Where Borders Have Always Been Prisons
Giovanna Pavesi 9 June 2020

Pandemics come suddenly and intervene in everyone’s everyday life, aggravating poverty, inequalities and crisis. They don’t stop wars or conflicts, but typically worsen already difficult situations. The more fragile governance is, the more complicated it becomes to manage public health problems. The less democratic space there is, the easier it is to control people, skirt the rules and leave the weakest behind. And when the ruling power imposes border shutdowns, that always begin as “temporary”, poverty and lack of opportunities become the norm. That is what happens daily across many regions of the world, and the crisis provoked by Covid-19 has only reminded us all how dire such reality is, for both bodies and minds. Take Gaza, Pyongyang or Kashmir, three places where the lockdown is not bound to end with the epidemic.

 

Open-air prison

One of the most densely populated areas in the world, the Gaza Strip is a coastal region that borders Israel and Egypt and an exclave of Palestinian territory. It has always been a disputed patch of land and always has represented much more than just a “land”. 1,760,037 inhabitants live there today, most of them Palestinian refugees, in what is considered to be one of the largest open-air prisons – being there virtually no way for its people to cross any of its borders. Claimed by the Palestinians in 1994, with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as part of the State of Palestine, only after the withdrawal of Israeli military and civilians, in 2005, Gaza came under control of the Palestinian National Authority, formally at least.

On August 14th 2005, the Israeli government ordered the evacuation of Gaza and the dismantlement of colonies built over the years. Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza, a political move made by Ariel Sharon and never fully understood by his electorate, aimed to ensure that the Strip would be “disconnected” from the Jewish State. But the control of the people, vehicles, utilities and movements within and outside its borders has remained in Israel’s hands. International human rights organizations, many governments and some jurists consider Gaza a territory still occupied by Israel, which has control over its borders and maintains a blockade. Since 2012, the United Nations has formally recognized the Strip as part of the State of Palestine, a semi-autonomous entity.

Well before Covid-19, isolation was a daily condition for the nearly two million inhabitants of this corner of the world. At the beginning of March, when the epidemic turned into pandemic, the Israeli embargo imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 (when Hamas took power) has, somehow, “protected” the area from the new disease. But, at the same time, it has weakened and isolated the area further. Only few people have been allowed by Israeli authorities to enter or leave the area, as it has been for years: some workers, occasional travelers or religious figures returning from international meetings (the same people, by the way, who could have brought the virus to the small area). The blockade that existed in Gaza for years has meant that contacts with the rest of the world were very limited, and the boundary concept has taken on a much broader and concrete meaning here.

Israel, in fact, checks airspace and marine space, six out of seven land border crossings, the movement of merchandise and people both outside and inside the area. Since the new virus spread worldwide, both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities have decided to block all crossing between Gaza and the Israel. And if before it was hard to move once there, now it’s next to impossible.

In March, Hamas closed open markets, cafés and mosques, that constitute the area’s primary meeting places, it has suspended school services and ordered the cleaning of the main roads. An unavoidable lockdown for a land largely unprepared for a serious health emergency. The Strip lacks medicines, appropriate medical assistance and latest generation health devices, essential in such crises, and the few machines available are unusable. Kits for pharyngeal swabs to verify the contagion aren’t enough either, although a few hundred were sent by the Israeli authorities and around a thousand by the World Health Organization. And since leaving the Strip has always been difficult, doctors who have been able to follow refresher courses and qualify for emergency situations like the present one are still very few.

Non-governmental organizations are helping, but they operate in difficult situations. Hospitals, in Gaza, have only 60 pulmonary ventilators and 70 ICU beds for almost two million people, according to Foreign Policy and WHO estimates.

In a place where potable water is not easily accessible and where more than half of the inhabitants live below the poverty line (though precise numbers are still missing), cigarette consumption is much more widespread than elsewhere and there is a high rate of obesity, that can cause complications if Covid-19 is contracted. Not to mention the many forms of mental and physical distress caused by years of violence and poverty.

 

Eastern nightmare

North Korea is one of the most inaccessible places in the world. Its spaces are simply impenetrable: to those wishing to enter, and most importantly to those who would dream escaping. It borders China to the north and Russia for a short distance, while the demilitarized zona, at the height of the 38th parallel, separates it from South Korea. According to its constitution, North Korea is a socialist country with a planned economic system, but behind this denomination it hides a totalitarian regime in from which it is very difficult to extricate oneself.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world: it has 24 million inhabitants and 40% of them suffer from problems related to malnutrition. The living conditions of its population, for years, have been strongly marked by economic problems, made up of sanctions and international ban, deriving particularly from the isolated condition in which its people have always lived. Here Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch register one of the lowest indices in the world when it comes to respect for human rights and its media is among the most controlled in the world. On May 3rd, 2011 Amnesty International published high-definition satellite images of the prison camps in North Korea. Prisoners range from common criminals to political opponents as well as anyone who tries to leave the country to relocate. Inside these prisons, according to what is reported by some survivors, torture, slavery, executions and serious cases of malnutrition are the norm.

