by Robin Celikates

A pandemic is never just a pandemic. Over the past few weeks, it has become evident how the spread and impact of the novel Coronavirus is profoundly shaped by social and political practices – such as tourism and travel – institutions – such as governments and their advisors – and structures – such as inequalities along the lines of class, race and gender. All of these are part of systems that are historically variable and subject to human agency. The international border regime is one such system. While it is an obvious truth that the virus’s spread does not respect any borders, governments across the world have resorted to closing their borders, more or less explicitly likening the threat of the virus to the “threat” of “uncontrolled” migration. […]

Three lessons in particular (distilled from the work of Etienne Balibar, Sandro Mezzadra, Nicholas de Genova and others) stand out:

1) Borders do not simply have a derived or secondary status – as if they were just drawing the line between preexisting entities and categories of people – but are essentially productive, generative, and constitutive, e.g., of the differences between citizens and migrants, and between different categories of migrants (refugees, economic migrants, expats, etc.) and their corresponding forms of mobility and immobility.

2) Borders are no longer exclusively or primarily “at the border,” at the “limits” of the state’s territory, but have proliferated in the interior as well as the exterior of the political community and been diffused into “borderscapes” in which particular categories of people, such as irregularized migrants, never really cross the border or manage to leave it behind.

3) Borders do not simply enable the exclusion of non-citizens and migrants and the inclusion of citizens and guests. Instead their porosity and imperfection is part of their functionality and design, enabling a form of differential inclusion and selection that does not just block irregular migration but filters it, including in ways that are in keeping with the demands of contemporary labor markets (especially in areas deemed essential in times of crisis such as care and agriculture).

One implication of these lessons is that a border is never just a border – a gate to be opened or closed at will, although such gates do of course exist and can remain closed with fatal consequences. This becomes especially apparent in times of a pandemic in which governments race to close their borders as if this would stop a virus that has already exposed this way of thinking about borders as naïve and fetishistic. The reality of the border regime, and the way in which it contributes to making the pandemic into a catastrophe for the most vulnerable on our planet, confront us with what in the end amounts to a simple choice: we can either affirm this regime and continue to naturalize it, thus sliding down the slippery slope toward a struggle of all against all, or we can contribute to the manifold struggles by refugees and migrants alike to denaturalize and politicize the border regime, to expose its violence, and to make it less catastrophic.

Critical Times Journal | 09.04.2020

Borders in Times of Pandemic