Pandemic Borders

At times of a pandemic: transnational solidarity not national borders

At the time of Covid-19 global pandemic, citizenship and national borders should not become defining elements of our joint struggle.

Anna Triandafyllidou
9 April 2020
Banner in Goettingen, Germany reads: "Corona solidarity must not end at national borders"
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Fotostand / Harald Kuhl/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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As the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies around the world, we are witnessing countries make unprecedented decisions to close borders to non-citizen – Canada included. And as days pass, more flights are cancelled. International travel has become extremely uncertain, and even citizens are finding it difficult to return home.

National borders have become more visible and less permeable than ever, and citizenship appears to have resurfaced as the ultimate marker of community, belonging and solidarity. But is this truly the case? Or are we also witnessing the rise of transnational solidarity within and across borders, while citizens within their communities ‘betray the solidarity’ they have with their fellow nationals?

The concern that travelers increase the risk of Covid-19 contagion is legitimate. At the same time, border closures do not keep “everyone” out, only those who are non-citizens (and non-permanent residents in some countries). In other words, states weigh their obligation towards solidarity and protection of citizens above the risk that they may be carrying the virus. Instead, outsiders (temporary residents, visitors) are banned from entry, as are asylum-seekers or irregular migrants. The rationale is the same: it is a balance between risk on one hand, and belonging and solidarity, on the other. Those who do not belong, must stay out. Solidarity to vulnerable people in need of protection weighs less in comparison to solidarity and the obligation to protect public health within our society.

In a courageous move though, the Government of Canada, has clarified, only four days after the initial ban and two days after which this was effectively implemented, that: “Exemptions to the air travel restrictions will apply to foreign nationals who have already committed to working, studying or making Canada their home, and travel by these individuals will be considered essential travel for land border restrictions.”

Canada has thus redefined the basis of solidarity within our community on the basis of effective residence. People who have made Canada their home, who pay taxes, send their kids to school, have their health protection in this country, are on this occasion treated like citizens and permanent residents. The temporary exclusion for them was over quickly.

National borders have become more visible and less permeable than ever, and citizenship appears to have resurfaced as the ultimate marker of community, belonging and solidarity

These developments beg a wider question: what does solidarity look like at the time of a pandemic? What does membership to a social or political community mean and what are the citizen’s or resident’s obligations towards their community?

Maria (the name is fictitious), originating from Sicily, studying in Milan, travelled in early March back home to Palermo, as Lombardy became a ‘red zone’ and moving in and out of the region was forbidden. Upon arrival, she paid a visit to her grandfather at a senior’s home in the region. Five days later Maria developed symptoms of Covid-19. The senior’s home is now in quarantine. In the effort to contain the contagion, one hundred people, including staff and seniors are directly affected, while the risk reaches out to many more.

Maria did not travel across international borders and is a citizen of Italy. But her behaviour ‘betrayed’ this notion of solidarity, loyalty and belonging, even if inadvertently. And of course she is not the only one who is ‘betraying’ her own community. The throngs of people walking the Stanley Park Seawall in British Columbia on the first weekend of Spring is just another example of this ‘blind betrayal’.

What about transnational solidarity then? Does it persist against the travel bans and closed borders the world over?

Are we also witnessing the rise of transnational solidarity within and across borders, while citizens within their communities ‘betray the solidarity’ they have with their fellow nationals?

On 13 March, Chinese doctors and medical supplies arrived in Italy to help address the crisis, while Cuban doctors arrived in Italy too on the 22 March. On 20 March, the German Land of Baden-Württemberg offered to take some seriously ill patients from France, as neighbouring southern Alsace was running out of ventilation spaces. Canadian policy leaders and medical staff continuously report how colleagues from across the world take time out of their frontline crisis to share their lessons learned to help us prepare here. For some, this is ‘Covid diplomacy’, but for others this is solidarity across borders, among distant countries.

Transnational solidarity is also taking place within borders. Non-governmental organizations supporting asylum seekers and refugees in France and Greece, plea with their own governments to provide extraordinary support to these vulnerable populations of non-citizens. And in Canada, voices such as that coming from the Canadian Council for Refugees, ask the Canadian Government to remember its responsibilities to protect the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants.

At the time of a global pandemic, citizenship and national borders should not become defining elements of our joint struggle. It is rather civic responsibility and transnational solidarity that should define the notion of community: community among people who live together and seek to protect and help each other, community among states which seek to help one another across and beyond borders.

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