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Im/mobility in Coronatimes Blog

Read below the latest responses to the Coronavirus pandemic from staff in the School of Geography.

On the impossibility of ‘staying at home’ amid forced evictions in Kenya - 03 August 2020

On the impossibility of ‘staying at home’ amid forced evictions in Kenya’

Salome W. Kimani, PhD Researcher, Queen Mary University of London

Police and Residents of Kariobangi North Informal settlement (Nairobi, Kenya) looking on at the demolitions (4th May 2020)

Police and Residents of Kariobangi North Informal settlement (Nairobi, Kenya) looking on at the demolitions (4th May 2020) Source: www.citizentv.co.ke

Kenya like any other country in the world is grappling with ways in which it can protect its’ citizens from Covid-19 and reduce the rates of infections and deaths. Ever since March 2020 when the first Covid-19 case was announced, the Kenyan government has ordered a dusk to dawn curfew, partial lockdowns and directed its citizens to ‘stay at home’, practice social distancing, wash their hands regularly and wear masks. However, for the majority of urban citizens that reside in informal settlements, the instruction to ‘stay at home’ has been undermined by the threat of being rendered homeless.

Since the beginning of May, the Kenyan government has presided over the forced eviction and demolition of Kariobangi North and Ruai informal settlements in Nairobi. As a result of these evictions, about 7,000 people have been rendered homeless. This has coincided with a government-imposed curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. and the cessation of movement in and out of Nairobi. Thousands of displaced residents have thus been unable to seek refuge and shelter in other towns, with the government yet to provide them with alternative modes of housing.

As in other societies, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the significant inequalities that continue to exist within Kenya. The demolitions make clear who the Kenyan government deems worthy of protection and who they view as expendable during this crisis. In a country where the majority of those who provide vital services to the city work and live in the informal sector, it begs the question why forced eviction should take place without any compensation, and more so during a pandemic when one of the key measures in place to curb the spread of the disease is to ‘stay home’. Therefore, how does one ‘stay home’, if they do not have a home?

Kenya’s land and housing crisis can be traced back to the colonial period, with access continuing to be a contentious emotive issue, as it holds high political, social, economic and cultural value. Land ownership in the country tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few and politically elite, therefore, the issuance of land permits and title deeds, and cases of the illegal issuance of land is rampant within the country http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4085863.stm. Forced demolitions and evictions of informal settlements are commonplace, and are often justified in relation to the absence of land permits and title deeds which are in the hands of the political elite, while also viewing these informal settlements as centers of terrorist activity https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/forced-evictions-and-demolition-of-informal-settlements-in-kenya/.

However, the current demolitions have garnered international attention and public outcry https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-kenya-homelessness/forced-evictions-leave-5000-kenyan-slum-dwellers-at-risk-of-coronavirus-idUSKBN22I1VC, perhaps because they have taken place during a global pandemic. The state-run Nairobi City and Water Sewerage Company (NCWSC) claims that they own the land in Kariobangi North and that the residents have been informed several times of planned demolitions and have been illegally occupying the land for the last 12 years. At present the Kenyan government has responded to the international criticism by suspending any further demolitions over for the next months as they tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The residents of Ruai and Kariobangi have further resisted these evictions by carrying out demonstrations within their neighborhoods as some of the residents of Ruai and Kariobangi have stated that they have nowhere to go and no money to move. As a result they have either opted to stay in the cold and wait, or where possible moved into crowded dwellings of friends and relatives.

There have been several terms to describe Covid-19, but the one that strikes the most is that the disease is an “economic and social equalizer https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/leading-the-fight-against-coronavirus-in-africas-largest-urban-slum.html as anyone be it the rich or poor can easily contract it. However, one wonders whether the sentiments expressed by Kenya’s Ministry of Health that Covid-19 is the “great equalizer” https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/editors-picks/mutahi-kagwe-unintentionally-lights-up-twitter-with-slang is true, or are the social and economic inequalities present within society providing some people with a better chance of protecting themselves more than others? The concept of being able to ‘stay home’ and be ‘safe at home’, carries with it new meaning as one realizes how it’s a privilege to have a home during this period. It raises questions about why a government that is putting in place key measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 would also make some of its own citizens homeless, especially at a time when having a home and a clean and safe place is of utmost importance.

Uneven Geographies of the Pandemic: Latin America and COVID-19 - 22 June 2020

Uneven Geographies of the Pandemic: Latin America and COVID-19

Sam Halvorsen, Matthew RichmondSonja Marzi

See the source image

 

Like everywhere else, the spread of COVID-19 across Latin America has been unevenly felt. However, the particular nature of the region’s social, economic and spatial inequalities is producing impacts that depart in important ways from those seen in the global North and also, in some ways, other global South regions. To take just a couple of examples, we could point to the perilous position of indigenous communities, and of the densely populated and weakly serviced informal settlements prevalent in cities across the region. More broadly, the visibly racialised, classed and also gendered nature of the crisis in Latin America, and the relationship of these dimensions to spatial inequalities, point to the need for geographically sensitive analysis. Here, we, as committee members of the newly formed Latin American Geographies Working Group (LAGWG), take stock of the growing body of work being done by our members and colleagues on Latin America’s COVID-19 geographies, and highlight some key emerging themes.

 

As in other macro-regions, COVID-19 has intersected with multiple inequalities that are also spatially constituted. At the international level, there are inequalities between countries which significantly shape migration flows – whether from Latin America to the global North or between countries within the region. By leading to a tightening of border controls across the region, in some cases building upon pre-existing geopolitical tensions and on-the-ground volatility in border regions, COVID-19 has intensified the vulnerabilities faced by many migrants. For example, COVID-19 has provided enhanced executive power and justification for the Trump government to increase the use of arbitrary detainment and deportation of asylum seekers at the US-Mexican border. Elsewhere, the closure of the Colombian-Venezuelan border – a region already destabilised by a political-economic crisis on one side and a fragile peace process on the other – has caused further volatility and risk of violence by interrupting everyday cross-border flows that local communities depend on. Such challenges in the region are exacerbated by the fact that multilateral regional institutions were severely weakened in the years prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.

 

At the national scale, differences can be also identified in the COVID-19 responses taken by states with different political structures and governments with contrasting ideological orientations. The region’s two most populous countries for example, Brazil and Mexico, have been singled out for their relatively weak responses, with some claiming that this is due to the presence of “populist” governments that have prioritised economic over public health concerns. While the conflation of two very different scenarios – and governments of the far-right (Brazil) and radical left (Mexico) – under the label of “populism” seems unhelpful, it is clear that other countries which have taken more measured and consistent responses have fared better.  Argentina, for example, where President Fernández took rapid and drastic action to impose social isolation measures, has had far lower levels of infections and deaths.

