Speaking for Ourselves

The war against Covid-19: Dangerous times, yet ripe with potential

The war against Covid-19: Dangerous times, yet ripe with potential

Liam Barrowcliffe

 Migrant Voice - The war against Covid-19: Dangerous times, yet ripe with potential

The eerie sight of deserted London landmarks and underground stations is a powerful reminder of the extraordinary times we are living through. Not since the Second World War have such severe restrictions on daily life been imposed on the British public. Despite some initial reservations, the wartime analogy is now one that has been embraced by many leaders. In the US, President Donald Trump has happily cast himself as a ‘wartime leader’, whilst UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s televised addresses to the nation have taken on an almost Churchillian tone. Both are no doubt motivated in part by the political gains that are seen to come with victory in wars. 

As has already been noted by some however, wars inevitably come with serious human rights risks. Whilst no one would disagree with the idea that exceptional times require exceptional measures, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has highlighted how governments can exploit crises to induce semi-permanent ‘states of exception’. Most importantly, and worryingly, is his idea that these states of exception lead to powers designed to deprive individuals of citizenship, radically erasing ‘any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being’. The US response to 9/11 and its detention of individuals without trial or regard for the Geneva Convention is one chilling example to which Agamben refers. 

The Sangatte refugee camp in northern France has also been referred to as a place in which this ‘state of exception’ operated. Indeed, we should be under no illusion that the adoption of warfare rhetoric by governments has the potential to be particularly harmful for those on the move. The fact that the ‘enemy’ relates to public health only adds fuel to the fire. Toxic narratives about outsiders being dirty, that have existed for centuries, now sit ripe for exploitation by our new wartime leaders. Any attempt to capitalise on this crisis by conflating disease and those fleeing persecution should surely set alarm bells ringing. 

In Hungary, we have already seen foreigners being blamed for bringing the disease to the country, with Prime Minister Orban declaring:
"We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement."

Former Italian interior minister Mateo Salvini claimed that ‘allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible." At the time, the only African country to have been touched by the virus was Egypt, with one confirmed case. 

As well as a cynical exploitation of the crisis, such comments reveal a sinister logic at play. When the Daily Telegraph claims to be concerned by the lack of testing or quarantine arrangements in place for those arriving in the UK, we can be sure that it is not referring to the white people arriving at the border by plane, but the tiny minority of people arriving by boat or lorry. Certain types of people are clearly seen as ‘dirtier’, more threatening and inherently inferior. 

If this mindset becomes widespread, then the risks to refugees in particular are stark. Immobilisation in unsanitary conditions near borders, the complete rejection of international asylum obligations by nation states and heavy-handed detention under new emergency powers could all become a reality of this crisis. 

Sadly, there is some evidence of this already. Cyprus, the top recipient of first-time asylum-seekers in the EU (per capita), closed its borders on 15 March, so that Syrian refugees trying to reach safety by sea have been turned back. Simply screening or quarantine arrangements could have allowed for both virus containment and adherence to international law - but it seems no such arrangements were made. 

Beyond the frontiers of Fortress Europe, reports of a contempt for international convention have also emerged. Authorities in Ethiopia, a country previously seen as receptive to those seeking sanctuary, are looking to impose ‘Exclusion Criteria’. According to the NGO association Eritrea Focus, officials processing asylum claims have adopted criteria so severe that they equate to a rejection of all Eritrean asylum claims. 

Nonetheless, we must be clear that ‘the end of the story hasn’t been written yet’. And while Agamben may show us the ways in which crisis can be exploited by governments, the writer and activist Naomi Klein highlights their potential to catalyse ‘great leaps forward’. Klein cites the example of 1930s America, where the economic crisis of the Great Depression led to the New Deal and great progress in social security programs for ordinary people.

Policies that only a few weeks ago would have been dismissed by many as impossible have already become reality with startling speed. The most striking example of this so far has come from Portugal, where all those who currently have pending asylum applications have temporarily been granted full citizenship rights. Even the UK Home Office, an institution not exactly known for its open-minded approach towards immigration policy, has moved to enact several bold measures - including visa extensions for all NHS workers at no extra cost, and the release of several hundred people from immigration detention.  

Perhaps then, this state of flux and the suspension of ‘business-as-normal’ can act as a much needed shock to the system. Faced with such a global crisis, a renewed focus on international solidarity and cooperation has never seemed more vital, and the violent enforcement of borders never more futile and damaging. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

TOP IMAGE: Where's Gerry?, John Vincent, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). This image was taken in 2016, prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, but echoes many similar images taken more recently.

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