Back from the borderlands: taming and framing COVID-19

Since Covid-19 has begun to spread across the globe, cries for re-establishing, re-enforcing, generally making less permeable, or even shutting down borders have rung louder than ever in recent years. However, this raises the question as to whether Covid-19 can be effectively combatted and curbed by these extraordinary securitization measures along national borders in the times of globalization and its eclectic flows of human interactions and migration.

Scratching the surface for a tentative answer, quarantining certain areas has indeed proved to be effective in restraining the virus from spreading across certain communal, provincial, national, and regional borders. Take the example of the quarantined Chinese province of Wuhan, which seems to have stemmed the tide in one of the heaviest hit regions in the world. Indeed, as from mid-March, life seems to be returning to normal as shops, schools, and other public institutions re-open while the workings of daily life are once again taken in stride.

Symptoms of the borders as antidotes for the state

Despite this initial success, it does not follow that national borders truly are the solution, part and parcel, for combatting Covid-19. In all probability, murky waters will crystallize with the benefit of hindsight as further qualitative and quantitative data is collected and presented. Therefore, I believe it’s too early to dwell on the exact implications of national border securitization as it stands. However, I also believe that it’s important to understand how the discussion of national border securitization frames the idea of the state in relation to its citizenry, by differentiating and (dis)qualifying the citizen from the non-citizen or denizen. What I mean specifically is that the question at hand shouldn’t solely revolve around whether or not national borders are effective in their materiality to protect the citizenry from contagion, but rather that the threat of Covid-19 to this materiality has led to a distinctive and unprecedented comeback in the theoretical and figurative capacity of borders to frame and embody the power of the state. Again, this re-emergence of stately power further draws the line between (non-)citizen, and denizen.

It’s not a border if it’s open, dummie!

In the immediate aftermath of the WHO declaring Covid-19 a pandemic, it was not and still is not uncommon to hear a familiar line of argumentation, which at once carries with it a sense of grief, a pang of anger, and a hope for betterment:

“Why haven’t they shut down the borders!?!”

By ‘they’, of course, national authorities are implied, and it is in this evocation of the state as the guardian of the citizenry, in which the discussion of Covid-19 ultimately proves problematic. In order to protect the body politic, the borders themselves become seen as the infected organ marked for incision through the state’s scalpel. After all, in terms of its effectiveness, the discourse centring on border securitization to curb the spread of Covid-19 is not necessarily wrong. It might indeed impede the rapid spread of the virus, and therefore the means possibly do justify the ends. But the question then arises whether this incision at the borders is the most effective method to combat the spread of the disease? Or if there are any other courses of action that could be just as or even more effective?

From the angle of global problems requiring global solutions, over-reliance on the national state as the sole protector of the citizenry arguably diverts attention and the resources that flow with it from the actual concern at hand, namely, how to engage with global problems through transnational cooperation that benefits people, that is, all people, and not capital? Imagine de-regulating the healthcare sector while slapping fat prices onto its services in the name of efficiency in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Where has the trust in the universally prescribed forms of development gone, which in their first instance were supposed to secure borders and thus the prosperity of Global Northern states? In terms of global crises, it appears that the chickens are coming home to roost.

The Covid-19 effect

And in this ultimately lies the great conundrum of Covid-19’s impact on modern thinking. If national borders do work, then only because they are valued over the global perspective as the model to fall back on during a crisis. Even more so, as the global system of deregulated and precarious standards set by development practices, well, they don’t seem enticing enough to be co-opted when the fat hits the fire. The theoretical implications are immense. What does it mean and what does it take to think outside a privileged national polity, and what does that mean for non-citizens in general (especially as  they potentially already live outside the realm of regulatory dignity) and denizens in particular, who are fed into the machinery of labour and transnational value creation but are yet denied to draw from its surplus, one instance amongst many being dignified health care?

In sum, the impact of Covid-19 will of course be remembered in the overall symptoms it measures, the deaths it sentences, the financial disintegration it exacerbates, the medical innovation it anticipates, or any other effects it entails and produces for that matter. In effect, it will be remembered in how it was tamed. However, for better or for worse, the true legacy of the contagion will find its expression in how it will come to frame the relationship between the state and its (non-)citizenry. That is, in the ways emergencies accentuate, infuse, engender, or mitigate cries for sustainable development worthy of the name with future discussions of belonging to a state, in and for which borders matter more than ever as a first and, perniciously, last line of defence.  

by Louis Louw

Photo Credits

Corona World, MiroslavaChrienova

Passport, OpenClipart-Vectors