 

Yet to take solely a nation-centric analysis would not reveal the complete picture. Most Latin American countries have strongly decentralised political systems, sometimes leading to disputes between central and local governments. This was the case with regards to the response of the City of Buenos Aires, governed by the right-wing mayor Larreta, who sought to relax COVID-19 safety measures ahead of the national government, just as cases in shanty towns were begining to escalate. To further complicate matters, there has been an uneven coordination with the governor of the surrounding Province of Buenos Aires, exposing long-standing challenges of municipal governance when key infrastructure and services straddle two political areas. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro’s fierce opposition to social distancing has led to clashes with the governors of key states, intensifying a broader institutional crisis and further undermining the country’s COVID-19 response.

 

The impacts of federal and state policies, but also extreme subnational inequalities in Latin American countries, have meant different impacts in different regions. For example, many remote rural areas as well as being economically vulnerable are weakly served by healthcare and other essential services, and receive little media coverage. Such challenges are further aggravated in the case of historically marginalised groups, most notably the region’s indigenous population. As is well known, pandemics have historically had devastating impacts on the original inhabitants of the Americas. Even if, at least partial, access to modern medicine should help to avoid a catastrophic scenario, there are fears that COVID-19 will fit into this history. Furthermore, there are signs, for example in the Peruvian Amazon, that the context of the pandemic is providing cover to bolster new rounds of extractivist incursions into indigenous territories.

 

COVID-19’s unequal social and spatial impacts can also be clearly seen in urban contexts. In Brazil’s largest cities, although the virus first spread in wealthy neighbourhoods, it is already having far more devastating effects in low-income favelas and urban peripheries. These settlements are often densely occupied and in some cases lack basic sanitation, hastening the spread of the virus, while also typically being located further from the essential services needed during the pandemic, from hospitals to supermarkets and pharmacies. This also has important economic dimensions. Large numbers of residents of these cities are informally employed or self-employed, meaning they are less able to sustain long periods of isolation and thus more likely to expose themselves to risk of infection in the absence of quick and substantial state support. These, and other issues already mentioned, have clear gender dimensions. In Cúcuta, Colombia, a spike in domestic violence linked to the economic and personal strains caused by the pandemic has been observed, exacerbated by reduced access to services and refuges for women. In Medellin, mobility restrictions put in place through curfews, have had especially serious impacts on women, who are heads of household with caring responsibilities, living on steep slopes on the outskirts of the city. Many of them working in the informal economy and struggling with spatial mobility already before the pandemic, they are now anxious about not being able to feed their children.

 

The LAGWG was set up to foster a politically engaged and ethically sensitive dialogue between Latin America and Anglophone geographical knowledges. The uneven way the COVD-19 crisis has unfolded across the region exposes and brings to the fore the protagonism that geography has in understanding and addressing key social issues today. As a longer-term project, the working group hopes to facilitate two-ways conversations in which UK-based scholars take seriously the knowledges produced in Latin America and consider their broader implications for how they understand and engage in the world. For this reason, we aim to promote a diversity of fora, including blogs, seminars, and solidarity actions, while seeking to support and promote the activities of Latin American activists and scholars within the UK geographical community.

 

About the authors:

 

Sam Halvorsen is Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on the significance of territory for grassroots politics in Latin America. He is chair of the Latin American Geographies Working Group of the RGS. @samhalvorsen

Matthew Richmond is Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the London School of Economics Latin America and Caribbean Centre (LSE LACC). His research looks at spatial development, governance and subjectivity formation Brazilian cities. He is secretary of the Latin American Geographies Working Group of the RGS. @mattyrichy

 

Sonja Marzi is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Methodology and Department of International Development at the LSE. In her research she investigates urban challenges for marginalised women in relation to the use of urban space and how participatory research can be conducted remotely with the use of smartphones. She is treasurer of the Latin American Geographies Working Group of the RGS. @Sonja_Marzi

 

You can join or find out more about the Latin American Geographies Working Group by visiting their website, or following them on twitter (@lag_uk).

 

Suggested further reading:

 

JLAG Perspectives forum: COVID-19 in Latin America

 

Geopolítica(s) special issue: Geopolítica de la pandemia de COVID-19 (Geopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic)

 

Espaço e Economia dossiê: Coronavírus (português)

 

LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre COVID-19 Portal

 

 

This article originally published on Geography Directions - the aricle can be accessed here.

 

Notes on Isolation - 21 May 2020

Notes on Isolation

Charlotte Wrigley, PhD Researcher, Queen Mary  University of London

The River Kolyma, in Arctic Siberia (copyright: Charlotte Wrigley
The River Kolyma, in Arctic Siberia (copyright: Charlotte Wrigley

Isolation is something very few of us had experienced, until Covid-19. Now, along with ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolating’ could very well be a contender for Oxford’s ‘word of the year’ competition (last year’s winner was ‘climate emergency’, incidentally). People across the world are now confined almost exclusively to their homes or local areas as we attempt to limit the destruction of this pandemic, and many of these people are struggling. The word isolation has become weighted by the miseries of loneliness, poor mental and physical health, feeling trapped. That isolation could have once been considered a positive thing – I would know, I spent last summer in a forest hut in Russia – now seems almost unthinkable. But the notion of isolation has long been imagined in various ways, from the romance of the retreat to the terror of the prison, and if isolation had a geographical region, that region would be the Arctic.

In her beautiful ode to remoteness ‘The Lena is worthy of Baikal’, Ksenia Tatarchenko reveals the intimate connections and attachments to place in what has often been conceived of as a ‘non-place’; rather than painting the Arctic as a harsh and unforgiving landscape, devoid of features or people, she reveals a richly diverse patchwork of peoples and cultures across the vast Russian North. My own fieldwork experiences in a Siberian Arctic town found beauty in the silence, but also warmth in the companions I found there. When you are isolated, you tend to be friendly. This community of about two thousand people has no hospital, no supermarket, and the only way in is by creaking Soviet-era plane. Despite being attached to Russia’s huge landmass, the locals imagine their town as an island, referring almost sarcastically to ‘the mainland’ that ignores them. Their isolation is as much to do with politics as it is to do with geography. 

