One thing about the virus discourse has concerned me the most, and that is how it has built a system of antagonism against all the infrastructure which supports migration. In only a year, I have seen numerous people who identify as leftists, who had been engaged in conversations about border abolition, become supportive of all kinds of border infrastructure which, either implicitly or explicitly, goes beyond its function to contain contagion, and contains people. If you are tempted to interject, at this point, to claim that restriction of movement stops the virus, this is where I beg we interrogate our use of the term virus with a capital V, and see how the logic of contagion might be extrapolated and applied elsewhere.
I have had to travel throughout lockdowns this year. London was too expensive to live in; my father died; I couldn’t get healthcare; I want my European citizenship; I needed to be in nature; I needed to work; I needed to prioritise my mental health. I have been a medical and economic migrant, one with the privileges of my passport, nationality and savings in the bank. This is important to mention because we should all think about this barometer we use. ‘Essential need’ is a term which has wedged itself into public imagination in a way which worries me, because I see how it could be abused. Often what I considered my essential needs have not aligned with the State’s definitions. This means I have broken guidelines but no laws. When a government suggests people do not travel but does not mandate it, what happens? Apparently, a surge in internal shaming, policing, and a chaotic effort to define terms like essential, leisure, work, play, etc. When yet another lockdown was announced in the UK with little notice, people fled London. This seemed inevitable to me, but both the press and people from across the political spectrum condemned them for their lack of civic duty.
What do we know about the flow of people fleeing containment and all its social, psychological and economic ramifications? At one end of a spectrum of Essential Need is a person moving from one end of a country to another for their second home, at the other is a person risking death to cross the sea without permission and in the middle is a whole lot of grey. If we are going to draw these lines in the sand, we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing. While a discourse of containment is normalised, the usage of Ascension Island to indefinitely contain migrants is being discussed, and this is no accident. This is how crisis capitalism functions, to create infrastructures of oppression and profit on the back of fear, and have people celebrate their own loss of liberty because the alternative is unimaginable.
I’m in no position to speculate how best to contain a virus, but I have seen plenty of the infrastructure at work this year. I have seen an awful lot of money spent on bio-surveillance technology and policing, profit made on vaccines while research in the use of already-existing medicine has not been funded. Political establishments, facing mistrust and civil unrest, have moved out of their homes and into a kind of medical establishment-corporate-military complex where one particular kind of Public Health discourse has become the Big Other. We must eradicate the virus at great costs, both profit and loss.
Interrogation at borders is perfectly normal again, not a product of post-9/11 racism; just what needs to be done. What kind of travel is correct? What kind of relationships are correct? What kind of dwelling, what work, what papers, what blood? These questions are all being re-integrated into the infrastructure of movement, and this should be frightening. Only it’s not so frightening moving within the Schengen Zone, and this is where I’ve noticed some significant political intersections.
In order to travel from Greece to Portugal recently we had to transit through Italy, a distinct jurisdiction with distinct regulations. The bureaucracy is arguably deliberately complex and internally contradictory. Portugal requires no PCR test upon entry but Italy does, on paper, and carries hefty consequences if your specific situation is misunderstood by the components of the bureaucratic machine which all seem to operate independently of one another. For this reason I was anxious. I wasn’t illegal in Portugal, but I might have been in Italy.
Only nothing happened in Italy. I mean this literally: the systems of control which exist on paper do not exist in reality because the infrastructure of border control in the Schengen was dissolved decades ago. There is no border, there was no one to take all the paperwork we had painstakingly done. There was only military in snappy uniforms with expensive toys, stores selling surgical masks mass-manufactured in China for €5 a packet. In Greece this disconnect between lockdown-on-paper and lockdown-in-reality has been most clear to me, because of its poverty. I took a bus full of citizens, migrants, people using it to move house and postal workers using it to move mail, and there was no policing of our numbers, no checks at a single toll-booth. I took a train again crammed with people into a city meant to be under curfew; all I ever see is a group of police munching pies or chain smoking. Apparently their policing is reserved for making an example of migrant neighbourhoods. Taxis, however, are heavily regulated. We had to pay our driver and his friends three times the fare because they are only permitted to carry one passenger at a time, to drive them to and from airports where they sit on fully booked flights.
There are no borders in Schengen. This is signifiant when the UK government discusses how to deal with the pandemic, and is parallel to how it plans on moving on from Brexit. An MP recently claimed that the UK is more familial with Australia, New Zealand and Canada than its former EU member states because of ‘shared values and a belief in Parliamentary Democracy,’ unlike France and Germany, those one-party dictatorships… Obviously this is untrue. Obviously its political underscore is an attempt to reclaim the Commonwealth in whatever possible form, and its geopolitical underscore is clearer. When they talk about new trade deals they are also talking about migration, and when they talk about the virus, they are also talking about migration. This kind of rhetoric is a disguise of the real claim which drove Brexit in the first place and is embedded in legislative responses to the pandemic: that the more isolated the nation, the ‘safer’ it is from being impacted negatively from the outside. Whether that impact is commercial, from migration or contagion, it all becomes synonymous.