In late March, I was recalled home by my parents, the government, and my university. They told me I had to leave Amsterdam and return to the UK due to the spread of the coronavirus. I felt indignant, Amsterdam is my home. Despite my protest, it eventually became clear that there was no way around it. My exchange year in Amsterdam was always temporary, no matter how at home I felt. With only a few months left of the semester, staying put was an impossibility. In some capacity, my experience is almost universal: all over the world, people are being told to go home, both within the four walls of their house and the borders of their country. Leaving home, whether that be your house or country, has become a highly restricted and largely prohibited activity.
National borders now have a new priority: keeping infected people out. Countries are being ranked by tallies of deaths and are clamping down on border control to limit the flow of the virus. The 35-year-old Schengen Area, in which borderless travel is permitted across 26 countries, has pretty much gone into a state of suspension. The vast majority of European citizens are now in lockdown and internal borders between countries are appearing. Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria and several others have closed the borders that connect them to neighbouring countries. This unprecedented situation has changed the face of Europe and confined millions within the artificial borders of their nation. Of course, I am not advocating for total free movement during a pandemic. But it is important to examine what it means to keep a globalised world at home.
When we are scared our politics can become increasingly reactionary. Globalisation fast-forwarded the spread of the virus and the drawbacks of an intertwined global community are being made apparent. Travel is the primary reason why Covid-19’s impact has been so colossal – do we need to keep our lives more local and insular to prevent a future pandemic? This possibility is worrying, and it cannot be ignored that infectious diseases facilitate nationalist and xenophobic discourses. To protect ourselves, we have to be suspicious of others and limit our time outside. Unfortunately, this heightens already present class, racial, and social tensions. Our borders are tightly controlled, and our front doors are shut, which makes the perfect breeding ground for nationalist and racist sentiments.
The virus originated in China and it didn’t take long for health fears and racial prejudices to intermingle. A significant number of hate crimes were committed against those perceived to be Chinese. As the epicentre relocated to Europe and the US instead of Asia, the racial motivations for these attacks became increasingly clear. The belief that Chinese individuals are more likely to carry the virus is now defunct, but many still face verbal attacks and feel socially outcast. Chou, a professor of sociology at Georgia State University, told the Guardian that his “fear is coughing in public, coughing while Asian, and the reaction other people will have”.
Blaming the virus on China is largely a coping mechanism and helps to situate the illness as other and foreign. When Trump calls Covid-19 the Chinese Virus, it reassures his supporters that the virus is not theirs; it is an outside evil attacking their home. On Fox News, a presenter makes threats into the camera: “we are not going to let [China] destroy this country or our way of life. We’ve worked too hard and we’ve fought too long to lose it to a Wuhan, that’s what I said, Wuhan virus”. America’s death toll, which now far surpasses China’s, is framed as a Chinese attack on American values. By presenting the pandemic in this way, the viewers’ lack of trust in the Chinese government and xenophobia towards Chinese citizens is utilised to disperse the blame away from the US. It diverts the attention away from the real reasons why so many Americans are suffering, such as the lack of free medical aid and employment protection.
Immigration and fears about germs or disease have always been closely tied. The media often presents immigration as something that brings in the unknown and the immoral. During his election campaign, Trump spoke endlessly of the Mexican criminals who may enter into the US and spread moral corruption. This kind of rhetoric often extends to illness and disease. A few years ago, Congressman Henry Cuellar said of immigration across the Mexican border: “we gotta watch out […] I’ve talked to border control down in McAllen. They’ve seen TB; they’ve seen chicken pox; they’ve seen scabies. And according to the Border Patrol, 4 or 5 of their agents have tested positive for those diseases”. This selective reporting ignores that 4 or 5 infections out of 18,500 Border Agents is actually pretty good going and perpetuates the idea that immigrants are dangerous; they bring infectious diseases into the otherwise clean, healthy, and medically advanced US.
Who we consider to be dirty and clean is rarely apolitical. There is a long legacy of political messaging in which “we” (whoever that may be) are clean and “they” are not. Strangers, foreigners, those who don’t ‘belong’ in our home are a ready-made target for health panics. Xenophobia that arises out of the coronavirus will not disappear as soon as the pandemic is over.
Taking it back to a personal rather than political perspective, we are going to be confined in the four walls of our homes and the borders of our countries for the foreseeable future. But this does not mean nationalism and xenophobia have to take hold of coronavirus discourses. Outside of politics, I think most of us have seen a swelling of community aid and support. Quarantine is not a new thing and has occurred numerous times during historical pandemics, but our contemporary experience is wholly unique. Thanks to widespread access to the internet, support groups and charities can reach the people who need them far easier. Despite travel being greatly reduced, communication between households and across borders can thrive through the use of online messaging and video calls. This is our most potent tool to demand inclusivity and global unification regardless of the physical borders that are keeping us put.