Isolation in the Russian Arctic has a difficult and often brutal history. Russian Cossacks moved steadily east in the sixteenth century, colonising Siberia and forcefully assimilating both the land and the myriad indigenous tribes into the behemoth country of today. Arctic exploration was another arm of colonisation, with tales abound of vast, empty landscapes whilst intrepid white men ‘discovered’ new places and drew new maps. There is nothing, nor has there ever been, empty about the Russian Arctic. As the centuries passed and the Tsarist dynasty became the Soviet Union, a process of cultural collectivisation was meted out across the land. Indigenous groups were forced to abandon their nomadism and raise their reindeer on state farms, whilst their children were prevented from learning their own language or practising their own customs. Ethnic Russians were encouraged to move into the Arctic with the promise of housing and jobs, to plumb the vast reserves of Siberia’s bounty. And, of course, there were the gulags. Political dissidents or ‘enemies of the people’ were exiled to Siberia – thousands of them, during Stalin’s great purge of the 1930s – or placed in forced labour camps. The remains of these camps, some operational into the 1980s, dot the Arctic tundra. 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the Siberian Arctic has found itself further isolated. The town I conducted my fieldwork in has lost almost 80% of its residents as the rampant unemployment, decimation of state provision, and explosion in prices forced most people to move to the cities. The people that stay are the people that can afford to live there, or the people that can’t afford to leave. The effects of climate change are hitting these communities hard: floods, wildfires, and the thawing of permafrost resulting in higher temperatures and damaged infrastructure. As Putin looks to reap the extractive benefits of a warming Arctic, huge projects such as the Yamal Liquid Natural Gas plant have sprung up across the region in recent years. This one in particular is displacing and decimating the ancestral lands of the Yamal Nenets. A similar LNG plant recently saw an explosion of Covid-19 cases, with the cramped and unsanitary conditions for the workers meaning the virus spread quickly. Isolation in today’s Arctic can mean death just as easily as before.

Covid-19 has been called the great leveller; a truly global disease that can affect princes as much as paupers. Any critical engagement with that idea soon reveals it to be untrue. Those who will suffer the most from self-isolating during this pandemic are those who are not surrounded by a loving family, who can’t hole up in their second homes, who are sharing cramped and precarious living spaces with difficult or possibly even dangerous people. Some, such as the homeless, may not be able to isolate at all. There is a luxury to safe isolation that is not shared across the world, and this is true of the Arctic too. Many of the communities that call the Arctic their home are already fragile; an outbreak of Covid-19 could easily decimate them. But what becomes clear as Covid-19 tears down any notion of borders, or islands, or safe havens, is that isolation is underpinned by a network of politics and power. The Arctic’s difficult geography curates the coalescence of locals and outsiders, of history and present, of separation and global connection, and whilst a map might trace a rich vein of Northern settlements across Russia, there is no escaping the material reality for these towns, of being remote in a rapidly changing world – they are, as Tatarchenko states, “a monument to the violence of abandonment”.

Charlotte Wrigley is a final-year PhD researcher in human geography. Her thesis examines Russian Arctic permafrost in the Anthropocene, and the various ways permafrost is embodied, studied and produced as a substance of discontinuity.

Originally posted on https://qmgeographers.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/notes-on-isolation/

On Mobilities, Traditional Communities and Climate Change in Times of COVID-19 - 21 May 2020

On Mobilities, Traditional Communities and Climate Change in Times of Covid-19

Giovanna Gini, PhD Researcher, Queen Mary University of London

Copyright: Giovanna Gini
Copyright: Giovanna Gini

Cities are at the centre of the debate on im/mobilities provoked by COVID-19. However, from my experience conducting fieldwork with a caiçara - artisanal fishers- community from an island in the south-east of Brazil, these (im)mobilities also affect those who exist on the peripheries of capitalism.

The traditional community that I am currently spending time with depends primarily on tourism. In Brazil, fortunately, social distancing started before Easter and prevented a wave of tourists coming to the community and possibly bringing the virus with them. For the moment, the community relies on the money from the summer season and government support – mostly fishing insurance and the emergency cash relief fund. They know they will not go through hunger, but depending on the duration of the lockdown, their quality of life will decrease. For example, they might not be able to afford luxuries such as varieties of fruits and vegetables.

On March 20th, the community met to settle rules to protect the village from contamination, such as forbidding the entrance of tourists and minimizing trips to mainland cities. They know the situation will get worse in Brazil, and that the nearest hospital is not ready to deal with significant numbers of ill people. Also, racism and discrimination in the hospital are typical for the caiçaras; they cannot trust that they will receive the treatment they need.

Although the current situation is difficult, it is not the first time that this community has gone through difficulties. Just three years ago, they relocated because undercurrent ate twelve meters of land on the place where they lived[1]. In the aftermath of this event, the community were abandoned by authorities; left alone to manage the move themselves. Almost everyone stopped working in income-generating activities because re-building the village required them to work 24 hours 7 days a week. The abandonment by the authorities is an effect of living on the periphery of capitalism, at the edges of state extension and almost invisible in the bureaucratic system of government. The relocation experience helped to build a community that in isolation, knows how to work in improbable circumstances; this time is not looking different. For example, to keep things running these days and cheer themselves up, the men of the community are fishing together and then sharing the fish between the families. They gather on a weekly basis to discuss strategies for dealing with projected future scenarios arising from external risks, such as climate change and the pandemic.

For once, this invisibility seems to be paying off, as tourists are not arriving on the island and members of the community have more time to do what they need and want to do. However, these activities are marked by persistent feelings of guilt, as members of the community have friends and family isolated in tiny apartments in the cities. Nevertheless, they remember that so many times "we were suffering while others were enjoying themselves".

After two weeks of lockdown in Brazil, the community seems better than ever. They are gathering several times a day; they do the activities that they love, mixing survival needs and pleasure. These are simple activities, for example, fishing on the beach with the traditional technique of Cambau, which involves almost all the community, men dragging the net and the women with the children picking the fish from the beach in the fading sunset lighting. On good days, after dividing the catch between the families, we have a barbecue of fresh and delicious fish. The everyday routine that celebrates and reinforces the life of the community is happening with more regularity than before. I asked one of the members of the community. Why is that? and she answers me, "now that we don't have tourists, we can take care of ourselves." It is hard to resist reflecting positively on this pause from the everyday toll of sustaining tourism. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic offers a temporal break from the aggressive, consuming and invasive forms of capital the community had come to depend on.”

 (Fieldnotes, April 2020)

These days, one of the most significant opportunities for this community that has emerged from the global sanitary crisis, is that capitalism has slowed down. A state programme is looking to privatise the management of the conservation park that is home of this community, which implies that they will lose – again - their rights to decide how to work and where to live. The first time the community lost their rights to decide where and how to live was when the island became a state conservation park in 1962. In the present moment, the (im)mobilisation of the capitalist world opens a brief window for them to organise and build the resistance against this threat, mainly through the establishment of a protocol of consultation guided by the c169 ILO convention of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Once operational, this protocol would allow them to step on the brakes, delaying the advance of the state apparatus over these island populations.

