Shock Mobility: Convulsions in human migration are having large impacts (Part I)

Published 18 June 2020 / By Biao Xiang

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Shock mobilities are sudden human movements in response to acute disruptions. After the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on 24 March 2020, for instance, 7.5 million internal migrants flocked home in desperation by 23 May. Many walked for days due to the lack of public transport. When the global epicentre of the virus moved from Asia to Europe in March, and, subsequently, the US, students from Asia, particularly China, rushed to leave the new hotspots for home. Air travel prices hiked ten-fold overnight. Many students bought multiple tickets at a time, anticipating that some of the flights would be cancelled, while some were stranded in transit, having to later be evacuated. As of 3 April, 200,000 students had returned, leaving 1.4 million more waiting to go home.

Shock mobility encompasses degrees of forced migration, distress migration, “acute refugee movement”, and migration induced by “acute changes”. All of these movements can be categorized as incidents of “reactive migration,” namely migration caused by “a state of panic facing a crisis situation which leaves few alternatives but escape from intolerable threats” (Richmond 1988, p. 17). Forced migration often starts with shock mobility, but shock mobility does not always lead to protracted forced migration.

While most research rightly focuses on long-term displacement that requires settlement solutions, shock mobility is often overlooked — an oversight that has gained immense new relevance in this present moment of rapid worldwide movement unlike anything seen before in modern history. A greater focus could unpack the short-lived nature of these mobilities, and explore their consequences other than refugee migrations.

In the first part of this essay, I will first outline why shock mobility deserves more policy and academic attention. In Part II, I will suggest that shock mobility must be understood in relation to other mobilities — as a “link-moment” in mobility assemblages. This is followed by a snapshot of five empirical manifestations of the “link-moment”. The “link-moment” perspective also sheds light on possible long-term implications of shock mobilities, which I turn to at the end.

Short-lived, but with long after-lives

Shock mobilities save lives but can inflict harm, too. Thousands fled Milan in early March to avoid cordon sanitaire; the governor of Calabria called the southward exodus an act of “madness” and urged the national government to stop it. In China, an estimated 300,000 residents left Wuhan between 2am on 23 January 2020, when lockdown was announced, and 10am when public transport was halted — more than a quarter of a million people in eight hours. Wuhan residents were angry about the timing of when the policy was publicized, which gave them little time to prepare. Citizens outside of Wuhan, however, criticized the government for not enforcing lockdown immediately, arguing that panic flights could have spread the virus even further.

Thus, shock mobilities are complex. Do these frantic movements expand the disease, or dilute the density of infection? Are the panic flights actually panicked, or merely rational? Do these movements undermine government measures of disease control, or do they serve government campaigns by waking up the public to the severity of the pandemic? But as it stands, we are not able to address any of these questions, because we know too little about the patterns, duration, density, demographic composition, and temporal dynamics of shock mobilities.

Yet even so, shocks more widely conceived are an increasingly important part of our contemporary life beyond pandemics — another reason why they demand further attention. As Ulrich Beck argued, we produce not only wealth, but, also, risks. The more wealth we create, the more potential shocks we must face. “Black Swans” — low-probability but high-impact risks built into the prevalent business model — shock the economic system more and more frequently. And each of these disruptions bring about convulsions in human mobilities. Therefore, shock mobility may become the “new normal” soon enough, and perhaps than no longer “shock.” Shock mobilities are not only testimonies of how human experience the turmoil, the movements are also critical means by which people handle acute hardship and are indispensable in pulling societies out of modern-day crises.

But how many of us remember the dramatic changes in mobilities in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 Great Recession, the 2013 tsunami in Japan, or the 2018 Ebola outbreak? The very fact that many shocks appear short-lived — and that the associated shock mobilities are quickly forgotten — renders shocks an even more important topic for examination. Shocks, Naomi Klein argues, have been instrumental for ruling elite to push through radical neo-liberal policies across the world since the 1970s. Disasters distracted the public from scrutinizing and resisting socially corrosive policies. No wonder the economy “recovers” from crises quickly — shocks are meant to pave the way for the introduction of this “new normal.”

Capitalism is “eventful,” driven by contingent happenings that are irreversibly transformative. But capitalism is also strangely repetitive. William Sewell, who had called our attention to the eventfulness of capitalism, recently had a second thought: “the occurrence of events in social life, of unexpected happenings of any sort, is for capital above all an opportunity for new sources of profit.” (p. 525) According to him, capitalism is “simultaneously still and hyper-eventful.” (p. 517) Then, which shocks may be transformative? Which shocks may hold back changes? And yet which events push the society in a direction set by some at the cost of others?

These questions are especially pertinent today. Discussions on shock mobilities — how they are conditioned by existing conditions; how they end and give way to apparent normalcy; and how they alter social relations — will enable us to draw broad insights with lasting values from dramatic happenings that have to come define our lives. This is a methodological challenge, as well as a theoretical one. We will need to conceptualize shock mobility, as well as mobility in general, in new ways from this point forward. The second part of this essay will turn to this question.

Read part II of the blog here.

This blog is co-published with the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees at the FluchtforschungsBlog, including a German version.