An Essay on Pandemic Borders: From ‘Immunitary Dispositif’ to Affirmative Ethics

An eighth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Umut Ozguc. Umut is postdoctoral research fellow in International Ethics at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia. She is a critical IR scholar working on critical security and border studies, settler colonialism, spatial theory, resistance and posthumanism. Currently, she is working on a research project on the ecological impacts of border walls. Her current research aims to challenge the overly anthropocentric focus of the contemporary debates over borders and mobility.


Those applying for temporary or permanent residency in Australia know well that you can only be granted a visa if you meet the health requirements set by the Australian Government. That is to mean, you should not pose a threat to the public health of the nation. The Department of Home Affairs website states that  it says, if you have any health condition it should not pose a significant cost to the Australian community ‘in terms of the health care or community services required to manage [the] condition.’ The result of the health examination is not revealed to applicants; it is a confidential document used only for migration purposes and a powerful document that as determines whether you are eligible to cross the border. I cannot recall how many times I had to undergo a medical examination for my visa applications, but I do remember the anxiety I felt each time. The medical examination is not a neutral process; it is a performative act that classifies, occupies and eventually transforms your body into a border- line between you and Australia.

Borders are not lines on the map, they are an affective experience produced by our everyday movements, narratives and codes that simultaneously define our relations with the world. We tend to think of borders as legal administrative lines separating sovereign units. They are indeed lines, but not simply legal and administrative ones. And they are certainly not straight lines, but floating ones that could act as boundaries between life and death. For some, borders are everywhere. For others, they are imperceptible. That is why, as Achille Mbembe (2019, 99) suggests, it is necessary to talk about the process of ‘borderization’—how certain spaces are turned into ‘impassable places’ for certain people, while always being accessible to others.

This essay is about how, during the current public health crisis, certain bodies are turned into a border between life and death and how different practices of ‘borderization’ continue to operate to intensify global inequalities, racism and narcissistic celebration of established modes of politics and its economy of violence. My aim is to define the pandemic border from the perspective of those who experience it. I argue that the pandemic border, like all other borders, is not a static construction having a final form, but an affective experience. It changes our perception of time and space and is altered by those perceptions. It shapes our bodily experiences and is affected by our bodily movements. And, perhaps most importantly, the border determines who we are and is determined by our encounters with others. In the contemporary operation of biopolitical borders, COVID-19 operates as a political actor, as an ‘actant’, which is, as Bennett (2010, 9) reads it, ‘neither an object nor a subject, but as an ‘intervener’,  or a ‘parasite’ (Serres, 2007), an intermediary, a mediator that causes disruption and a new system within the system.

Border Performances

In late March 2020, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, hundreds of migrant workers lost their hopes of finding jobs and started to leave the large cities in India. They walked hundreds of kilometres to return to their home villages. ‘No planes, no trains, no interstate buses and no taxis’, thousands are ‘fleeing a pandemic’ on foot reported Washington Post on 28 March:

They were unsure of their route or where they would sleep or how they would eat, but one thing was certain: Without work, they cannot survive in the city (Slater and Masih, 2020).

The unexpected lockdowns in India exposed thousands of workers to police violence, starvation and even death.  On 1 April, the New York Times (Beech, 2020) reported how returned workers were increasingly perceived as health threats in their home villages amid fears that they might spread the virus. Some could not even reach their homes, having been  trapped after the Indian Government closed state borders to restrict movement (Roy, 2020).

It was not only Indian workers who suddenly found themselves neither inside nor outside of borders. Many low-wage Nepalis labourers started walking home but were stopped at the border after Nepal restricted any movement from India (Shrestha, 2020). Exposing how current pandemic crisis exacerbated the economic divide in India, Arundhati Roy (April, 2020) wrote powerfully in early April:

The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops, restaurants, factories and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual. Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days. Some died on the way.