These last three weeks of quarantine were unfolding in a mix of joy and hope in fighting for the future; that is until a cold weather front provoked a cyclone. The cyclone was a reminder that the world does not stop turning with the market and global threats such as climate change are not on pause. On the 04 of April at 2 am, the community was surprised by a high tide like the one they experienced in 2016. The water seeped slowly into several houses; the most significant damage was the destruction of their orchards, which is an emotional loss as well as physical. The strengths of the community to live everyday in a sea of uncertainty, each new wave left them off balance and who knows if the next one will pull them down. Meanwhile, they start building suspended orchards waiting for bigger and stronger tides.

“At two in the morning, I heard a person screaming my name and energetically knocking on my door: ‘Come! Come and see! Come and see! that climate-changing thing.’ I go out of the house; I see all the village awake. It is dark and cold; I wish I would have put my shoes on, in the hurry I forgot. Everyone is watching and waiting to see how far the water will come, in how many houses it will seep into. The water had stretched more inland than they’d ever seen since moving to their new home. With anguish and panic, my neighbours start remembering the cyclone of 2016 that ate twelve meters of sand in one night, forcing them to relocate. The same new moon at the same time. A single question is emerging from the dim midnight chatter – is it the future about to come rolling in just like a high tide once again?? In the dark and the cold, the prospective seems scary, but who doesn't fear the future?

(Fieldnotes, April 2020)

The community waits for future relocation, as coastal erosion worsens, but there is still hope to have at least a good decade before moving again. With an increase in the frequency and intensity of unusually high tides offseason, fear is growing and spreading among the community that the next relocation will happen sooner. The biggest concern is not having the strength – physically and emotionally – to relocate all over again. For a couple of days, no one has the energy to work; the tide has also taken their courage out to sea.

This tide was a jolt of reality. COVID-19 seems to have created an increasing division between this island community, the state and mainland capitalist society, whether for good or bad. This community at the periphery of the capitalist system has not been hit by the COVID-19's crisis, just like most of the people trapped in their apartments are not feeling the same pressure caused by climate change. We hope that it will stay like this, that the virus does not arrive here.

[1] Gini, G., Mendonça-Cardoso, T., Pires-Ramos, E. (2020), When the two seas met: narrative and analysis of the preventive and self-managed relocation experience of the Nova Enseada Community in Brazil. Forced Migration Review, 64. (forthcoming)

Covid-19 and Cancer - 12 May 2020

COVID-19 and Cancer

Azeezat Johnson by Wasi Daniju
Azeezat Johnson by Wasi Daniju

Dr Azeezat Johnson, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London

I have been processing the widespread anxiety caused by an illness that knows no borders and has no cure. As my loved ones and colleagues know, in October 2017, I received a call that I had been dreading for the previous 10 years: the cancer had returned. Anyone who has dealt with that type of call before knows that this is one of those moments where your soul feels frozen in horror. For so long I felt trapped in a body (and a world) that kept on failing me and my hopes for a future. The threat of death entwined with a cancer diagnosis has made me starkly aware of how quickly and brutally my life could be cut short.

This is where I must begin any response to the covid-19 pandemic. After all, it’s been the cancer that has informed my sharp awareness of death, not covid-19. Witnessing the fear surrounding covid-19 reaching our homes in the West has made me think about my own complicated relationship with uncertainty surrounding illness. Over the past three years, I’ve had five surgeries related to cancer growths. I’ve spent so much of this time finding a way to love my body and life whilst still fearing (and in some ways, mourning) a death that always feels right around the next corner. Yet it has been a love for my family, friends and wider community that has helped me to retain a sense of who I am and what I want from my life. I’ve come to realise that I want to spend my time on this earth (no matter how long or short that might be) working towards a world where we do not have to desperately shout that our lives matter.

My hopes for a world where all our lives actually matter is paired with my fears of the reality of our present. After all, the racist logics of “taking back our country” and “getting Brexit done” that led so many to vote for Brexit and Boris showed what we already knew to be true: white supremacy is entwined with Western societies’ claims of freedom and liberal democracy. Even though People of Colour have repeatedly warned against the violence of the UK’s nostalgia for empire, many took every opportunity to tell us that things weren't “that bad”: they argued that if only we were a bit more patient, if only we worked a bit harder, things would eventually get better. My fear of speaking up against our present is informed by my awareness that Women of Colour who speak their minds are often bullied out of online spaces, bombarded with micro-aggressions in everyday conversations, and killed in homes and on the street. When demanding recognition and respect for all of us to be whoever we need to be, I am awash with a fear of how my words could be distorted and expose me to further emotional, verbal and physical abuse.

As I’ve struggled with my need and fears in speaking, I look again to Audre Lorde. Her words about fear and survival have taken on a new meaning for me, as she was – amongst many other powerful traits – a Black feminist who faced cancer one too many times before her eventual passing.

Audre Lorde by Nidhi Mahajan
Audre Lorde by Nidhi Mahajan

 

And when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

 

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive.

(Lorde, 1995: 32)

What does it mean to speak remembering that who we are (and all that we are) was never meant to survive? Survival has taken on a terrifying meaning for me as I reckon with the uncertainty that cancer brings to my possibility of life. This has become even more suffocating as I navigate the “when we get through this” comments that people have already been using in relation to covid-19: many of us have not and will not survive this. Yet Audre Lorde would have also been thinking about survival as a Black lesbian mother of Black children who knew how easily her and her children’s lives could be threatened, dehumanised and murdered within white supremacist structures. Remembering to speak in this context means demanding the space to be more than our dehumanisation: remembering to speak is a refusal to stay silent about structures that continue to kill us.

The covid-19 pandemic has forced me to realise how deeply I’ve internalised silence when it came to the cancer. For so long I have been afraid that my struggles with cancer would become public knowledge, as I am all too familiar with how my body then becomes up for public consumption and debate. Even while our bodies are objectified by the state (as a problem worth a quantifiable amount of care), it’s been even more terrifying to open myself up to the inevitable overstepping of my personal boundaries. Time and again, when I mention the cancer, (friendly) acquaintances and colleagues have felt entitled to ask deeply personal questions and expected me to repeat and relive the most traumatic events in my life to satisfy their own curiosity. As they wait for the “right time” to ask me how and when it happened, I know that my own needs are irrelevant: my body becomes a physical reminder that illness is terrifying and I am forced to hold their emotions as well as my own.

Covid-19 has made me process the extent to which people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are dehumanised whilst our labour is exploited within structures of racial capitalism. While we have all been subject to incessant statements about “standing by the vulnerable”, I am aware of how our lives have already been condemned by successive right-wing UK governments that have stripped the NHS and welfare systems to the bone. Even as there is now a larger conversation about how illness should be connected to our struggles for better living and working conditions, many have been able to file the pain and deaths of people with disabilities away; it becomes discussed as a pitiable consequence of austerity measures. I’ve been stuck on the feeling that part of what people are processing in this moment is that the same systems that have been failing dis-eased Others could now also fail them. And as I feel my rage bubbling over at this superficial and delayed concern with health and wellbeing, I know that rage is the last emotion they want to process from a disabled Black Muslim woman. What they are looking for is sadness and/or gratitude: sadness that I am one of the vulnerable who doesn’t fit, and gratitude that they are willing to try and save me. I know that in ableist white supremacist structures, I can be read as a suffering victim or a brave survivor, but not as a person deserving to simply be.

