In view of Covid-19, I feel compelled to look back at the SARS crisis 2002-2004. The epidemic was stylized by mass media across the globe as the first abstract menace of the 21st century. Today, it is considered a warning example for vulnerability in the age of globalization. Marshall McLuhan already gestured towards this in 1962 with his concept of the global village, theorizing that such vulnerability has many aspects. Not reducible to the rapid spread of a contagious disease, the vulnerability of the networked, globalized world has much to do with the ever-accelerating spread of media information as a catalyst of mass paranoia, in turn creating the basis for autocratic tendencies.
Unsurprisingly, academic analyses of the SARS crisis in Hong Kong such as those undertaken by Lu Yen Roloff and Claire Hooker and S. Harris Ali show how that ‘crisis’ was instrumentalized to advance illiberal security politics. Their research reveals how in doing so, ‘crisis management’ has enabled a shift of political power towards the autocratic, coupled with, for instance, the curtailment of civil and human rights. Given that this shift has occurred in times of neoliberal restructuring, the question is how such developments impact democracies – a question that also inevitably emerges under the conditions of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2019-2020.
Instrumentalizing vulnerability in China
To answer it, one turns almost automatically to China. The country is celebrated as a functioning system and the World Health Organization has authorized an official report that supports this view. Problems are hardly scrutinized in this context. Still, there are many indicators of, for instance, autocratic tendencies in China. Reportedly, the management of the “coronavirus crisis” has deepened human rights abuses, including “arbitrary detention, crackdown on freedom of speech and lack of access to information.” All of this is symbolically underscored by the nomination of a former police chief as the new Communist Party Secretary of Hubei – the first epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak – and the repression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Perhaps the most widely noticed indicator, however, is the heavily publicized launch of a “coronavirus tracking app.” Dubbed the “close contact detector,” the app is supposed to “let people know whether they are at risk of catching the disease based on if they have been in close proximity with someone who has it.” Moreover, this app is supposed to monitor and regulate one’s movements in social space, through to algorithmically dictating quarantines. The New York Times notes with astonishment that this app “appears to send personal data to police, in a troubling precedent for automated social control.” Meanwhile, MIT Technology Review states vaguely that “Tracking people to tell them whether they’ve been in close contact with a virus carrier might cause a whole new series of complicated issues”, only implicitly hinting at what CNBC explicitly articulates when speculating that “Coronavirus could be a ‘catalyst’ for China to boost its mass surveillance machine.”
Such news is not surprising. After all, China is widely known as an autocratic apparatus increasingly driven by intelligent machines – from AI-driven programs such as the Social Credit System to far-reaching facial recognition initiatives. This circumstance seems to mislead many commentators. When they critically inquire into autocratic tendencies under the conditions of Covid-19, then they limit it to China – that's because in Western mass media discourse China represents an autocratic system, while the West represents liberal democracy. Ultimately, this kind of criticism turns a blind eye to what is happening in ‘our’ societies. Now, considering the international health emergency as a severe political crisis in the US may be rather obvious, but what about in Europe? How shall one scrutinize autocratic tendencies in managing the so-called ‘corona crisis’ in the EU? Are democratic principles being corrupted, human and civil rights suspended? Is the uneven distribution of risks enhanced through ‘crisis management’?
Weaponizing health security in Europe
To begin with, discussing how the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe catalyzes autocratic tendencies that override ‘our rights,’ we need to look at how these tendencies impact ‘the bottom.’ This means that the benchmark for autocratic tendencies is less those who are endowed with privileges, and more those without privileges or with very few: people working under precarious conditions, imperiled health circumstances or on an even outright illegalized basis; homeless people, prisoners, people stranded in detention centers and camps, etc. These people are already suffering from a deprivation of access to health and care infrastructure under ‘normal’ conditions. And the current situation aggravates this. Quarantine measures are meant to isolate people – one is meant to stay at home and work from home. But ‘isolation as health security’ only works for the privileged, those who can afford to cut all ties. After all, what does one do if one neither has a home nor can work from home? What if one is made to work despite being sick? What if one’s precarious or suspended rights are even further dismantled during the current ‘crisis’?
