COVID-19, Migrants, Crisis

SOAS on strike #UCUSoas – List of teach outs here

My teach out for the 2nd of March at SOAS will be informed by this rumination. Please join us on the picket line.

As I prepared this teach out, I couldn’t get but distracted by the unfolding of the COVID-19 “crisis” in Italy, which kept turning my mind back to 2017, when I started my research on Asylum Seekers in Macerata, where I’ve been spending my last 4 summers. There seem to be many striking parallels between the two ‘crises’, which I want to explore. 

Before I get shut down by one of you for associating viruses and migrants, and before someone makes the point that this infection is serious, I want to make clear that I am not really speaking about the arrival of migrants in Europe since 2011 or about the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic, but rather about the way in which those crisis are talked about and the way in which they are managed. Janet Roitman, in her book Anti-crisis makes this point particularly well. Regardless of how accurately the term crisis captures an ongoing break with what is considered normal, “crisis functions as a narrative device. That is, the “invocation of crisis enables particular narratives, it raises certain questions while foreclosing others”. It defines the limits of what is formally im-possible.

So what did the narrative suspension of normality engender a few years back and what does it engender today? I want to explore three striking similarities.

Fake News

The starting point for these reflections is that, much like in 2017, the epidemic has been accompanied by fake news, conspiracies and misinformation. Today, we hear that the Coronavirus was produced in a lab in China or that it is a Bill Gates’ plot. Back then, the Great Replacement theory was re-invigorated under the belief that the arrival of over 5 million first time asylum seekers in Europe was part of a strategy aimed at progressively replacing the European population with non-European (read white) people, or terms, that it is really about George Soros trying to flood Europe with migrants. Today, we hear that Covid-19 can spread through domestic animals or that you can get infected by receiving mail from China. Back then, that migrants had record cases of scabies and TBC, and that they all got 35 euros a day in their pocket.

Beyond the fake news, what is really striking is the level of misinformation and contradictory information available. This is not just about social media pages, but more generally about public information.How do you get the virus? Can you get reinfected? Do masks work? Or, alternatively: how many migrants arrived? Are migrants good for the economy? Are they all terrorists are they all refugees? 

These are all legitimate questions, but a lot of the answers provided are often not based on evidence. This is not a matter of different opinions on the same evidence. It is about the proliferation of opinions not supported by evidence, which are treated as formally equivalent by public broadcasters. And this produces two consequences.

At an institutional level, It points to a failure of the public information about the crisis, as brilliantly put by Pietro Saitta. The principles of non-contradiction in the information about risk, the proliferation of experts with contradictory views and the creation of alarmist and reassuring factions like in a football match, the equivalence afforded to scientific and non-evidence based opinions and perspectives, but also the contradictory opinions and actions of international organisation, national and local governments, schools hospitals and churches, he says, create a sense of confusion, of malaise, which (for good or bad) feeds into and is fed by the crisis of authoritativeness of our governance institutions.

This is compounded by the contradictory responses engendered by both crises at different levels of government, stem from the overlap between authorities with responsibility over the management of the emergency itself. Take the example of the Marche region who decided to close its schools, a move that was fiercely contested by the central government. Or take the selective control in italian airports for flights arriving from the North. 

At an individual level confusion leads to contradictory behaviour. The rush for food in supermarkets or for protective masks in pharmacies, actually increases the risk of getting infected. If you cue half an hour in a pharmacy next to twenty other people you are more rather than less likely to get infected. 

It also leads to paradoxical behaviour: the public demands public health intervention and security from those same public bodies that have failed them to provide reliable information in the first place.

It finally leads to an increased sense of confusion and fear, fear of the other, mostly of the racialised other, but increasingly anyone beyond the immediate circle of trust. It leads to atomisation

Crisis, institutional transformations

The second parallel relates to the way in which responses to the crises have been framed, from their inception. 

A crisis demands emergency responses, or so it is believed. And this was certainly the case, to the point that narratives about the state of exception, somewhat relegated to the analytical dodlrums in the last few years, are mobilised again.

The first immediate institutional reaction to the crisis was about containment. Entire towns have been cordoned off in Lombardy. Checkpoints have been set up to interrupt, or to attempt doing so, the flow of people going in and out of quarantine zones. Austria stopped a train at the Brenner border with Italy , in ways reminiscent to the ways in which they reinstated border controls in 2017, and in France Marine Le Pen, in spite of her friendship with Salvini, is calling for similar measures. Poland, Romania, the UK all have measures that impose a degree of control on the movement of people coming from affected areas.