While feeling my way through a pandemic that reminds me ‘we were never meant to survive,’ I’ve also had to face some ugly truths about how I too have invested in this systemic dehumanisation. Covid-19 and other coronaviruses have been treated as a problem of East Asia: so many of us bought into the belief that the borders informing the West would protect us from this plague and so we could divorce from the disaster of these diseases. Even as we’ve been reeling from the need to support those abandoned by failing welfare systems in our own countries, I’ve been struck by how this crisis connects to global supply chains and white supremacy. Where are the statements from multi-national corporations about their factory workers in Black and Brown countries who have had to work through all manner of illnesses and catastrophes to survive? How much further could we be with treatments and vaccinations if the violence of borders and racial capitalism didn’t infect so much of our worldview?

This is where I’ve been returning to Audre Lorde’s adamance that self-care is political warfare. Lorde’s demand for self-care was connected to her awareness of how difficult it is to receive (emotional, financial, social and health) care as a Black woman dealing with a chronic illness. Self-care when ‘we were never meant to survive’ means refusing any part of a system wherein particular bodies are deemed unworthy of our full and complex lives.

Covid-19 has made me feel even more urgently that this type of self-care is only possible through connecting my own life to the many others beyond Britain’s borders. I’ve been trying to slow down to better care for myself and a world that has been struck by disaster and disease (long before covid-19 ever made it to these shores). We cannot continue expecting those who face oppression to swallow their pain and ‘wait their turn’ as we work towards a different world. We need to build an ethics of care that centres those who are continuously forgotten once disaster strikes: as many have said, justice and freedom for all is dependent on justice and freedom for the most marginalised. It is not possible for me to honour my own right to life without also honouring theirs.

I began this piece with my fears of the cancer and my sense of urgency in speaking out for a different future wherein all of us can be who we need to be. Although I’d like to offer some profound solution for overcoming this fear, I’m not there yet. Fear remains a part of my life, particularly as I reckon with all of the ways cancer and covid-19 can cut short my hopes for life. But I do know that staying silent, staying immobile because of that fear makes me feel further away from the people who I love and further away from the brighter future that I want for following generations (that means you Aneesah!).

That’s what I feel Audre Lorde was getting at: we cannot allow the fear that we will be cut down (verbally, physically or emotionally) to prevent us from standing tall and speaking out for what we know in our bones is right. Fighting for our own freedoms whilst erasing the experiences of those that are further marginalised does nothing but divide us from one another. Playing the “model minority” at the expense of so many others does nothing to help our fullest selves exist: all it does is shrink us into smaller and smaller boxes based on the assumed divisions amongst us. Thus I return to Audre Lorde once more:

We have chosen each other

and the edge of each others battles

if we lose

someday women’s blood will congeal

upon a dead planet

if we win

there is no telling

we seek beyond history

for a new and more possible meeting

(cited in Lorde, 1984: 170-171){unpublished poem cited in Lorde, 1996 #815@170-71}

 

Let us begin to choose each other, and fight for a world where all of us are celebrated for all that we could be.

 

Author’s note: I have said all that I want to say about the cancer in this piece. As part of respecting my personal boundaries, please do not get in touch to discuss cancer further.

 

This piece was developed for an ongoing online event series on community care and covid-19 (every 2 weeks, 7.30pm GMT/ 3.30pm EST). To register, email info@healingjusticeldn.org.

Reshared from the Feminist Review blog.

References

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, California, The Crossing Press.

Lorde, A. (1995). The black unicorn: Poems, New York, W. W. Norton and Company.

 

Trapped: Live-in Domestic Workers - 07 May 2020

The Invisible Home

Copyright UN Women Gallery, CCBY-SA 3.0
Copyright UN Women Gallery, CCBY-SA 3.0

By Kavita Dattani, PhD student, School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London

As Covid-19 related lockdown enforcements across the globe mean that numerous people are being made to stay home, how is capitalism spatially fixing (Harvey 2001) itself further onto the space of the home? For many women, the household has always been a site of work – of social reproduction – but how does this intensify during a global pandemic?

Covid-19 has been spreading rapidly across our globe. As the coronavirus is spread through close contact many countries have enforced a form of lockdown requiring populations to stay at home unless for essential travel. These lockdowns have had severe effects on the global economy, particularly on businesses which rely on footfall. At the same time parks, theatres, gyms, malls, streets and other public and semi-public spaces are now left vacant in the effort to keep people apart. The spatial narratives of the lockdown have largely been focused on the issue of where we can’t go, in doing so contributing to making more invisible the space within which many of us are now spending the majority of our time – the (heavily gendered) space of the home.

As Bhattacharya (2017) asks, “If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker?” Capitalism has long relied on women’s (low-)paid and unpaid domestic labor in the home in order to socially reproduce its workers. That is, the “activities and attitudes, behaviours and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally” (Laslett and Brenner 1989: 382). Put differently, the daily and generational renewal of human life through the social organisation of sexuality, the provision of food, shelter and clothing, and the care of children and the elderly, among other things, is largely taken on by women across the globe in order to produce and reproduce labor power – the ability to work (Ferguson 2017; Laslett and Brenner 1989).

During a global pandemic lockdown, when mobility is restricted and many spaces outside of the home can no longer be accessed, what happens to the social reproduction of the home and its inhabitants? Using this question as an entry point, this Intervention thinks through the ways in which an enforced spatial constraint to the home in the time of Covid-19 is shifting the social reproduction of the home. More specifically, this Intervention suggests that this spatial constraint during a global pandemic allows us to rethink social reproduction and its manifestations through the interconnected refractions of work, class, violence and mobility.

“Depletion through Social Reproduction”: Unpaid Domestic Workers

Globally women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men, valued at between 10 and 39 per cent of global GDP (ILO 2016). “WFH” or work-from-home culture which is being promoted as a new societal norm as a result of Covid-19 has implications in terms of increasing domestic workloads. As family members stay within the space of the home for longer periods of time, this will result in increasing social reproduction needs, which will disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women (OECD 2020). As one women’s rights advocate put it, “Women are typically the chief healthcare officer, the chief entertainment officer, the chief education officer in their homes” (Graves 2020), among other responsibilities, including, for many, their own paid jobs.