When the novel coronavirus hit the planet, North Korea had to deal with both the containment of infections as well as the dissemination of information, so that nothing would mar Kim Jong-un’s unblemished image as well as that of his government. The national health system is free and should provide health coverage for all resident citizens. But in the world’s eyes, North Korean healthcare is obsolete and in a country that shares almost 1,500 kilometers of border with China, it is possible that not only infections are present, but that the numbers of infected are high.

So far, Pyongyang confirms that it has not had even one confirmed case on its territory. An estimate that seems unlikely to experts: although the country’s isolation may have prevented the movement of infected people, Covid-19 may still have reached DPRK through China, the only State with which Pyongyang has commercial relations.

Although it is difficult to secure reliable information from the most isolated country in the world, it seems that the regime wanted to give precise health provisions to protect the population, even if the effectiveness and distribution of disinfectants and personal protective equipment is not known. And although the lockdown seems a perennial condition in the country, at least since the 50s, since last January the borders were officially closed and in February Pyongyang suspended flights and trains to and from China, imposing 40 days of quarantine (more than twice as much as the rest of the world) on anyone who comes from abroad or has had contact with those who have travelled. According to information provided by DPRK authorities, 10,000 people are in solitary confinement in the country. However, the numbers are not certain, as even the WHO has no possibility of verifying the reliability of news arriving from Pyongyang.

If Covid-19 were to spread with the lethality and speed with which it has spread to other countries in the world, the consequences for the DPRK could be dramatic as an uncontrolled infection there would almost certainly turn into a real humanitarian disaster. In a place where restrictions and arbitrary decisions are the norm, few doubt the arrival of a new and dangerous virus would cause social panic and inequality in the treatment of the disease. And one should add to this the possibility that Pyongyang decides not to ask for aid abroad, with the aim of “protecting its interests” and avoiding any form of international scrutiny.

 

Forgotten cage

Kashmir is the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent and is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. They both claim sovereignty, while China claims only the area it currently controls (Aksai Chin and Shaksgam). Since Partition in 1947, this area is a matter of dispute. Contracting Covid-19, in Kashmir, at the moment, could jeopardize one’s survival, given that the Indian authorities are accused of using the new pandemic to stifle dissent and human rights in the region to consolidate their occupation.

Omer Aijazi of Toronto University has worked as a researcher for the last 6 years in the Line of Control (LOC), the military line dividing the area organized by India and Pakistan. He claims that control by the Indian government in the area is now widespread, with an uncontrolled increase in police powers and even more stringent curfews due to the spread of the new coronavirus (which has counted more than a thousand confirmed infections, so far). But the lockdown here started almost a year ago, when India revoked the constitutional provisions that granted a certain degree of autonomy to the part of Kashmir under its control. The move was swiftly followed, in August 2019, by the imposition of a strict curfew, a complete telecommunication lockdown and the implementation of the controversial Public Safety Act, which allows people to be detained for two years without charge or trial. The LOC, so militarized as to be visible from space, has now become a cage for Kashmir, which exposes its people to both the contagion and the violence of the ongoing conflict. Indian and Pakistani militaries have been determining the life of the population of that area for the last 70 years. During the firefights, families are forced to take refuge in bunkers made available by the communities, which makes any good practice of social distancing impossible. Anyone who tries to escape during the bombing, then, can be arrested by authorities with the excuse of breaking the confinement imposed to combat Covid-19.

Many people describe the LOC as the Berlin Wall of Asia, and though it is not a legally recognized international border, it has in fact divided Kashmir’s population. As it is impossible to count the number of civilians who have lost their lives on the different sides of the LOC, given the lack of transparency of the governments, today it becomes even more complex to manage the count of those infected from a global pandemic. It is nevertheless estimated that in the Indian-controlled Kashmir there is only one ventilator for every 71,000 people and one doctor for every 3,900 citizens. The health facilities along the LOC are not adequate either, due to the abandonment of the region by India and Pakistan, and the Internet has now been suspended for months. At a time when information could be a salvation for citizens providing news on the virus, the contagion, and necessary precautions, it is barely accessible.

 

Photo: SAID KHATIB / AFP


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