Coronavirus at the Border: The Nation-State as Involuntary Quarantine

Bojan Srbinovski // On the evening of November 13, 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in the metropolitan area of Paris. Six different locations were targeted in a combination of mass shootings and a suicide bombing. In the deadliest attack on France since World War II, and the deadliest attack on the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the assailants killed 130 people and injured another 368. That evening, President Francois Hollande ordered the closing of the French borders.

In that moment, he was in direct violation of the Schengen Agreement, which allows residents of the Schengen Region to freely cross the borders of other member-states. He also broke a number of agreements with other countries in which those countries’ nationals are allowed to enter France upon arrival at the French border. Airplanes on transatlantic flights were left circling the skies until they were allowed to enter French airspace. This did not last long, as France eventually allowed planes to land at Charles de Gaulle Airport, but this small inciden represents very vividly the precariousness of state-centric international politics.

The logic that governed the conditions of the passengers on those airplanes and at French sea-ports was akin to France’s logic in denying refugees’ first admittance claims. In contravention of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, France cited national security concerns when it revoked access privileges to refugees, functionally closing its borders. This occurrence highlighted a fundamental maxim of governance: the notion of the territorially bounded state, which is always constituted first by the inner world of national politics and then by the outer world of foreign policy and diplomatic relations. I bring up this phenomenon—wherein matters of national sovereignty can surpass the legitimacy of international agreements—not to criticize the decision of the French government to protect its citizens, but to illustrate the formal contours of a drama that we have witnessed many times on the international stage in recent years. The closing of American and Canadian airspace in the hours after 9/11, the deaths of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, the flight of Syrian refugees from the Bashar al-Assad regime, the influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh, all attest to a self-evident truth: that people all over the world are confronting borders that are not as fungible as we have been led to believe. On a number of occasions, nation-states have opted to eschew their commitments to international diplomacy when they perceive the arrival of migrants as a threat to their own economic stability.

What effect might the global spreading of the coronavirus have on this trend? This question has already begun surfacing in all the obvious places. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that a number of new cases of COVID-19 in Spain, Greece, Croatia, France, Switzerland, and Italy can be traced back to the emergence of an outbreak in Italy, where more than 500 people have tested positive. The Schengen region, which permits relatively unimpeded movement across the borders of many European countries, is once again under threat from nationalist politicians all over Europe. Similarly, on Sunday, Turkey and Pakistan closed their borders with Iran, where around 250 people have been diagnosed. In the United States, foreign travelers who have been to China in the two weeks prior to entry are being turned back, and US citizens who meet those qualifications are being redirected to one of 11 airports for additional health screening.

How can the humanities respond to this public health crisis? Contrary to popular belief in some corridors of academia, reading Kant cannot cure an epidemic. But what it can do is equip us to recognize the conditions of certain forms of political activity, especially when that activity transpires in the name of health and wellbeing. One thing is certain: whatever the intent of the closing of national borders might be—health, wellbeing, disease prevention, security—the effect is the transformation of the nation-state into a kind of quarantine.

Another way of posing this question: do the peoples of the world have moral obligations to each other, and how can we think this obligation in the context of a global public health risk?

What we need, it seems, is what Seyla Benhabib once described as “principles and practices for incorporating aliens and strangers, immigrants and newcomers, refugees and asylum seekers, into existing polities” (1). The crises that Benhabib describes do not account for the global spreading of a virus, but her thinking nonetheless seems appropriate for a consideration of how the border treats those who arrive and test positive for the virus. In The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens, Benhabib pursues the disaggregating effects that globalization has had on the conditions of membership in the nation-state. To address the consequences of this disaggregation, Benhabib suggests that we resolve the “paradox of democratic legitimacy,” a name for the tension between human rights and national sovereignty.

The path toward this solution rests on (1) the assumption that there are inalienable and context-transcending rights afforded to a person by virtue of being a human, and (2) the existence of a supranational body that is capable of enforcing those rights. Benhabib’s commitment to a Habermasian discourse ethics leads her to believe that we must “recognize the rights of all beings capable of speech and action to be participants in the moral conversation” (13). As the borders of the world have continued to close, however, the evidence that such a recognition could transpire has all but evaporated.

What we are seeing, instead, is a sustained (perhaps intentional?) inability to resolve the paradox of democratic legitimacy, even when the capability of speech and action has been recognized. What we are seeing, instead of resolution, is a failure to respond adequately to the movements of the peoples of today. Whether they are students, disabled, ill, refugees, or just visiting, the existence of foreigners at the border is always already hyper-political. Their speech does not count, and they cannot vote, yet they remain constant subjects of political debate and its resulting policies and effects.

Works cited

Benhabib, Seyla. The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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