For many low-income or working-class women across the world, state restrictions on mobility mean that social reproduction related tasks cannot be carried out, as many women are unable to move outside of their homes to, for example, collect water or firewood (Nevill 2020). Some women, who will be forced to flout restrictions on mobility and social distancing for survival needs, risk state violence as well as the health risks of contracting the virus. Rebecca, a farmer from Zimbabwe, explains:

“At the end of the day, women and girls are at the receiving end of the coronavirus. It will affect us more than anyone else. Why? Because it’s us women who do the household chores all the time. We are the ones who fetch firewood for cooking from the bush. We are the ones who fetch water from unprotected wells, and it needs two to three people to pump it. We cannot do social distancing. We are the most at risk.” (quoted in Nevill 2020)

This intensification of the imbalance of work within and for the household is discussed by Rai and colleagues (2019) in the context of conflict situations. Applying the term “depletion through social reproduction”, they highlight the adverse impact of increased labor in the household as a result of conflict situations. In such situations, the greater demands on women’s labor as a result of decreased public resources and depleted physical and social infrastructures, paired with a need to generate more income to cover household necessities due to potential loss of employment, can act as a burden on women’s health and wellbeing. In our contemporary case, a global pandemic, we can draw parallels to similar pressures on public infrastructures and resources, with women having to deal with the consequences in order to meet their households’ needs.

These impacts can also can also heighten women’s vulnerability to violence (Rai et al. 2020). True (2012) argues that in contexts where patterns of gender discrimination and structural violence are already in place, gender-based violence is much more likely to occur. Pandemics and disease outbreaks show a trajectory of increased violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence, with a key factor being economic insecurity and poverty-related stress (O’Donnell et al. 2020). In the case of Covid-19 we are seeing a similar trend across the globe, with rapidly increasing instances of domestic violence against women (European Parliament 2020; Godbole 2020; Taub 2020). These increases, as a result of an enforced spatial containment to the home, rooted in deep patriarchal masculinities, force us to think through the burden of social reproduction and its links to violence against women, as women “locked-down” in their households continue to socially reproduce them whilst enduring physical and emotional violence.

Trapped: Live-In Domestic Workers

The social reproduction of the home during Covid-19 is being carried out by live-in domestic workers in many places across the globe (WIEGO 2020). When talking to a Hong Kong based friend recently, she filled me in on the developments of the Covid-19 situation in the city, explaining that live-in domestic workers particularly are suffering. Trapped within households and working 24 hours a day with increased workloads, their usual escape of leaving the house for grocery shopping or other errands is now restricted as employers fear that workers may contract the coronavirus and bring it into the home. Given that limited spaces are accessible outside the home, activities that were once chores including grocery shopping have been transformed into leisure activities for families, allowing them to venture out of the space they are mostly confined to. “I’m exhausted!!!” says a message that my friend received from a live-in domestic worker who works for a nearby family. Begum (2020) warns of similar outcomes in the Middle East where she says “we can expect an increase in the number of domestic workers forced to work practically around the clock” faced with “additional cooking, cleaning and caring demands with entire families at home all day and children out of school” as well as “more cleaning and disinfecting” due to the virus. A global issue, live-in workers around the world are facing similar circumstances – of increasing workloads and blocks on mobility outside of the home (WIEGO 2020).

The geographies of the home and its everyday practices and social relations resonate beyond the household (Blunt and Varley 2004). The state- and employer-enforced spatial containment to the home enforced on live-in domestic workers as a result of Covid-19 reinforces a class boundary between these workers and their employers, with a key factor being no spatial escape for the worker. As workers enact round-the-clock social reproduction, employers are able to enact a round-the-clock surveillance, resulting in new and more extreme forms of exploitation.

Conclusion

Capitalism’s reliance on women’s (low)paid and unpaid labor is taking new and more extreme exploitative forms in the time of Covid-19. Its new ‘spatial fix’ is the space where humanity is being asked to spend most of its time – the private household. The social relations, and particularly practices of social reproduction, of this somewhat invisible space to which many are spatially contained, are shifting as a result of limits on mobility across the globe. Taking new forms, refracted by and into intersecting elements of work, class, violence and mobility, this Intervention thinks through how Covid-19 is transforming women’s experiences in the household, for the worse.

This essay was originally published in Antipode’s Interventions section and can be accessed here:

https://antipodeonline.org/2020/04/15/rethinking-social-reproduction-in-the-time-of-covid-19/

 

Covid-19 and Heroic Lives - 05 May 2020

Poster on park gate, 'Health Heroes', copyright: Joe Penny
Poster on park gate, 'Health Heroes', copyright: Joe Penny

Covid-19 and Heroic Lives

by Dr Joe Penny

 

One striking effect of Covid-19 has been to make visible again the vital world sustaining and maintaining work that many of the most poorly paid and precariously employed do day-in-day-out, come rain or shine, even throughout a global pandemic. This increased visibility is hard to miss. I turn on the radio in the morning and in a single segment I hear more stories about nurses, care workers and delivery drivers than I ever have since first making the mistake of listening to The Today Programme. Every Thursday at 8pm I hear the sound of clapping, and of pots and pans clattering, as people give small thanks to NHS workers. When I leave my flat for my one walk a day, I pass dozens of home-made rainbows and painted NHS signs where the ‘S’ is mocked up in the Superman font. 

These can be read as signs of solidarity. They suggest that key workers are at the forefront of our collective consciousness and many, like the NHSuperman signs, explicitly elevate key workers to the status of brave heroes. As the refrain goes, they go out so that I may stay in. My own safe immobility is contingent on their risky, and in some cases forced, mobility. 

After a decade of austerity and real terms pay cuts, this valorisation of the foundational, logistical and caring work that stitches and patches the ever-fraying fabric of our daily lives is heartening. Optimistically, it might also be an opportunity for a long overdue reckoning with neoliberal nostrums of what and who is valuable and how they are valued. And yet, every time I pass a colourful rainbow or hear the Thursday evening cacophony, I can’t help feeling uneasy about this new public worker as hero narrative.

To be clear, my concern with calling frontline workers heroes is not to in any way to downplay the value of their vital life sustaining work. Delivery drivers, shelf-stackers, and cashiers are feeding us; carers, nurses and doctors are helping thousands of us to breath and are keeping many people company before they stop breathing; bus and train drivers help all the above get to work. Rather, my concern here, in the spirit of Sara Ahmed, is to question the work that the label hero does and most importantly the work that it helps our politicians to not do.

