Covid-19: Redrawn Borders, Redefined Lives – A Report

 On 8th July 2020, the Calcutta Research Group (CRG), in collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung   and Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna, organised a webinar which sought to address the sudden visibility of India’s migrant workers and questions regarding borders, inequality, public health and care. Keeping in mind that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged not simply as a public health and economic crisis but also as one that has thrown migrant workers into deep turmoil, the webinar sought to interrogate issues of movement, sovereignty, governance, and borders between people, societies and states. Annesha Saha reports.

The first speaker of the event was Prof. Sandro Mezzadra, Associate Professor, University of Bologna and a member of the International Advisory Committee of CRG. Prof. Paula Banerjee who was the second speaker for the day is a Professor at the University of Calcutta and also a member of CRG. The moderator for the session was Dr. Samata Biswas, Assistant Professor at the Sanskrit College and University and also a member of CRG.

Biswas opened the session by introducing CRG and spoke about the institution’s active involvement in research, dialogue and advocacy work in the field of migration and forced migration studies. She mentioned that this webinar series is a continuation of and a response to two of CRG’s most recent publications: Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and the Migrant Workers, edited by Prof. Ranabir Samaddar which delves into the political and ethical implications of the epidemic, and Burdens of an Epidemic: A Policy Perspective on Covid-19 and Migrant Workers, also edited by Prof. Ranabir Samaddar, which presents a policy perspective of the present situation.

Mezzadra began his talk by situating migrants as people who suffer the most from the present pandemic. He referred to migrants in Libyan detention camps enduring conditions of forced immobility, and to those along the US-Mexico border in similar situations. He stressed that the predicament migrants find themselves in during the current pandemic is not limited to conditions of forced immobility but that it also coincides with that of forced mobility. Referring to Borders of an Epidemic and how it demonstrates that the pandemic and its management is a reorganization of the whole economy of mobility and immobility, he contends that the present pandemic has far-reaching consequences for the structures and subjective experiences of domination and exploitation. He introduced the term “shock mobility” coined by Prof. Biao Xiang to account for the unusual traffic patterns that involve essential workers varying from public health and factory workers to workers employed in agriculture and logistical houses. Focusing particularly on Italy, he stated that the geography of the pandemic after the lockdown coincided with that of the exploitation of migrant workers. He proceeded to ask questions regarding the global scope of the pandemic and the redrawing of borders. The virus has prompted the sudden emergence of a global crisis. The uneven spread of the virus can be connected to how colonial legacy continues to shape its circulation in many parts of the world,in the United States and also in Brazil where African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous peoples have been disproportionately affected. The spread of COVID-19 becomes for him a classic instance of a global process.

Addressing a topic that has long been at the centre of his collaborations with CRG,  Mezzadra spoke of his attempts to study global processes over the last decade, with particular emphasis on logistics. Research and consequent struggle has deeply politicised the seemingly neutral question of logistics. He referred to his work with Brett Neilson (Border as Method, or, Multiplication of Labour) to introduce the concept of the “skeleton of capitalist globalisation” and emphasized that this logistical skeleton inscribes itself with a special and even jurisdictional autonomy onto the political geography organised around national and international relations. He pointed out that because logistical spaces – supply chains, transport and communication networks – are spaces of capital, these two spheres should be equated with each other but today they appear to be moving out of sync. Geopolitical borders struggle to contain, incorporate and discipline economic spatiality whose workings internally produce precise lines of demarcation, of inclusion and exclusion and deploy effects of command, that have dramatic effects on the lives of entire populations. Spaces of citizenship that borders circumscribe are violently disrupted by such effects and the intensification of inequality. The hypothesis of an increasing regionalisation of global capital is one that should be taken into serious consideration. Regionalisation as a process cannot be theoretically grasped with a notion of pluralism of greater spaces nor by a mere proliferation of more or less tightly integrated regional organizations. Global capital can be framed around processes of regionalisation that were already underway before the pandemic. In his concluding remarks, Mezzadra expressed his conviction that the kind of emerging regional formations that we will be faced with will bear crucial consequences for class struggle and the development of class struggle will in turn shape the processes of regionalisation.

Paula Banerjee’s talk sought to address the reformulation of borders and geographical spaces as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. She spoke of the sixteen migrant workers who were walking along the railway tracks to get home and were brutally killed when a train ran over them, on 8th May 2020. She pointed out the irony that although migrants are cast away as the untouchables, the contaminants, in India at least, the virus was spread not through the poorer sections of the community but through the affluent classes. Introducing the notion of the virus as the great leveller which does not discriminate between caste, class or religion, she argues that the Covid-19 virus does not stop at the borders of capital and instead breaks through different kinds of borders. She then looked at the state’s response in trying to manage the spread of this virus that continues to subvert national and international borders as we know them. Our reaction as a state and a nation has been to erect further borders. Condemning the idea that the erection of national and state borders are effective solutions to stop the spread of the virus, she asked why lockdowns inevitably meant the lockdown of people’s access to resources. She talked about how the state borders in turn proliferated into borders in the streets and in districts. The migrant exodus is essentially an act that questions and subverts the whole notion of citizenship. The notion of healthcare has long since been thought of as apolitical, but thanks to the present pandemic, healthcare has also been sufficiently politicised. She viewed the lockdown as an attempt on the part of the governing elite to lock themselves in and create borders to retain and safeguard their own affluence. The state has been fundamentally visualised as depoliticised inside, and the outer political spaces are prevented from making inroads into this depoliticised space. Roads are then logistical spaces of rupture and of subversion. Banerjee argued that if the vulnerable sections of the society do not have access to such spaces of claim-making then no subversion of borders will ever be made possible.

Biswas closed the session with a note of hope, echoing the speakers’ resurgent belief in class struggle.

Annesha Saha is a fincal year undergraduate student at Bethune College, Kolkata. She can be reached at sahaannesha31@gmail.com

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