Covid-19, a North-South Combat “zone”?

The combat zone against the invisible enemy, Covid-19, revives borders that are already in place, and builds others that allow for further exclusion, separation, house arrest, status segregation and the granting of different rights, advantageous for some and discriminatory against others, death for some and life for others..

Hela Yousfi

Associate professor, Dauphine university, Paris

| ar fr
Atheer Moussaoui - Irak

It is 8:06 pm on Monday, 16 March 2020 and Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, hammers home no less than six times “We are at war”. The French President clearly defines the profile of the enemy: “We are not fighting against an army or another nation, but the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, and is progressing. And this requires our general mobilization”. He then concludes his speech with a triumphant tone reminiscent of the arrogance of the colonial era: “Let us not allow ourselves to be deterred, let us act with strength, but let us remember that the day after, when we have won, it will not be a return to the day before. We will be stronger morally.” But the only question that remains unanswered is: How can we delineate the geographical area of a combat “zone” against an invisible enemy?

Blurred boundaries, visible borders

The novelty of this combat “zone” against Covid-19lies in its paradoxical nature: its limits are blurred yet its boundaries are multiple. The border is not a “spatial fact with sociological consequences, but a sociological fact that is formed spatially”, as Georg Simmel reminds us [1]. Thus, the clear, continuous lines of demarcation imposed by the nation-states are contradicted by an unprecedented tangle of territorial borders on which the various protagonists in this war against Covid-19 are more or less consciously situated.

On the one hand, the internal borders within the combat zone are the dividing lines between the sick and the healthy, confined and working bodies, salaried employees and precarious workers, foreigners and nationals, legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants, etc. These internal margins form the “zone” of combat that become, as the poem of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1912 evokes, a psycho-geographical territory where the poor, migrants and marginalized are the first to be excluded and sacrificed. On the other hand, the demarcation of state borders delimits a terrifying boundary beyond which we must protect ourselves. This insidiously establishes a competition between nations in the race for masks and respirators, reaffirming power hierarchies and structural economic inequalities between rich and poor countries in the midst of death. Borders that are superimposed on existing borders, such as those separating people targeted by the bombs of wars waged by international powers or those enclosing people whose struggle against epidemics forms an integral part of their daily lives.

This is how the combat zone against the invisible enemy, Covid-19, revives borders that are already in place and builds others that allow for further exclusion, separation, house arrest, status segregation and the granting of different rights, advantageous for some and discriminatory against others, death for some and life for others. At the same time, all those in power are ensuring that patriotism and chauvinism are raised to the rank of rituals indispensable to the proper functioning of democracy, as if they have forgotten that the outcome of the current trauma can only be achieved on a global scale and that there will only be deaths and losers in this war. Thus, the dream of a humanity united by a global struggle against Covid-19 is rapidly evaporating, giving way to a tragic spectacle of a reality of a divided world with borders that are sharper than ever, a sad reality that will always prevail.

Subaltern knowledge put to the test of a hegemonic hymn to rationality

To the voices calling for the advent of a more just and egalitarian world, putting an end to the brutality of "Western modernity" and reconnecting with nature, the imperturbable scrolling of numbers responds. In this war, digital technology, as required by the technical sophistication of the name given to the virus, Covid-19, is at the centre of the artillery of combat. The WHO (World Health Organization) communicates to us in technocratic language and indecent numerical simplicity a count of the sick, the dead, and almost instantaneous scenarios of the evolution of the curve of the disease, coldly recording gains and losses with mathematical precision defying both the power of men and the unpredictability of divine authority. This war machine strangely echoes Carl von Clausewitz's dream of a battle that would no longer be waged by the will of an intelligent leader but a war that would dethrone politics and rule according to the laws of its own nature; a dream that becomes a daily reality, to say the least, traumatic.

At the same time, the WHO, in a hegemonic situation of diffusion of knowledge and monopoly of speech, is displaying the demiurgic ambition of establishing a universal strategy to combat Covid-19. It therefore establishes relations with countries that paralyse any alternative reflection on the fight against the disease by propagating a normalisation that inhibits any country and any community, tempted to think of their fight against the virus outside the mould established by the WHO. In this paradigm, languages and dialects, as well as alternative knowledge, fade away in the midst of an esperanto of intelligent machines and an army of scientific experts. The WHO clearly wants to promote a de-nationalized, taylorized strategy, where the signs never fail, but on the contrary reach their target with unequalled mathematical precision. And this is how the fight against Covid-19 becomes a new “hymn to rationality” and yet another celebration of modernity and technical progress.

However, only the people of the Global South and the immigrants can decode the logic of this “war” because they have already lived it, and they are still experiencing it in their minds and bodies. Like the coloniality [2] that emerged with colonization and the advent of capitalism, they know that the technocratic logic of this struggle rekindles an imperial epistemology that is nothing less than a nuclear attack on human language. They also know that in the name of the rhetoric of modernity and scientific progress, which stems from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the war against this virus, just like coloniality, will insert itself into the world occupying its mind and suppressing its sensitivity, its body and its geo-historical roots. In so doing, this virus, or rather the war waged against it, has evaded the relationship to reality, by disconnecting today's world from the knowledge of people who have lived through the experience of colonization and/or dictatorship and who can anticipate the perverse effects of generalized surveillance and control. The history of the struggle against epidemics in the countries of the Global South, the contextualization of experiences or the generation of this knowledge, such as that of the mainly female health care personnel, are all knowledges that seem to be widely despised. By establishing a system based on the dictatorship of numbers and the surveillance of bodies and by adopting a hierarchical structure of knowledge, the fight against Covid-19, like coloniality, demonstrates an inability among the dominant powers to take into account the potentially liberating alternative knowledge of the subalterns.

What if hope came from the South?

Fortunately, crises also make it possible for us to move forward from setbacks and open up opportunities for viable alternatives. If the borders established by the combat zone against the Covid-19 are sharp lines of separation, they can also metamorphose or mutate - to borrow the language of viruses - into spaces of welcoming. This is how a Cuban team that fought the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is ready to put its knowledge to the service of Europe and “to work tirelessly to treat and confront the Covid-19 epidemic in collaboration with Italian health professionals,” as its leader Carlos Ricardo Perez said. In the same vein, Kais Said, the President of the Republic of Tunisia, a few hours after Macron's wartime speech, called for national and international solidarity and specified: “Nations must indeed be united, not for international peace and security in the traditional sense, but for mankind everywhere in the world. Turning inward may be a solution for some, but it can never be a just solution, and it will in any case remain a truncated and imperfect solution”.

It is very early to predict how, during and after this health crisis, words will be freed, rebellions will become reality, collectives will be created, alternatives will emerge, but it is still possible for us to dream with the poet Mahomoud Darwich of one day reaching paradise embodied by the restored homeland. “The earth is closing on us. Pushing us through the last passage. And we tear off our limbs to pass through. The earth is squeezing us. I wish we were its wheat. So, we could die and live again. Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”

Translated from French by Naouress Bellili
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 31/03/2020


[1] Simmel, G., Sociology. Étude sur les formes de la socialisation (translated from German by LylianeDeroche-Gurcel and Sibylle Muller), Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1999.
[2] The concept of coloniality refers to the relations of power and domination produced by patriarchal reproduction, colonialism, capitalism and globalization. See Mignolo, Walter. “Géopolitique de la connaissance, colonialité du pouvoir et différence colonial”, Multitudes, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001, pp. 56-71.