The politics of pandemic borders is a form of necropolitics, the ultimate expression of sovereign ‘power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’ (Mbembe, 2003: 11, emphasis added). What defines the necropolitics of pandemic borders is ‘the economy of violence’—the powerful interplay between spectacular violence (outburst of physical violence) and suspended violence (invisible forms of violence that grow deeply within every organ of the ruling power) (Azoulay and Ophir, 2012).  Suspended violence, argue Azoulay and Ophir, allows the ruling power to operate without law, discipline or ideology, and to proceed without war or catastrophe. Suspended violence does not eradicate spectacular violence. In the context of pandemic borders, spectacular violence becomes more imminent and visible, and sovereign decides ‘who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’ (Mbembe, 2003: 27, emphasis in original).

Borders are closing, but they are not changing as many suggest. Instead, their violence appears in different forms and exposed on different ‘disposable’ bodies. The necropolitics of India’s pandemic borders remind me of the images of refugees walking from Budapest to Austria in September 2015 and Prime Minister Victor Orban’s words depicting those walking across borders as marching ‘armies’, ‘invaders’, ‘poison’ and a threat to European lives and civilisation (Guardian, 2015). In 2015, thousands crossed Europe’s borders on foot and were left outside the protection of international law and abandoned to the mercy of sovereign. And thousands of refugees are still on the move, walking from Syria to Turkey to Greece (Stevis-Gridness &Kingsley, 2020).

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad

Photograph: New Delhi, India. Anushree Fadnavi/Reuters (Source: Aljazeera, 30 March 2020)

Austria Covid

Photograph: Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty (Source: The Guardian, 5 September 2015)

Borders are lived spaces actualised by bodies on the move. Walking is a performative act, very much like a speech act, writes Michel de Certeau (1984). Walking is ‘a space of enunciation’; it creates new discourses, narratives, spaces, territories and borders within the old ones or makes the old ones more visible (de Certeau 1984: 98).  Seeing walking as a performative act helps us see borders as never stable but always in flux. In the context of current crisis, walking and crossing boundaries perform the pandemic border, turning it into a site where economic, cultural, racial and bodily differences are negotiated. Thus pandemic borders make existing mobility injustices more visible and deeper.

Refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable temporary migrants, whose basic right to move was restricted before the current crisis, are once again transformed into ‘abject subjects’ of borders. Their bodies are now too costly ‘in terms of the health care or community services required to manage’ them. Many European countries have already closed their maritime and land borders, suspended asylum procedures and closed immigration offices. In France, for example, asylum applications can now only be made by post, but it is not clear how this will work in practice. (ECRE, 2020). In Serbia, asylum seekers cannot be registered, meaning that ‘no one can declare their intention to seek asylum’ ( ECRE, 2020). As refugee bodies are increasingly seen as bodies spreading virus, many European countries justify these restrictive measures in the name of ‘public’ health. Those ‘disposable bodies’, who are excluded from the public, can no longer seek asylum. Having no place to go, they are once again left at ‘non-places’ that are neither inside nor outside of state territories.

Many argue that COVID-19 can affect anyone and does not discriminate. It actually does. On pandemic borders we do not have the same privileges. We are not all in this together. Who is the ‘we’ in those narratives of togetherness? What defines pandemic borders is differential exposure and vulnerability to COVID-19. Once again, necropolitics is turning borders into deathspaces for those excluded from the global mobility regime.

Multiplication of Biopolitical Borders and Familiar Sites of ‘Immunitary Dispositif

‘Borders are vacillating,’ wrote Etienne Balibar (1998) in his often-quoted piece The Borders of Europe. Borders, he argued, are proliferating, multiplying and migrating away from the territorial edges of the state. His famous words, ‘borders are everywhere’, have influenced critical border studies in the last couple of decades and the field’s focus on biopolitical borders: mobile borders that operate primarily as ‘lines in the sand’ (Parker and Vaughan-Williams, 2009). The central focus of this scholarship is to show how borders move simultaneously with the bodies they seek to control and manage. The biopolitical border does not simply separate two sovereign states and their administrative units. It extends its scope beyond control of the entry and exit points of a state to management of life at the local, national, regional and global levels. It generates new disciplinary-biopolitical strategies and improves already existing traditional methods of control such as creation of new quarantine zones and construction of border walls and fences. The biopolitical border, in short, intervene in the population and takes life as its main object of intervention. The border, in this Foucauldian language, is a political technology whose object is population management.