Heroes, as Mike Featherstone puts it, do extraordinary work, work that not only “threatens the possibility of returning to everyday routines, but entails the deliberate risking of life itself”*. Heroes depart from their everyday worlds. They endure beyond what can reasonably expected, they exceed what is humanly possible. They do what must be done, no matter how dangerous, violent and risky the conditions or unfavourable the odds. In short, they sacrifice themselves for others, because that’s what heroes do. Calling key work heroic elides the structural violence of decades of disinvestment and more recently weeks of deadly negligence and delay. It acts as a cover for government ministers who are asking far too much of care workers, nurses and doctors when they send them into spaces of viral overload without the necessary PPE equipment to ensure their safety. It obscures the power relations that coerce people to continue working as bus drivers or in supermarkets, even as their enforced mobility makes social distancing impossible and has left some feeling more like hostages than heroes. Maybe it also helps all of us who are privileged enough to be secure at home justify the indefensible with badges and medals.

The heroic life is of course deeply connected to war, to warriors and the masculine. The everyday lives that heroes leave behind are those of social reproduction. In search of adventure and apparently higher and more noble glories, heroes forgo their own quotidian caring and maintenance responsibilities. The figure of the key worker as hero disrupts this split. Not only is key work itself often feminized care and reproductive work, but key workers must routinely return to their own responsibilities at home for their children, elderly relatives and disabled family members. For many, their ‘heroic’ first shift will be followed by the double burden of their second shift only with the heightened worry that they may be bringing disease back home with them endangering their immunosuppressed families, friends or flatmates. The label of ‘hero’ does not account for this extra work. It works to invisibilise it.    

In years to come the heroism of key workers may be invoked to win concrete demands for nurses, as well as care, transport and logistical workers. It may lead to better pay, securer working conditions, affordable housing, and dignity. But right now, I fear the figure of the hero and the celebration of an ethics of extraordinary sacrifice is being mobilised to construct and impose an uncritical ‘we are all in this together’ unity that conceals uneven, gendered and racialised distributions of violence and vulnerability, secure immobility and coerced mobility.  

*Thanks to Paul Langley for introducing me to this Mike Featherstone piece!

The Return of the Vocation - 29th April 2020

A view of people protesting, taken from behind, during the QMUL strike in 2020

The return of the vocation

By Kerry Holden, Lecturer in Human Geography

29th April 2020

 

Every Thursday evening for the past three weeks I’ve stood on the front step and clapped in support of the NHS staff and other care and service workers at the frontline of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I’m isolating at my childhood home which is perched near the top of a hill at the outskirts of a village called Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire. Our clapping is lonely, but we feel the thrill of collective effervescence when someone lets off fireworks and we hear whistles and hoots in the distance. This short period of cheering never fails to bring a lump in my throat. It is an emotional moment and a reminder that vocations matter.

Emotion arises from the belief that some people work for the greater good, and that during Coronavirus, these people are the more likely mobile, moving from home to workplace. They risk infection in order to treat, cure, and serve us. The selfless professions appear to continue, while the self-interested professions have the privilege of isolation. This might be a crude comparison, but along with some of the more horrifying stories about the stark social inequalities laid bare by the virus, it provides yet another dreadful reminder that we regularly normalise the threadbare morality of our present society’s economies of abandonment. It also tells us that we need and even love the vocations, the very spirit of them is a cause for celebration and relief in the face of years of neglect and exploitation. Over the last 40 years, vocations have been rendered a kind of frivolous magical thinking in the reckoning of late capitalism where market-led economics, managerial cultures and audit rituals have rationalised public institutions. In most parts of the public sector, vocations have been under-recognised, over-worked and under-paid. We can turn to nursing, caring, teaching and of course, academia, for examples.

Vocations and professional ethos were a preoccupation of early social theorists who saw them as a sort of moral fibre in the expanding industrial societies of Europe. Durkheim and Weber both placed public functionaries serving the greater good as essential to the bureaucracy of the modern state. The stereotype of the faceless, pen pushing bureaucrat lacking in emotion and sent to torment us continues to age well. Weber wrote a tidy little book about the vocations in science and politics. In science, the vocation faces forward in pursuit of truth at the neglect of looking back at ethics. To be objective meant freedom from the kind of nuanced thinking that belonged in the humanities, not the sciences. Politics as a vocation was the embodiment of leadership and concentration of power in the charismatic authority figure. Whatever its form, the theory of the vocation echoes psychoanalysis by arguing for suppression of the id and enlargement of the super ego. This ethos is enshrined in the Hypocratic Oath and institutional ethics of the caring professions to do no harm.

The vocation is not talked about very much in contemporary theory. We’ve experienced the rise of audit and accountability, corporate managerialism and financial thinking across the UK public sector. There are numerous important studies into these rituals of verification arguing that the pursuit of administrative goals become the end in itself of work. A new logics of care and dominant epistemology have emerged in public institutions that displace more authentic notions of what it means to care, cure, teach, serve - or rather, there is widespread lament of lost authenticity because these notions are the reasons why many people entered their chosen profession in the first place. And yet, we do not really know what has happened to our vocational aspirations. In starting such an investigation, we might ask why people do the job of carer, teacher, protector, service in the first place. Why, with all the bullshit, to quote Graeber, would anyone go to work and how, with all the bullshit, does anyone look themselves in the mirror. The coronavirus crisis has provided startling answers, and collectively we are grateful and celebratory, as though the vocations disappeared for a while, but now they are back. What relief! There must still be something magical in working in the undernourished public sector.

However, public institutions, no matter how financial, competitive, managed have always relied on their frontline staff inhabiting a sense of pursuing a vocation because it fuels the core labour force - and this spirit or ethos may in fact cascade along to inspire other forms of work that are not vocational but are still essential. The managerial regimes of neoliberalisation have not erased vocational dreams (only for them to reappear in a pandemic); they exploited them. Through coronavirus we might conclude that for too long we’ve endured the exploitation of vocational aspirations in order to freeze pay, casualise labour, intensify workloads, and extend hours in the pursuit of economic efficiency, while simultaneously awarding disproportionate salaries to parachutist managers and consultants, all because we know that in the end people will still go to work for the greater good. Put another way, revitalizing the vocations could form part of tearing down societal inequalities.

 

A group of people holding signs in front of a building, during the 2020 QMUL strike

 

Tags: Im/mobility; Precarious Work; Forced Immobility; Forced Mobility; Home; Migration; Privilege.

Transformed privileges of im/mobility and COVID-19 - 22 Apr 2020

Mumbai’s dhobi ghat, December 2018. Photo credit: Marcia Vera-Espinoza

By Hannah Schling, Lecturer in Human Geography; Marcia Vera Espinoza, Lecturer in Human Geography; Kavita Datta, Professor of Development Geography

22 April 2020

The global lock-down associated with the fight against COVID-19 has transformed the privileges, power, violence and hierarchies of im/mobility. The capacity to be immobile, by ‘staying at home’, is both premised upon, and has radically different embodied consequences depending on, articulations of age, class, gender, racialization, migration/residency status and dis/ability. Such consequences are further shaped by the spaces where these im/mobilities take place: the violence of existing forms of enforced immobility – in migrant workers dormitories, refugee camps, detention centres and prisons – taking on yet deadlier forms. In turn, whilst the social relations of reproduction, care, migration and labour are profoundly transformed, the contemporary moment is simultaneously shaped by continuities in the crises of social reproduction.   