Walls, frontiers, exclusion were the first institutional response in times of emergency, it seems. A logic of encampment whereby it is unclear who is to be protected -those inside or those outside it, as Michel Agier argues in his Managing the Undesirables. (A recent BBC Newsnight commentator suggested that in the UK vulnerable people might be confined for their protection)

But there is more. 

The Decree concerned with hygiene and public security approved by the government  to deal with the spread of the Coronavirus effectively militarises these zones of containment. So in any municipality in which at least one person tested positive to Covid and where the source of contagion is not known, the following is envisaged

  1. A prohibition against leaving the affected municipality or area for all people in that municipality or area.
  2. A prohibition against entering the affected municipality or area
  3. The suspension of all events or initiatives (regardless of whether they are related to culture, sport, religion, or entertainment), and a suspension of meetings in any private or public space, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public.
  4. The suspension of educational services in kindergartens and schools at every level, including higher education and excluding only distance learning.
  5. The closure of museums and other cultural institutions as listed in article 101 of the Statute on cultural heritage and landscape, and in executive decree number 42 from 01/22/2004. All regulations on free access to those institutions are also suspended.
  6. The suspension of all kinds of educational travel, in Italy and abroad.
  7. The suspension of all publicly held exams and all activities of public offices, except essential services or public utility services.
  8. The enforcement of quarantine and active surveillance on individuals who had close contact with confirmed cases of infection.
    It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year.

So, containment, militarisation and protection seem to go hand in hand, as suggested by  Roberto Esposito in a prescient 2002 book Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita. There seem to be a parallel, in other words, between the fight against epidemics, the reinforcement of borders and the war against terrorism, as they are all animated by a logic of protecting lives which, through the practices that sustain it, seem to negate life itself.

Two more points about about the management of the emergency 

These emergency responses entrench the principle of rule by Decree. The designation of irregular migration as an emergency, mobilises external threats to foster governance changes. Law 225/1992, which grants the government extraordinary powers whenever this is required by the intensity or extension of natural calamities, catastrophes or other events, informs in all migration-related executive decisions and Decrees since 2002. This constitutes what some have called the institutionalisation of a “structural emergency”, a practice that configures the management of asylum seekers, or of public health concerns, in problematic ways as it eliminates public scrutiny over the disbursement of resources and compresses the relative autonomy of local administrations. It thus weakens processes of democratic accountability. It functions pretty much in the same way as structural adjustments worked in developing countries since the 1980s. Their effects are here to stay. 

Finally, once again there are contradictions. When it came to marrying security and humanitarianism to create a humanitarian border, the principles of security became dominant to the detriment of the right to asylum. And this seems to have had “positive effects” on the italian economy, as it created an army of exploitable and precarious migrant workers that feed the italian agrifood sector. When it came to marrying public health and security, again security took the upper hand, but this had at least immediately detrimental effects on the economy. The president of Lombardia, Fontana, first wanted to shut everything, although later backtracked. Some things are open others are not, creating more confusion and contradictions. 

Take my parents. They live 40km away from the Red Zone, the area that has been quarantined. My mom was supposed to start her radiotherapy sessions in a hospital in Milan last thursday, but was unable to begin because everything was cancelled for a week as the number of infected people rose dramatically in the region. And yet, yesterday they were happily eating swedish meatballs in Ikea, which apparently was full of people because every little shop was closed in a large radius. 

Other transformations, such as homeworking, are more likely to become entrenched.This is still ongoing and goes way beyond italy, so perhaps we can all discuss this together when i finish.

Racism, Precarity, and work

The third reason I see parallels between the migration and the coronavirus crises is that, much like in relation to the migration crisis, the coronavirus was immediately racialized. From 2015 to 2018, the number of reported cases of violent racial abuse and assault multiplied dramatically. The zenith occurred in the town I have been conducting field research where a man started shooting indiscriminately at black people, regardless of whether they were irregular migrants, asylum seekers or indeed italian nationals.

