, while the rest are restricted to 230 million people on only 5 million square kilometers. But here is the flipside now: privileged travelers from the Global North —with easy access to global mobility—are the ones mostly affected by the coronavirus. For example, if we compare France or Italy with Tunisia using the Google CoronaVirus Counter, the results are astonishing. France whose passport is ranked 6th in the world has 29,155 deaths while Italy whose passport is ranked 4th has 33,899. Tunisia, the southern Mediterranean neighbor with close historical ties and whose passport is ranked 74th has only 49 deaths.
These statistics reinforce the idea that travel privileges have turned into a curse. In other words, states that are eminently benefitting from the global mobility regime are the ones who are highly infected. Angèle Mendy, a sociologist specializing in African health systems with the University of Lausanne, argues that Africa’s relatively weak exposure and integration into the global networks of mobility has delayed the arrival of the pandemic. It goes without saying that despite the increase in the cases on the continent, many African countries are not seeing the exponential daily growth in confirmed cases, nor in mortality, that has been happening in the United States and Western Europe.
According to Jina Moors, African countries where the response to the virus has been better, faster, and smarter, have the potential to stay ahead of it. Rufaro Samanga, a South African commentator at the news platform OkayAfrica, claims that we are seeing a reversal of role; that is to say, we have Africa at the forefront and the West flailing, unable to self-contain the outbreak. Moreover, we have seen, for example, the emergence of a great popular solidarity network in Tunisia, a kind of popular bio-politics premised upon different forms of traditional and modern self-organization/mobilization such as “the people’s initiative to fight against the epidemic of Corona” inspired by popular solidarity networks that emerged in 2011 to protect the goals of the revolution, shortly after the toppling of President Ben Ali.
In many people’s imaginations, closing borders means repelling migrants. But Covid-19 has ridiculed this assumption: the virus spreads from one country to another via travelers of all kinds, without inquiring whether they are migrants, expats or tourists. At the onset of the pandemic, European citizens were stigmatized as soon as they arrived at airports in North African countries because they were considered potentially carriers of Covid-19. This reminds us of the debates on migrants from the global south who were considered potentially ‘clandestine’ or on Muslim travelers potentially considered ‘terrorists’.
French Geographer Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary argues that if the coronavirus is with us, as on the rest of the planet, it is because the borders could not stop it. The novelty of this combat against Covid-19 can be accounted for on three levels. First, it is crystal clear that immobility has become synonymous with collective prevention. As borders have been shut, mobility limited, physical distancing imposed, being locked up in one’s home is key to saving each other’s lives.
Second, we are experiencing a sudden, seismic acceleration of multiple borders. That is to say, boundaries manifest themselves not only along national borders, but between states and provinces, around cities, care homes, hospitals, apartments, and bodies. Borders are not vanishing but rather metamorphosing. More precisely, barriers can be erected and re-erected in innumerable spaces, with substantial ramifications on the most vulnerable. Needless to say, the pandemic made it crystal clear that, as we live in a deeply connected world, halting the spread of the virus means preventing the emergence of new infected spaces beyond one’s borders.
Third, Covid 19 has shattered all the dividing lines of East and West, South and North, citizen and migrant, powerful and powerless. Donald Trump is as much worried about catching the virus as a doctor or a cashier. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has recently described Covid-19 as “a very humane virus” — one that is less discriminatory than the capitalist system and its exploitative tools.
In the meantime, over 800 undocumented Tunisian migrants, including women and children, have been held for more than five months now in “poor conditions” at the Detention Centre for Immigrants in Melilla, Spain. These people continue their struggle to free themselves from the borders and from the permanent immobility which was imposed on them for a long time. The virus didn’t change anything in their lives because they are under the thumb of a tripled confinement.
In sum, if the borders established and fortified by the combat against the Covid-19 are sharp lines of separation, would they also have the potential to metamorphose or mutate — to borrow from the semantic field of virology — into spaces of cooperation and mutual aid?
 G. Borriello, A. Salihoglu, Borders in the Time of Coronavirus: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Upended the Global Mobility Paradigm, COMPAS – University of Oxford: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2020/borders-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-how-the-covid-19-pandemic-upended-the-global-mobility-paradigm/
Houssem Ben Lazreg is a PhD candidate in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, blogger, and freelance translator/interpreter. He is also an instructor of Arabic and French in Canada.
Wael Garnaoui is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Paris Diderot University and a clinical psychologist.
Cover Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP
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