Much has been written on how biopolitical borders reinforce established binary categories such as illegal/legal, regular/irregular and documented/undocumented. The creation of such binary categories, Bryan Turner (2007) rightly argues, aims to create a smooth liberal mobility regime for trusted bodies and an immobility regime for undesirable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. He suggests that the contemporary mobility regime shows the emergence of a global ‘enclave society’ in which undesirable bodies increasingly become subject of different modes of sequestration, exclusion and imprisonment to protect ‘trusted bodies.’

I take these arguments on biopolitical borders a step further and argue that in the current context, biopolitical borders are increasingly becoming ‘immunitary dispositif’ for those who enjoyed all the privileges of liberal mobility regime before COVID-19. For Roberto Esposito, borders and immigration controls are solid expressions of immunisation paradigm of the modern state and its biopolitical existence.  The term ‘immunity’ refers to the resistance of an organism to the harmful effects of pathogens. In political-juridical language, immunity denotes an attempt to protect the social body from the danger of communal interaction through the use of what it opposes (Esposito, 2011: 7). For Esposito, national borders are constitutive elements of an immunity paradigm which presupposes, but also negates community, a common life, an obligation of gift giving. Immunitas is a negative protection of the self. It implies the exemption or exception from an obligation to care for others: ‘the risk of contamination immediately liquidates contact, relationality, and being in common’ (Esposito, 2012: 59).

Esposito (2011: 140) suggests that within the framework of immunization paradigm ‘to become the object of political “care”, life had to be separated off and closed up inside progressively desocialised spaces that were meant to immunize it against anything arising from community.’ In the current climate, social distancing rules and closure of national borders protect and preserve the life of those who ‘become the object of political care’ while excluding those ‘disposable bodies’ from any protection.  Today what we are witnessing is that the familiar sites of borders, such as detention centres, ships, islands and camps, operate as immunitary dispositif. These sites protect the existent immobility and future mobility of those ‘trusted bodies’ from the risk of contamination by refugees, asylum seekers or unwanted immigrants. Thus, it is not surprising to see that many refugees are still being kept in overly crowded detention centres and camps on islands. In late March, for example, Human Rights Watch ( 2020) reported that Greece unlawfully detained nearly 2,000 asylum seekers in two overly crowded detention sites without providing them health protections. Doctors Without Borders called for the evacuation of  refugee camps on Lesbos, Greece, after the first confirmed case on the island in March.  The camps on ‘hot-spot’ islands of Greece are now in lockdown and refugees are not allowed to leave (Guardian,  2020). These refugees are thus left in overly crowded conditions without any protection or health care. We see here that biopolitics (a politics of life) and thanatopolitics (a politics of death) are not two different realms, but simply two sides of the same coin. As Hagar Kotef (2015: 54) argues in her critique of liberal governance of mobility, ‘movement of some limits, hides, even denies the existence of others…the movement of some is further maximized by this effacement of others and their need to move.’

Towards ‘Common Immunity’:  Affective Politics of Borders

As I write this essay, increasingly large number of refugees are abandoned at sea, pushed back in boats and kept in overly crowded detention centres in Australia and elsewhere. One issue currently not making headlines is that refugees continue to attempt to cross borders in unseaworthy boats and their journeys are becoming more dangerous than ever. Last week, for example, 12 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea due to the inaction of authorities including Malta, Italy, Libya, Portugal, Germany and Frontex (Alarm Phone, 2020). On 11April, Alarm Phone alerted authorities and tweeted that boats of 47 and 55 people were in distress in Malta’s search and rescue zone. It reported that EU air assets monitored the boats for days without responding to distress calls. Calling authorities for an action, Alarm Phone tweeted: ‘how is it to watch people slowly die from above?’