If back then, the threat was black, today the threat is yellow. COVID-19, in Italy and elsewhere, is the ‘China flu’, and so of course, anyone vaguely perceived as chinese becomes a legitimate target of racial abuse. A chinese woman in Turin was assaulted and beaten, while the assailant, another woman, was shouting ‘fucking Chinese, you are the virus, go away’. Two brothers, 7 and 10 years old, have been preemptively been quarantined in a small town in the northeast of Italy, with parents trying to prevent their return to school, even if they tested negative, because they don’t want chinese people in their school. Here, the zenith is perhaps represented by a Facebook post by a municipal councillor of Salvini’s party. I am going to read it

“At the beginning, the coronavirus only spread amongst communists. But then, due to globalisation, it spread across the world, infecting innocent people. Our good god knows well who to punish, but then the infection spreads and affects also innocent people. I think the message from god is clear: we need to fight communism and close our borders, because god is never wrong”

I want to make three points about this. 

First, the transformation of a virus into a threat to “us”, the creation of a “them” and its racialisation do not just come out of the blue. Racism towards chinese in italy has always been latent. I remember my grandfather warning me as a kid about the ‘ yellow peril’. I also remember when I was at university in Italy, that nobody wanted to go to chinese restaurants because everybody knew that Chinese eat dogs. Today instead, as proclaimed by the governor of the Veneto region, we all know that Chinese eat rats. Once you identify a chromatic other, i.e. once fear becomes infused with racism, then it doesn’t matter whether they are yellow or black or red. Fear and racism productively mix with each other spreading a virus far more dangerous than the Corona one. For example, the president of the Sicilian region attempted to have all 194 migrants being rescued by the Sea Watch boat and expected to land in Messina quarantined in the boat before being able to set foot on italian soil. As he was unable to do so, he managed to force them to wear protective masks upon disembarkation, even if no one came from an area affected by the virus. 

What the migration crisis did and what the coronavirus is doing, is to bring out the latent racism already widespread in italy, further justifying, expanding the social realms it entrenches within, normalising it and making it part and parcel of the national common sense. 

Second, the racialisation of the crisis goes much beyond the racism of politicians and right wing thugs, and much beyond the everyday reproduction of racialised narratives. It materially affects a large number of migrants in a number of ways. So for example, many schools have closed, public events have been cancelled, and further restrictions to the movement of people have been put in place. And yet large chains supermarkets, and the logistics sector, all of which employ a large number of migrant labour, continue to work.

Take what happens in Bologna. On one side, University of Bologna cancels classes, and the city of Bologna cancels a big cosmetics trade show, for fear of contagion. On the other side, the Bologna Interporto -the logistics hub that ‘never sleeps’-, and the hundreds of migrant workers employed there, continue business as usual. Many of those migrants work on precarious weekly contracts, most have a precarious status and live in large quarters, but for them, no sanitary protocols. And of course, for all those with irregular status, regardless of whether they work or not, the doors of hospitals and doctors are closed. 

So the racialisation of the crisis is not just about the normalisation and entrenchment of racist narratives, it is about the re-production of racial hierarchies across the workforce.

Luckily, third point, things don’t always pan out as expected. As it turns out, the coronavirus was brought to Italy by a businessman who had travelled to china. And now Italy is the largest country in Europe by infections, with travel disrupted to and from the north of the country, with airplane passengers not wanting to sit next to italians, with the UK government asking everyone returning from affected areas to self-quarantine. An italian businessman was quarantined in China the moment he landed in Shanghai airport. And even more interestingly, it was reported on Saturday that many romanian, polish and  bulgarian agricultural workers are now leaving Italy, partly for fear of the virus, but also perhaps more pragmatically, because they want to be able to go home whenever they please, without quarantines and restrictions. In Lombardy and Veneto, the two regions most affected, there are almost 100k foreign workers -plus the irregular ones. 

As the latest racist meme received on WhatsApp says, Coronavirus is like pasta. It was invented by the Chinese and now Italians are spreading it all over the world. 

Indeed, once you accept the logic of the pure and the infected, of the italians (or british for that matter) first and sod the rest, of the native and the foreigner, then you soon realise that the logic of us and them continuously shift targets and locations.

This is where I want to end. 

Any ‘crisis’ whether real or not produces winners and losers. For sure, those at the lower end of the hierarchy are almost always the ones who take the worst hit by the crisis and by the way in which the crisis is managed. Yet, winners and losers are never defined along state centred lines. 

This strike and this picket line is a great example of the the kind of borders that we need -borders that differentiate between us and them on the basis of solidarity. 

4 thoughts on “COVID-19, Migrants, Crisis

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