 

Home cannot be considered simply a site of uncomplicated ‘safety’. While immobility at a bodily and home scale is burdensome for some, for others entrenched confinement within sites and relations of domestic violence poses immediate danger. 'Staying at home’ might also re-inscribe traumatic past experiences of confinement (e.g. in prisons or detention centres), exacerbate existing social loneliness and isolation, or mental health. Housing for many is a matter of constant precarity. Yet ‘staying at home’ is also an undeniable privilege for many others. Maintaining the home as a site of privileged social reproduction for some rests upon an architecture of social inequality. Reflecting the extent to which government responses have been driven by economic imperatives curiously juxtaposed against health, in many contexts there was an expectation that while ‘the vulnerable and high risk’ could be shielded, economic activity should be maintained among those deemed at lower risk. Escalating rates of infection has necessitated social distancing measures with those able to stay at home and work encouraged or ordered to do so. The continuing mobility of others – some recognized now as key workers – has been enforced in part through market mechanisms, and compelled through dependence on waged labour for ones own social reproduction. In short, the ability for many to stay at home rests upon a transfer of risk onto those continuing to service social reproduction needs.

 

Here we see how, whilst government responses to the pandemic produce new social categories of ‘vulnerability’, these do not map easily onto re-drawn positions of im/mobility. In practice this falls apart, as care workers, supermarket and warehouse workers, transport workers and countless are daily put in harms’ way. Social imaginaries which assert ‘key worker’ and ‘vulnerable/high risk’ as separated social subjects make visible endemic ableism and restrictive notions of health. Whilst social positionings as mobile or immobile have to some extent been re-drawn, relational dependence upon the socially reproductive labours of ‘others’ remains central – perhaps more visible than ever as structured along a social hierarchy of privilege, ‘vulnerability’, risk, violence, exploitation and social neglect.

 

(At least) a decade of austerity and disinvestment in countries like the U.K. is evidenced in an exponential growth in precarious employment embodied by zero-hour contract gig economy workers. As the service economy has been forced to shut down, so job losses have escalated. Coinciding with curtailed access to welfare – a disinvestment in the state and social services - recent government interventions have been criticised for limiting who can access the 80% of wages covered whilst on furlough – an optional scheme reliant on employer opt-in. In turn, distinctions between key workers are increasingly apparent. NHS doctors and nurses are deservedly valorised even while those employed in care work are lower down the pecking order comprised largely of low paid, untrained, zero-hour contract agency workers. Given poor working conditions, the estimated 122 000 vacancies in this sector are hardly surprising. The lack of PPE provision for carers, and the tragic death rate in care homes, raises long-range questions about the social valuing of care labour itself. Furthermore, the labour of others who service - the deliveroo drivers, the food delivery workers, warehouse workers, the refuse collectors - is perversely  invisibilised even further. The reduction of contact to a total minimum seems to blend such labour even further into a kind of ‘infrastructural’ form. Their social contact and mobility must be maintained - there is no ‘stay at home’ for them.

 

Hierarchies of im/mobility are well-illustrated by the situation of many migrant workers whose response to the pandemic has been to continue to work even at risk of exposure, forced incarceration in worker dormitories and/or a return home. Precarious legal status which restricts access to social welfare can compound the compulsion to risk exposure faced by many precarious, low-waged workers. For others, compelled mobility has a yet larger geography. The hastily implemented Indian lockdown set in motion hundreds of thousands of daily wage migrant workers. Faced with the prospect of no work, no food and widespread eviction from lodgings, they chose to ‘return home’ where the welcome was anything but warm. For others this option has been largely unavailable as governments have prioritised the return of elite ‘out of place’ citizens. These workers have been forced to stay in situ in countries like Singapore where migrants are confined in over-crowded dormitories identified as new COVID-19 hotspots. In other places, migrant workers have not even been allowed to return home, as is the case of more than 1000 Bolivian migrants stranded in the Chilean border due to shutdowns. Yet, the mobility of others – even across fortified borders – is facilitated especially in agricultural sectors so that harvests do not go to waste even while the workers themselves are fearful of being infected.

 

The mechanisms of the state to enforce immobility and social distancing have been further empowered, and there are grave concerns about how this will impact in particular racialised communities already targeted by police violence.  State enforcement of immobility is not, of course, a new thing. Beyond the unequal forms of privileged im/mobilities that are shaping our daily lives, existing forms of forced immobility in camps, prisons and detention centres across the globe take on a profoundly new violence. With the high risks of infection, the existing crisis of social reproduction within these spaces is amplified and embodied in new ways. Refugees and migrants stranded in refugee camps across Greece or Lebanon as well as in detention centres in the Mexican and US borders have long been living in harmful spaces of containment. Within these spaces, isolation may not be possible due to overcrowded accommodation, and the risk of an outbreak of the virus is high due to poor sanitation. In these cases, the way to deal with new vulnerabilities that emerge on top of long-standing processes of exclusion, may be to facilitate mobility. Indeed, in highlighting the structural and daily violence of prisons, camps and detention centres, COVID-19 is amplifying existing demands to ‘shut them down’. Particularly for spaces of migrants' containment, this is a solution many states are not willing to grant. Even more pernicious however is that, where allowed, mobility or release occur as forced deportations to places people left fearing persecution, where there are fragile health systems, or where it is difficult to return due to shutdown measures. Within spaces of forced immobility, migrants and refugees are developing their own strategies to protect themselves despite the restricted conditions. But in some places, the fears of the pandemic are also increasing tensions. In Mexico, for instance, a Guatemalan migrant died, and 14 others were taken to hospital after a riot broke out in a detention center due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus. Calls to release and/or securely relocate migrants and refugees have increased in the last few weeks.

 

The transformed privileges of im/mobility as a result of COVID-19 invite us to reflect on who can be im/mobile, in and through which spaces, how im/mobility is currently enforced, and how it is embodied. These scattered reflections are just a starting point for a wider range of conversations that we will be sharing in the new blog series 'Im/mobility in Coronatimes'. During the next few weeks, members of the School of Geography will be sharing our critical analysis and reflections in the hope of making sense of where we are, and shaping what might come.

 

Tags: Im/mobility; Social Reproduction; Care Work; Precarious Work; Forced Immobility; Forced Mobility; Camps, Prisons and Detention Centres; Home; Migration; Migrant Workers; Privilege.