Alarm Phone

Similarly, in Asia, 400 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh were abandoned at sea for weeks after their boat was turned away from Malaysia ( The New Humanitarian, 2020). In April, Human Rights Watch reported that some Lebanese municipalities have introduced discriminatory restrictions on the movement of Syrian refugees, thus preventing them from protecting themselves against the spread of infection (HRW, 2020).

We are living in a time of uncertainty and fear. It seems necropolitics will continue to be the defining force of border politics as states are increasingly adopting border closures and restrictive policies against refugees, asylum seekers and temporary migrants. It seems there is no hope for alternative border politics, but the ongoing violence of borders is not the conclusion I want to drive here. I still strongly believe that there are always alternative practices immanent within dominant forms of politics. I believe that politics of hope could be energised by the power of collective experiments that work towards the creation of alternative forms of collective life beyond the current necropolitics of borders. Those collective movements could replace the negative protection of ‘the self’ with ‘common immunity’, ‘affirmative immunity’. As Esposito (2011: 165) asks, can we imagine a different form of immunity, a radically different interpretative perspective that could take us beyond the narcissistic defence of the self against others. His answer is ‘common immunity’ which challenges the negative identity of the immunological self and its closure to difference. I suggest that common immunity is a call for affirmative ethics, celebration of life-in-difference, a return to the outside, to the politics of becoming stranger to our ‘normal’ selves, it is ‘becoming-other’.

At the beginning of this essay, I argued that borders are affective experiences. My aim here is not to present an intellectual optimism while I write in the comfort of my home and enjoy the privileges of social distancing rules. I do not disregard the ongoing practices of colonisation, power imbalances and harsh modes of brutal capitalism. However, I would like to suggest that, as I argue elsewhere, seeing borders as affective experiences offers us an alternative interpretation that can challenge the contemporary violent configuration of border politics (Ozguc, 2020). By ‘affect’ I do not mean emotions; rather I use ‘affect’ in a Deleuzian-Spinozist sense to express the capacity of bodies to change. Affect signifies the transformational capacities of bodies in their encounters with one another. Affect is a relational process: ‘When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before. You have made a transition, however slight’ (Massumi, 2015:4). For Deleuze and Guattari, affect is the force behind all forms of social and political formations. We certainly do not know in advance whether these transformations will lead to a better future. Sometimes our encounters with one another cause ‘sad passions’ and reduce our capacities (Deleuze, 1988). The body, whether collective or individual, could be affected in many different ways. But affective politics offers us hope as it indicates that the self-destructive reading of the immunity paradigm is not necessarily the only possibility. Affective politics is our capacity to change the former border between us and others. It indicates our capacity to become something other than what we are now. It is our transformational power to open ourselves to difference and to become a stranger to the negative protection of the immunity paradigm. Perhaps that is why perhaps Massumi insists that ‘affect’ is a word for hope.

Seeing the border as an affective experience, therefore, means understanding it as a ‘multiplicity of possibilities, rather than a closed system’ (Ozguc, 2020). Borders are not natural constructs. They are relational processes made up of affective bodies. Violent borders do not need to be the only choice we have. COVID-19 could act as a wake-up call for all of us that the necropolitics of contemporary borders is not working. It simply creates deathscapes for those excluded from the right to human security. It is time to rethink why closed borders are ethically a failed project and why we, more than ever before, as Rosi Braidotti (2011: 295) writes brilliantly, need affirmative ethics ‘in spite of the times’:

The ethical process of transforming negative into positive passions engenders a politics of affirmation in the sense of creating the conditions for endurance and hence for a sustainable future. …The ethical-political concept here is the necessity to think with the times and in spite of the times, not in a belligerent mode of oppositional consciousness, but as a humble and empowering gesture of coconstruction of social horizons of hope.

