Can Europe Make It?

COVID’s borders: between peer-to-peer surveillance and the “common good"

The vocabulary of war contributes to concealing the differential impact of COVID, which has just found its first victims in the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece.

Martina Tazzioli
7 April 2020, 5.49pm
People on balconies watch the queue for the supermarket, Trieste, March 14, 2020.
Jacopo Landi/PA. All rights reserved.

The outbreak of the COVID pandemic has triggered multiple border closures across the world: every country has re-established a series of mobility restrictions, which include closures of airports, ports, land borders. In the span of two weeks, the Schengen space has de facto imploded, as EU member states have suspended free mobility indefinitely, and nobody knows how it will be reconfigured when the corona-crisis will be over. Together with states’ border closures, the pandemic has multiplied racialised and socio-economic borders.

Indeed, even if journalists and politicians insist that the virus does not discriminate among people, it is far from being borderless: the possibility of being treated properly in hospitals, of accessing care and of getting a safe space to stay and self-isolate varies hugely in fact, according to legal, economic and social factors.

I focus here on the Italian context, where, as is well known, a strict national lockdown was enforced on March 9. At the time of writing, the death toll has dramatically reached 15,362, and the numbers of people who have tested positive stands at 124,632 – although, as many have said, the number is likely to be much higher due to the poor testing policy.

The spread of “peer-to-peer surveillance”

As part of the global COVID crisis, we have been witnessing the rapid expansion of technologies for monitoring infected people or those who are in quarantine, as well as citizens who violate the restrictions imposed by the lockdown: drones, apps, electronic bracelets and digital controls. Italy is definitively not an exception. According to a national poll, 63% of Italians do support the implementation of surveillance tools for performing "contact tracing”, that is tracking the movements of infected people, and 64% is in favour of using electronic bracelets to control those who are in quarantine.

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In fact, more than the tracking tools per se, what is telling is the consensus around it and the desire for surveillance.

In fact, more than the tracking tools per se, what is telling is the consensus around it and the desire for surveillance. Moreover, in Italy, together with top-down control combining deployment of drones, digital control and police patrolling in the street, many people engage in what might be called peer-to-peer surveillance: by which I mean the surveillance enacted by citizens towards other citizens, towards neighbours who do not respect the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the government. Many people have in fact been reported on to the police by their neighbours who spotted them running or walking in the street. Together with that, social media are full of images and videos of citizens who violated the restrictions and who had thereby offended and been found out by people watching from their balconies.

Ultimately, power produces pleasure; and, we should add, surveillance does as well. However, in critically analysing the popular consensus for control and citizens’ engagement in peer-to-peer surveillance we should not fall into the trap of the ‘state of exception’ narrative. The point is not that these are exceptional measures, part of the totalitarian drive that comentators concerned with this narrative warn against. Rather, despite their (protracted) temporariness, these modes of “policing from below” will definitively shape and alter future social relationships: your neighbours today might be “untori” (corona spreaders); and when the corona-crisis will be over, they might turn into irresponsible citizens. And the same might happen to you too.

Whose (collective) responsibility ?

By keeping people’s attention on the present moment, it is important to notice the public narrative in which peer-to-peer surveillance is situated: indeed, the argument goes, if citizens do not accept surveillance and control, they are against collective responsibility and the common good. As if the former (surveillance) must be the way to protect the latter (common good), and only the acceptance of one could be a guarantee of the other.

Yet, this sine qua non opposition is predicated upon a taken-for-granted idea of civic responsibility. In fact, what does “collective responsibility” stand for in this context? The panoply of punitive measures for those who violate the lockdown restrictions reveals an individualisation of guilt that we find at play also through peer-to-peer surveillance interventions. Thus, the bodily presence in the street becomes the source of suspicion: everyone can be the “untore” (corona spreader), both in a conscious or unconscious way.

It is the responsibility of us all, and of each of us to curb the virus infection. This might be true, and social distancing should of course be respected at this moment in time. But, firstly, it is not through police actions that collective responsibility and common good are created. New bordering and racialising mechanisms are enforced behind the sheer opposition between “life” and “death”, which conceal the deepening of economic and social hierarchies.