“Over the centuries, societies have shown a long history of making the effects of epidemic worse,” as Elise A. Mitchell writes. This means ‘worse’ in particular for those who are least prepared, least protected, and least capable of responding to the challenge. As Mitchell points out: “As a historian of slavery and medicine, I often come across bleak accounts of smallpox outbreaks that happened 200 to 500 years ago. Then as now, the poorest and least powerful people were usually at the greatest risk of infection—and the public-health measures of the time either neglected these people or actively harmed them.” In Europe, these issues gain a particularly dramatic dimension in the context of asylum politics.
Even though the right to asylum is key to the EU charter of fundamental rights – and, above all, to Europe’s self-understanding as a continent of human dignity – it has appeared increasingly hollow in recent years. The so-called ‘European migrant crisis in 2015’ and its political after-effects have made this apparent.
As if to underscore this troubling tendency, so-called push-backs have been literally legalized through a court decision in Strasbourg on February 13, 2020. This gives green light to border control practices that ignore the principle of non-refoulement that is part of customary international law and essential to framing the right to asylum. This court decision – although almost entirely buried by the information flow about Covid-19 – should be considered and challenged in the present context, as it crucially underpins the seemingly non-appealable character of (structural) violence against those ‘at the bottom’ during the ‘corona crisis.’ Thus, when inquiring into autocratic tendencies currently proliferating in Europe, one needs to look at countries that are complicit in one way or another in upholding the EU border regime with its post-democratic Schengen system. There are more than 25 countries of them. Spain, Italy, and Greece are of particular relevance, because these are the countries that at one and the same time are contracted to protect the EU’s external borders and the European epicenters of the ‘corona crisis.’
Crisis management at the EU’s external borders
As the first country to orchestrate “national lockdown,” Italy presumably provides a rich case in this context. Echoing its unprocessed fascist history and its neo-fascist and neo-nationalist movements, Italy’s “national lockdown” affects migrant projects in far-reaching ways, last but not least because the far-right is pressuring head of state Giuseppe Conte to resign “if he cannot defend borders.” Spain has followed Italy’s example and declared a state of emergency. This enables the deployment of exceptional politics, such as the closing of borders, including the “Gibraltar frontier” in order to “reduce coronavirus contagion.”
In Spain and Italy, the management of “national lockdown” and the more or less silent suspension of refugee rights are intricately based on a state of exception. In Greece, the situation is different. The state has been in past years a rather undeclared one. Up to this moment, the ‘corona crisis’ has not been communicated as a national emergency like in Italy and Spain. And the suspension of the right to asylum for at least two months is not a quiet matter, but one of loud mainstream populism, as it is linked to the resurgence of the “refugee crisis” at the Greece-Turkey border. The latter has occurred after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared on February 29 that “borders [to Greece] are open.” He was obviously trying once again to weaponize refugees in Turkey’s geopolitical battle with Europe, Rojava, Syria, Russia, and others. To this end, Erdoğan repurposed the memory of 2015, evoking a loss of control.
Responding to Erdoğan’s move, Victor Orban suspended the right to asylum in Hungary, using the ‘coronavirus’ as pretext; Ursula von der Leyen celebrated Greece as “Europe’s shield;” Sebastian Kurz and others demanded “to prevent at all costs the loss of control from 2015.” In other words, populists in Europe are creating the phantasmagorical threat of refugees ‘importing the coronavirus’ into the EU. Moreover, they are mobilizing the notion of border control as an immunity apparatus, and, above all, sanctioning any measure necessary against ‘intruders’ (“at all costs”).
It goes without saying that these representatives of European democracies are complicit in the emergence of hashtags like #Europeunderattack and #Greeceunderattack. Moreover, they are legitimizing the pogrom-like atmosphere of postings under such hashtags. Last but not least, they are sanctioning (armed) neo-fascist groups to volunteer for ‘border protection’ officially managed by Frontex & Co. Of course, border violence against moving bodies is no novelty, but now – under the motto of #Europeunderattack – it is exposing that the margins of the EU are a war zone, or more precisely an asymmetrical battlefield on which those seeking shelter are not only weaponized in a geopolitical game but even turned into cannon fodder, exposed to an armed border force that is using their weaponry against them.