I suggest that this hope starts with rethinking contemporary border politics that defend our narrowly defined exclusive social imaginaries at the time of current crisis. At a time when we ask how to return to the ‘old normal’, I hope that we fundamentally redefine our ‘normal’ lives.

REFERENCES

Alarm Phone. 2020. “Twelve Deaths and a Secret Push-Back to Libya.” AlarmPhone (blog). April 16, 2020. https://alarmphone.org/en/2020/04/16/twelve-deaths-and-a-secret-push-back-to-libya/.

Azoulay, Ariellay, and Adi Ophir. 2012. One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine. Translated by Tal Haran. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Balibar, Etienne. 1998. “‘The Borders of Europe’, in Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (Eds.). In Cosmopolitics, Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 216–29.

Beech, Hannah. 2020. “Coronavirus Finds Fuel in a World of Migrants.” New York Times, April 10, 2020, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/world/asia/coronavirus-migrants.html.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Braidotti, Rosi. 2011. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Certeau, Michel de. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles). 2020. “Information Sheet 8 April 2020: COVID-19 Measures Related to Asylum and Migration across Europe.”

Esposito, Roberto. 2008. Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 2011. Immunitas: The Protection and Negations of Life. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

———. 2013. Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics. New York: Fordham University Press.

Guardian. 2015. “Refugees ‘Look like an Army’, Says Hungarian PM Viktor Orban.” Guardian, October 23, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/23/refugees-look-like-an-army-says-hungarian-pm-viktor-orban.

Human Rights Watch. 2020a. “Greece: Nearly 2,000 New Arrivals Detained in Overcrowded, Mainland Camps.” https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/31/greece-nearly-2000-new-arrivals-detained-overcrowded-mainland-camps.

———. 2020b. “Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response.” https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-covid-19-response.

Massumi, Brian. 2015. Politics of Affect. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.

Mbembe, Achille. 2019. “Necropolitics.” Theory in Forms. Durham: Duke University Press.

——— 2003. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

New Humanitarian. 2020. “Rohingya Boat Rescued after Weeks at Sea.” The New Humanitarian, April 16, 2020. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2020/04/16/Bangladesh-Rohingya-boat-rescued.

Ozguc, Umut. 2020. “Borders, Detention, and the Disruptive Power of the Noisy-Subject.” International Political Sociology 14 (1): 77–93.

Parker, Noel, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. 2009. “Lines in the Sand? Towards an Agenda for Critical Border Studies.” Geopolitics 14 (3): 582–87.

Roy, Arundhati. 2020. The Pandemic Is a Portal. Financial Times, April. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.

Shrestha, Subina. 2020. “Hundreds of Nepalese Stuck at India Border amid COVID-19 Lockdown.” Al Jazeera, April 1, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/hundreds-nepalese-stuck-india-border-covid-19-lockdown-200401031905310.html.

Slater, Joanna, and Nina Masih. 2020. “India Coronavirus: Migrant Workers Stranded by Lockdown Walk Hundreds of Miles Home.” Washington Post, March 28, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-coronavirus-lockdown-migrant-workers/2020/03/27/a62df166-6f7d-11ea-a156-0048b62cdb51_story.html.

Spinney, Laura. 2020. “Fears of Catastrophe as Greece Puts Migrant Camps into Lockdown.” The Guardian, March 21, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/21/fears-catastrophe-greece-migrant-camps-lockdown-coronavirus.

Stevis-Gridneff, Matina, and Patrick Kingsley. 2020. “Turkey, Pressing E.U. for Help in Syria, Threatens to Open Borders to Refugees.” New York Times, February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/world/europe/turkey-refugees-Geece-erdogan.html.

Turner, Bryan S. 2007. “The Enclave Society: Towards a Sociology of Immobility.” European Journal of Social Theory 10 (2): 287–304.

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