Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen Yale University
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the intimate connections between public health governance, border enforcement, and domestic policing across the globe. In this short piece, I map some of these intimacies as I encountered them in the United States and Morocco, tracing how discourses of security and spatial tactics of quarantine intersect with the containment of racialized, gendered, and impoverished people at national borders, in detention facilities, and in prisons. Security discourses and containment practices converge around racialized fears of the mobile, “alien” body in foreign and domestic space, where the body in question slides between that of the novel coronavirus and the criminalized human (Ahmed, 2000). Closed borders, deportations, locked-down facilities, and stay-at-home orders ostensibly aim to seal us off from disease (foreign bodies), but in practice often seal off vulnerable people (as foreign bodies) in dangerous environments (Beisel, 2015). The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all of us, but whether one is quarantining from the virus or quarantining with the virus comes down to racialized determinations of belonging and difference. Crisis—be it a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, an urban crime wave, or an economic recession—and attendant reactions to draw lines, lock doors, or build walls rehearse repertoires of culpability, disposability, and (in)humanity that jeopardize the security and well-being of us all.
Since 2016, I have conducted research on migration and border enforcement in Moroccan cities, focusing on how European policies enroll Morocco’s participation as a country-wide container for “black” migrants as they move through Morocco en route to Europe. I have argued that border fences and militarized sea patrols between North Africa and Europe are the more spectacular dimensions of a racial border that also contains migrant people in urban space through abandonment, indebtedness, and destitution (Gross-Wyrtzen, 2020). The pandemic has made migrant people’s situations more desperate, and strict lockdowns across the country (preventing any movement outside the home without a notarized pass) have further invisiblized their plight. Many migrants and refugees depend upon begging for survival; restrictions on movement in public space have emptied city streets, leaving them without means for subsistence. Meanwhile, to comply with quarantine orders, NGOs that provide food or medical assistance ceased or severely restricted their operations. Migrant women, who are often bound to countrymen through patronage relationships or trafficking arrangements, were made especially precarious. A Nigerian friend reported that her partner and others in the home verbally and physically abused her, but for the first four months she could not step outside to escape, even for a few minutes. At the same time, local and national police continued border enforcement operations, raiding and destroying migrant encampments, actions that made migrant people more vulnerable to arrest or deportation for violating orders to “stay home.” In June, in the Western Saharan city of Laayoune, police raided homes and workplaces, rounding up more than 50 migrant people, forcibly testing them for COVID-19, and then confining them to an empty school building without running water, food, or clothing for more than a week while awaiting results (Louarn, 2020).
Despite severe restrictions on movement within the country, thousands of migrants have launched boats from North African shores in an attempt to reach Europe via the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean Sea (and in at least one case, Moroccan migrants stranded in Spain have attempted the reverse trip). Citing fear of the virus, European countries closed their ports, and rescue boats ceased to operate for the first two months; when rescues resumed, Greece, Italy and Malta refused to admit those rescued, causing weeks-long standoffs and in one case, six suicide attempts by refugees and migrants held on board a humanitarian vessel (“Suicide attempts,” 2020).
At home in New Haven, Connecticut, I have spent the past year and a half volunteering among people experiencing incarceration or immigration detention, populations that are disproportionately drawn from Black, “Hispanic,” and Indigenous communities (Sakala, 2014). The pandemic caused the lockdown of prisons and jails across the United States, halting family visits and volunteer-run programs, and delaying court dates by months. In April, as the virus picked up speed, the Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC) transferred 183 COVID-positive prisoners to punitive isolation units at Northern Correctional, just weeks after the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture had publicly criticized Connecticut’s widespread and inappropriate use of solitary confinement (Lyons, 2020). Calls from activists and medical professionals to decarcerate led to the release of 1,455 people who the DOC deemed to pose a “low threat” to public safety, but the closure of homeless shelters, halfway houses, and treatment centers coupled with the transition to online-only health services meant many of those released remained at risk for contracting the disease or in otherwise life-threatening circumstances.
On May 1, as the virus spread uncontrolled through Connecticut’s prisons (in part due to the late and under-enforced requirement of DOC employees to wear masks and practice social distancing), DOC closed showering facilities in all central housing units across the state. People inside continued to sleep in dormitory-style rooms with less than six feet distance between them and their neighbors; prisoner-workers and DOC employees circulated around the facilities without adequate protective equipment. The Connecticut Bail Fund, which established a hotline for Connecticut inmates and immigrant detainees held in a nearby Bristol, Massachusetts prison, received hundreds of reports by callers regarding lack of hygiene and protective supplies (soap, masks, cleaning supplies), the failure to test DOC employees and prisoners for COVID, and the requirement of symptomatic people to continue reporting for their prison jobs (Connecticut Bail Fund Hotline Volunteers, 2020).