Second, if everyone is deemed to be responsible faced with the current context and therefore “irresponsible” if they do not follow the rules – actually what the corona-crisis unveils is the dramatic condition to which the Italian public health system has been reduced. As the political economist Andrea Fumagalli demonstrates, over the last few years the health public sector has been highly under-funded: 37 billions of euros cut in the last decade and the state’s expense per person dedicated to health is 97% less than in Germany. Just these numbers are enough to indicate that our hope cannot be to “return to normality” as soon as possible, but for a radical change in how health and care are provided and funded in the country.

While the government enforces punitive measures towards citizens – including up to 3 months of prison and a 3000 euros’ fine, with the new “crime of provoked epidemic” for those who transgress the quarantine – journalistic investigations have demonstrated that at the beginning of the pandemic some clinics did not report the presence of infected patients in order to further their business interests.

No discrimination?

At the same time that strict lockdown measures of mass house incarceration have been enforced, about 50% of the factories across the national territory are still open, with no health guarantees for the workers who are there on a daily basis.

About 50% of the factories across the national territory are still open, with no health guarantees for the workers who are there on a daily basis.

The Coronavirus’ contagion, it has been said, does not discriminate among people. Actually, as the Italian case clearly illustrates, labour conditions and economic precarity strongly influence the differential distribution of infection among the population. This appears even more blatant when it comes to irregularised migrants and homeless people, for whom the motto StayHome turns into a mordaunt joke – with many of the homeless in Milan and Rome also being fined and denounced for not respecting the lockdown restrictions.

Therefore, the ideas of “common good” and “public responsibility” which underpin the wide acceptance of peer-to-peer surveillance measures are structured around a series of exclusionary boundaries, some of which are quite sharp – citizens vs migrants – while some others are more invisible but no less violent – such as workers exposed to the virus. Paradoxically, the “Care decree” enforced by the Italian government on March 9 and which establishes the multiple restrictions that people should follow under a lockdown, does not even mention rights and economic measures to protect care workers, whose job is of course more than ever crucial at this moment.

To conclude, COVID won’t produce a generalised biopolitical vulnerability equal for all: on the contrary, it will be a multiplier of inequalities and socio-economic differences. The vocabulary of war – “the war against an invisible enemy” contributes to concealing this differential impact of COVID, which has just found its first victims in the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece.

“This is not the right time”: let’s take it back!

“This is not the right time to think about migrants and homeless”, “this is not the time to speak about the capitalist mode of production”: a common cry that we hear these days in Italy. The temporality of the emergency rubs out any leeway for critical thought as well as the possibility of contemplating the presence of non-citizens or of people without a safe space to stay.

However, what would be a right time if not now, when differential precarity has become blatant? And actually, campaigns and solidarity groups have been organised, to resist the invisibilisation of migrants and of those whose access to care, safe space and health is particularly tough, envisaging “common good” as a collective practice of solidarity.

For instance, just to mention some of these political experiments, in Naples a wide solidarity mutual aid network has been put in place, promoting “social reproduction commons” grounded on mutual care; a national campaign has started to regularise migrants on the territory, and to demand their right to access the health system; the feminist movement Non Una di Meno has set up an important network of support for those who are self-isolating and who might be the victims of domestic violence during the lockdown.

However, as one Marxist feminist collective aptly stressed, we should not allow “governments to use social reproduction commons as an excuse for the state’s withdrawal from responsibility”. The question of care is indeed a central stake of the current corona-crisis that states tend to obfuscate or to offload onto the shoulders of citizens. The campaign promoted by a group of economists for a “basic income of quarantine” goes in the right direction of claiming back states’ responsibility. The borders that COVID has multiplied or made blatant are far more than those enforced by these states. Meanwhile, the production of the common good can never emerge from the mode of social relationship based on mutual suspicion that is peer-to-peer surveillance.

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