Turning the Greece-Turkey border into a war zone
The Greece-Turkey border zones are populated by local solidarity groups, NGOs, and journalists on the one hand, and by a variety of groups enforcing border control on the other. As migration researcher Vassilis Tsianos reports, the latter include “self-organized groups of local farmers walking around with shotguns. There is also a so-called national vigilante group, in whose ranks right-wing extremists and anti-immigrant activists mix. Then there are groups of men wearing ski masks and camouflage clothing who intercept and collect refugees and bring them back to the Turkish side of the Evros River in small inflatable boats. Although they don’t wear badges, they drive the same cars as border police – this is documented by photos we have collected. Policemen have confirmed to me that they sometimes drive at the border without badges. In addition, there is now also the military patrolling the so-called green border.”
In this complex web of actors, the efforts of grassroots resistance movements against government policies to replace settlements like the Moria camp in Greece with even more inhuman detention centers are overshadowed by campaigns such as #Greeceunderattack and #Europeunderattack. Are they being undermined and occasionally turned against their causes, as commentators have suggested? Meaning, is the struggle against inhuman camps being turned around into a struggle against shelters in general? Whatever the case, it is crucial to differentiate between the two movements. After all, there are commentators like Nikolaos Xypolitas, Assistant Professor at the University of the Aegean who specializes in migration and labor, who is quoted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung saying that these are in fact one and the same people: those who have been against inhuman camps have ostensibly – “changing into fascist mode” – turned into opponents of shelters in general.
Rising against health fascism
Against this backdrop, “Europe’s hell,” as the “hot spot” on Lesbos at the Greece-Turkey border has been called, is presenting a particular challenge. In the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, those stranded in the places like the Moria camp seem completely abandoned. But they are not. It is of utmost importance to recall that for years, health autonomy and alternative care infrastructure have been improvised on a daily yet highly precarious basis. Miriam Arentz, who reports from the Moria camp on Lesbos, makes visible efforts in providing care infrastructure. In a similar vein, the recently published book “For Health Autonomy” is an important source for lessons from everyday health dystopia in Greece evolving since the debt/austerity crisis that hit the country in 2008 and thereafter. Put together by the CareNotes Collective, the book highlights solidarity clinics as a grassroots effort to respond to that very crisis. Taking this background into account, “this is very much the time to spread health autonomy in the wake of our shared and unevenly spread vulnerability to the state’s management of the coronavirus,” as scholar-activist Malav Kanuga says.
As those who are hit the hardest are denied even any human rights, grassroots efforts to provide basic care infrastructure need to be supported – last but not least, because they are continuously facing the threat of eviction. There is, for instance, the need to organize against the repeated attempt to evict the Metropolitan Community Clinic Helliniko in Athens, Greece. In their statement against the eviction, the organizers write: “They want to evict us without giving an alternative solution, they want to demolish a 200 square meter building and the clinic it houses which supports outcasts of the Greek society which were created by the Economic Adjustment Programs that were supported by the Greek Governments from 2010 until today. [...] [Nevertheless] we will continue to be in our current location offering medicines, hope and dignity. For all these years the Metropolitan Community Clinic Helliniko has been a constant supporter of all people who needed our help without discrimination and we will continue to be so.” In an open letter (in Greek and German) that calls for solidarity with those fighting locally against eviction of the Metropolitan Community Clinic Helliniko in Athens, a great number of academics from Greece, Germany, and beyond have articulated their solidarity.
All of the latter shows that the moment of the ‘corona crisis,’ in which autocratic tendencies are cropping up, hitting those who are the least protected – that this dark moment is also the time for democratic engagement, political activism and actions of solidarity in the name of health and care as “a common good” as Yanis Varoufakis also argues. This, in fact, is what one can also learn by looking at China, where the resistance against the central government remains strong despite heightened repression. And where people are quietly sharing views on “How Democratic Taiwan Outperformed Authoritarian China.” As walls are being raised and mass quarantines enforced across Europe to “combat the spread of the coronavirus,” one should not forget the need to think about current health politics in solidarity with those who are the most vulnerable. Buried under the current wave of paranoia, this already existing but hidden human labor needs to be excavated as silent works that many are doing, increasingly also in digitally networked ways, and that even more people would engage in if they became more aware of the fact that there are alternatives to the overwhelming mass psychology of threat on which autocratic tendencies and their increasingly automated syndromic control systems thrive.
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