As Stuart Hall et al. (1978) have written, crisis—and discourses that manufacture or shape the contours of crisis—provides the state new openings and enhanced legitimacy to exert its raw, violent power against social Others. Like Sara Ahmed, Hall demonstrates how particular framings— in this case, “muggings” in the United Kingdom—index a host of meanings that include “the race conflict, the urban crisis, rising crime; the breakdown of ‘law and order’” and so on (Hall et al. 1978, 27). The figure haunting UK moral panics around mugging was a Black or immigrant young man, reified through policing practices (being “on the lookout for ‘colored young men’”) and through media narratives linking riskiness to blackness or foreignness (ibid., 27). Today, the “flood of refugees” in Europe, Trump’s “invasion of Central American gangs” at the Mexico border, and the casting of sub-Saharan migration as “Le Peril Noir” in Morocco have prompted billions of dollars of investment in militarized border technologies and enlisted both international actors (neighbor states, humanitarian organizations, defense contractors) and local criminal justice actors in the control and containment of racialized “threats” to the health of the social body.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, repeated speeches by the president of the United States invoking the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu” sought to establish the disease as foreign to the U.S. national body, locating it in Other geographies and bodies. These racialized labels emphasizing the virus as foreign or exogenous also adhered to U.S. citizens: between March and June, 2,100 hate incidents were reported, including the stabbing of an Asian American family in a Texas grocery store (Donaghue 2020; Ramirez 2020). In Morocco, the first documented case of the coronavirus was heralded on the cover of newsweekly Le Reporter (March 5, 2020) along with the image of a hoodie-wearing Black man, even though the actual infected person was a non-Black Moroccan national recently returned from Italy. In both Morocco and the United States, borders were closed, though in the case of the United States, travel to and from European states remained unchecked for several weeks even as the number of European infections spiked alarmingly. The racial discourses and uneven practices of containment expose a more fundamental border, one that seeks to expel racialized Others—viruses, citizens, migrants and refugees, incarcerated people—not only from the national body but from the realm of the human.
Though the virus and various state responses have impacted everyone, for marginalized communities the “novel-ness” of the coronavirus compounds already existing physical, legal, social, and economic vulnerabilities. This has happened in myriad ways that include the large number of “essential workers” drawn from these communities who must choose between exposing themselves to the virus or losing their jobs or visas; the predisposition of some groups to more serious effects of the virus due to structural factors impacting health outcomes; and failures of economic relief packages or social services to include undocumented people. Importantly, the public health emergency has lent a new layer of legitimacy to the disproportionate amount of policing and containment directed at the racialized poor, and has thickened the notion of security by adding risk of spreading disease to other categories of riskiness already affixed to certain communities— criminality, terrorism, or “stealing” jobs.
This entanglement of public health with practices of policing and containment is not new. Foucault linked the birth of the modern prison to the disciplinary mechanisms of 17th century plague cities in Europe. Fear of contamination and disease spurred the development of modern-day policing and spatial strategies of enclosure from the European plague city to the colonial cordon sanitaire. Likewise, immigration law and border controls were instituted as means to protect the national body from physical and moral diseases thought to be carried by or embodied in racial Others. As Alison Bashford meticulously detailed in her history of public health governance in Australia, “health management and race management” are fundamental logics of border control and are intimately entwined with (white, settler) nation-building (2004, 138). Today public health governance has become increasingly reliant upon military and police agents whose relationships with vulnerable populations is characterized by suspicion and mistrust (Wenham 2019). The sweeping measures put in place by the Moroccan state to contain COVID-19 fell hardest on migrant people and impoverished Moroccans, people who had to choose between complying with quarantine orders or feeding themselves and loved ones, and who were subsequently arrested or beaten by police enforcing public health mandates. The closing of borders between Europe and Morocco stranded Moroccan migrant workers in Europe without jobs or means to get home, and left boatloads of African and Middle Eastern migrants in distress in Mediterranean and Atlantic waters. Hundreds have drowned. In the US, COVID-19 has torn through prisons, jails and detention centers, adding to the already unconscionable death toll among Black, Latinx, and aged populations even as white nationalists and their president flouted advice on mask-wearing and called on elderly people to sacrifice themselves (Levin, 2020).
We will look back on this period not only as the age of COVID but the age of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Oluwatoyin Salau, of Jacob Blake, of Abdel Wahab Yousif, of Michel Pitchou Bola, of the numerous people who perished from the rapacious violence of the disease and the racial state. The scale of the pandemic and its effects expose a counter-critique that identifies how certain rationalities of security, human value, and legitimate violence take root in various places and through multiple discourses and domains of state power, especially in moments of crisis. We need something other than police or containment to ensure our survival and well-being as a people-species. We need fewer lines, not more, if we are ever to achieve what Katherine McKittrick (2006) calls “more humanly workable geographies,” expansive, open territories in which no one is illegal, no one is disposable, no one’s death is “reasonable” or justifiable, no one’s humanity is dependent upon the dehumanization of another.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to my comrades at the Connecticut Bail Fund and migrant friends and interlocutors in Morocco for fighting the fight. Thanks also to Son Ca Lam, always a close and honest reader.
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Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen is a postdoctoral associate with the Council for African Studies and a Faculty Fellow (2019-2020) in the Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. She is a feminist geographer whose work focuses on the relationship between borders, race, and political economy between Africa and Europe. Leslie received her PhD in geography from Clark University in 2019. Her book manuscript, entitled Bordering Blackness: The Production of Race in the Morocco-EU Immigration Regime, draws on 11 months of ethnographic research among West and Central African migrants moving through or contained within Morocco, and was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship. Her research has been published in Society and Space, the Journal of North African Studies, and chapters in edited volumes.