This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
In his 12 March blog, Xiang pointed out there are significant differences in how the Chinese government reacted to the SARS outbreak in 2003 and to COVID-19. The actions in containing SARS were more differentiated, both geographically and in terms of the target population, which created “chain reactions“, in which rural-urban migrants were affected more directly by how city government reacted the epidemic, including being targeted as a high risk group, than by the virus itself. In comparison, the measures taken during COVID-19 in China (and probably all over the world) are characterized by “grid reaction”, in which residential areas, districts, cities, and provinces need to be seen as grids to immobilize all populations. This, Xiang argues, is due to the fact that mobility has become prevalent across the entire population and there is no longer possible to identify specific mobile groups. We are at the mercy of an “mobility-based economy”.
The grid reaction has caused, and will continue to cause, significant social harms. First, this has induced public panic, social conflict between citizens and enforcement personnel, and stigmatization based on places of origin. Second, vulnerable groups (e.g., sick people who need to visit hospital frequently) face special difficulties because of the lack of the means of mobility. Third, people whose livelihood relies on mobilities suffer from economic loss. Xiang thus asks, how can we reorganize the mobility-based economy in a more humane and sustainable manner?
Following Xiang’s conceptualization and responding to his question, I want to call attention to the fact that seemingly undifferentiated “grid reaction” is also based on social differentiation. In other words, there are also chains inside the grids. One critical link in the chains are those whom David Graeber refers to as the “caring class“, i.e. the social groups whose daily work is to take care of machines, algorithms, technologies, and social projects so as to make them operate regularly. We have to take care of them in order to make the mobility economy more just and equitable.
The total immobilization across the society is the key feature of the grid reaction. However, if we broaden our perspective and consider the movement of information, we shall see a more nuanced picture. Online teaching has solved part of the need in education. Online meeting and streaming apps have supported the work-from-home arrangements. Video conferencing enables the Chinese Communist Party to organize meetings with thousands of participants.
What is the foundation of such information mobility? The deployment of technologies must be supported by social arrangements. The application of Information Technology is supported by people who provide physical maintenance of the system. Internet servers and base stations need to be operated and monitored physically by humans. Foods ordered via online apps need to be delivered physically.
The control of physical mobilities in the grid reaction is the result of large-scale mobilization: Working teams have to be set up to ensure that major traffic lanes are blocked, people’s temperatures are checked, rubbish is collected on time, and social order is maintained. Those who do the “lock down work” in China include party cadres, government officials, volunteers, and especially employees in the mobile economy sectors such as transport and services.
One group of these people are the construction workers who build the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in 10 days. Most of them are mobile rural migrant workers, who were hastily recruited across China and brought to Wuhan. They were dismissed immediately after the construction was finished, in some cases the wages were not fully paid.
All the social projects aimed at the limitation of physical mobilities, thus, need to rely on the physical mobilities of certain groups. To simplify, in order to protect the safety and health of the majority, the society puts certain minority groups at risk by increasing their physical mobilities.
During this pandemic, the abovementioned groups face more risks, but their contributions are highly under-recognized: Workers looking after the Internet system became “ghost workers”[i] because we pay attention to technologies rather than to them. Volunteers and migrant workers, on the other hand, are unrewarded and underappreciated. Better financial rewards and social recognition for the caring class can be a starting point to building a better mobility economy.
Jack Linzhou Xing completing his MPhil at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong.
[i] Gray, Mary L., and Siddharth Suri. 2019. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. Eamon Dolan Books.