The Corona-pandemic: from parasitic mobility to convenient crisis

Published 22 March 2020 / By Stephan Scheel

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I am writing these lines from voluntary self-quarantine in my home in Hamburg. While on a ski holiday in Italy with my family, the principal authority for research on infectious diseases in Germany declared Southern Tyrol, and two days later entire Italy, a “risk area”. We left Italy on one of the last trains allowed to cross the Brenner pass before Austria closed its border on 9 March. Other European countries followed swiftly, and by now people in many parts of the world are subject to travel bans, border closures and country-wide lock-downs.

Parasitic Mobility

The Coronavirus lives with and spreads through us, or more precisely, through our circulation and mobilities. It travels particularly during moments of arrival and departure: when we shake hands, say ‘hello’ and kiss goodbye. And the virus is cunning. In many instances it does not announce itself before it has completed its onward journeys to others. It is us – the bodies of human beings – who become stopover points, travel hubs and melting pots for the erratic expeditions of an unwelcome, travel-hungry species that does not even seem to pay a fare for its contagious journeys.

On a first glance, the coronavirus then might exhibit what one could call, with reference to Michel Serres’ work, 'parasitic mobility'. It follows a logic of taking without giving. This does not mean we have a right to be angry with the virus. Of course, there should be no free riders. But we should also remind ourselves from where the virus reportedly originated: a place where animals are sold for human consumption, with no return for the animals sold. Hence, in the words of Serres, the coronavirus is a ‘parasite that parasites the parasite’. It actually parasites the most efficient parasite living on this planet, one might add.

This is why fighting the virus means first and foremost interrupting, decelerating and reducing human mobilities, not only in between countries, but also in everyday mobilities on the local and regional level. Indeed, the coronavirus has become a new matrix to distinguish risky and unnecessary mobilities from those considered necessary and legitimate. In Germany, people returning from risk areas were asked to keep social contacts and movements outside their homes to an absolute minimum. A few days later this call was extended to the whole population. Only people working in vital public services like firefighters, paramedics or the police are allowed to bring their children to schools and nurseries. Any movements serving personal pleasure, cultural activities or leisure have become suspect and illegitimate.

The viral virus is also convenient

From another angle, the corona-crisis might be the crisis we have always longed for. At least in political and moral terms it is a convenient crisis in at least two ways: On the one hand, it is a crisis that concerns us, the privileged in the global North, not as causes or those to blame, such as in case of the climate or the refugee crisis, but as subjects of concern. After all, this crisis has officially been declared a pandemic: We – the human kind – are all in this together. And even more: we face a common enemy. On the other hand, and related to this, the virus has accomplished another remarkable thing: it has spread through news feeds and hijacked social media platforms, inspiring influencers and Facebook groups alike, dominating headlines and conversations, captivating our thoughts and minds. The virus has indeed gone viral. What else is there to think and talk about?

One of the issues that has completely slipped into the background while we stock up on face-masks, toilet paper, and disinfection supplies is the brutal violence that migrants and visible minorities face in contemporary Europe. That the Greek government, with EU support, has decided to suspend the right to asylum for one month has become a much-ignored side note. Even more, the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has invoked the corona-crisis to justify his decision to upgrade border controls to the “maximum deterrent level”: according to him, there is a risk that many migrants approaching Greece are infected with the coronavirus and thus need to be prevented from entering EU territory, by any means necessary. In practice this means that border guards are now using water cannons, batons, life ammunition and tear gas to prevent asylum seekers from Turkey reaching Greek soil. The corona crisis has been invoked to endorse push-backs and the use of live ammunition against asylum seekers – a breach of the Geneva Convention that has already silently been practiced for a number years – as official EU policy.

In a similar vein, the ensuing discussion on how to prevent the killing of Germans from a migrant background by 'lone wolves' inflamed by far-right- politicians after the shooting of Hanau, has been pushed aside by appeals to stay at home and wash our hands for at least 20 seconds.

This is not to deny that the dangers posed by the coronavirus are real. But to me it seems that the corona crisis invites us to ignore the dangers posed by a racist, brutal and, at times, murderous mobility regime designed to secure the privileged lifestyles and imagined cultural homogeneity of Europe and other parts of the global North. And I cannot help but think that there is a link with the widespread theft of disinfection and surgeon’s masks from hospital supplies across Europe. If the measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable, including refugees and other uninvited guests, then this is what you get.

What the corona crisis ultimately highlights is a particular feature of humanity under conditions of disaster capitalism: the human species emerges as a parasite comprising conspecifics that parasite on their own kind. In the context of the corona crisis this means to secure one’s own health and well-being by excluding, stealing from and abandoning others. In the midst of travel bans, lock-downs and border closures the UNHCR announced that it would freeze its resettlement programme, which offers refugees in deprived conditions a relocation to another host state offering more favourable conditions.

Meanwhile, the Greek government shipped 500 newly arrived migrants that had been contained on a military vessel near the island of Lesvos to a closed facility near Athens in order to detain them and initiate their deportation. At the same time, calls of migrant support groups to dissolve overcrowded refugee camps in the face of the corona-crisis on the Greek islands and other places in the world are consistently ignored. What the corona-crisis exposes very vividly is that the 'European (immunisation) project' risks turning into a blatantly fascist enterprise. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that this enterprise is man-made and not without alternatives.

About the author: Stephan Scheel is an Assistant Professor of sociology at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.