As the case of Italy reveals, the crisis engendered by Covid 19 exposes deep-lying political and economic inequalities in which lives get protected and how.
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 be treated properly in hospitals, of accessing care and of getting a safe space to stay and self-isolate is in fact extremely different, according to legal, economic and social factors.
I focus here on the Italian context, where, as is well known, a strict national lockdown had been enforced on March 9th. At the time of writing the death toll has dramatically reached 15,362, and the numbers of people who had been tested positive stands at 124,632 – although, as many have said, it 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 the infected people, and 64% is in favour of using electronic bracelets to control those who are in quarantine.
In fact, more than the tracking tools per se, what is telling is the consensus around it and the desire for surveillance. Or better, together with top-down control, made of drones’ celebration, digital control and police patrolling in the street, in Italy many people engage in what might be called peer-to-peer surveillance: by that I mean the surveillance enacted by citizens towards other citizens, towards neighbours who do not respect the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the government. What can also be called “control from below”. Many have in fact been reported to the police by their neighbours who spotted them running or walking in the street. Together with that, social media like Facebook, are full of images and videos of citizens who violated the restrictions and who had been found and offended by people watching from their balconies.
Ultimately, as Foucault contended, 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 in the trap of the ‘state of exception’ narrative, recently re-proposed by Agamben and others in Italy. The point are not exceptional measures, nor any totalitarian drive that these authors warn against. Rather, despite their (protracted) temporariness, it is not a big gamble to say that these modes of “policing from below” will definitively shape and alter 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 you might be too.
Whose (collective) responsibility ?
By keeping the attention to 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 common good. As if the former (surveillance and escalation of restrictions) could 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 reveal an individualisation of guilt that we find at play also through peer-to-peer surveillance interventions. Thus, the bodily presence in the street becomes 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 in this moment. But, first, it is not through actions of policing that collective responsibility and common good are created. New bordering and racialising mechanisms are enforced behind the sheer opposition between “life” (lives to be saved) and “death”, which conceal the deepening of economic and social hierarchies. Second, if everyone is deemed to be responsible in front of the current context and therefore “irresponsible” if they do not follow the rules – actually what the corona-crisis unveils is the dramatic situation of the Italian public health system. As the political economist Andrea Fumagalli demonstrated, over the last few years the health public sector has been highly under-funded: 37 billions of euros cut in the last decade; the state’s expense per person dedicated to health is 97% less than in Germany; and, before the COVID started there was one ventilator every 4000 citizens in the region Lombardia, the richest and most affected the epidemic.
These are just few numbers that, however, indicate that our hope could not be to “go back to normality” as soon as possible, but to radically change how health and care are provided and funded in the country. While the government enforces punitive measures towards citizens – that include up to 3 months of prison and 3000 euros of fine – and the “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 order to continue their business.
At the same time that strict lockdown measures of mass house incarceration have been enforced while about 50% of the factories on the national territories are still open, with no health guarantees for the workers who are there on a daily basis. 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 blatantly when it comes to irregularised migrants and homeless people, for whom the motto StayHome turns into a tragic joke – with many homeless who in Milan and in Rome had also being fined and denounced for not respecting the lockdown restrictions.
Therefore, the ideas of “common good” and “public responsibility” which underlie 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 – some others more invisible but not less violent – workers exposed to the virus. Paradoxically, the “Care decree” (Decreto cura) enforced by the Italian government on March 9 and which establishes the multiple restrictions that people should follow under the lockdown, does not even mention rights and economic measures to protect the care workers, whose job is of course crucial more than ever in this moment. Therefore, COVID is not borderless in its impact and 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 the war – “the war against an invisible enemy” – used by Macron in France and by many others politicians across the globe, contributes to conceal the differential impact of COVID, while this latter has just provoked the 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 capitalist mode of production”: a common answer that we hear during these days in Italy. The temporality of the emergency seems indeed rubbing out any leeway for critical thought as well as the possibility to contemplate the presence of non-citizens or of people without a safe space to stay.
However, what would a right time if not now, when differential precarity has become blatant? Actually, campaigns and solidarity groups had 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 the city of Naples a wide solidarity mutual aid network has been put into 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; in Pisa citizens created a solidarity network in support of migrants; the feminist movement Non Una di Meno has set an important network of support to those who are self-isolating and who might be victims of domestic violence during the lockdown.
However, as the 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 put on the shoulder of the citizens. The convergence of Non Una di Meno’ s demand for the establishment of a “self-determination basic income” the campaign promoted by a group of economists for a “basic income of quarantine” goes in the direction of claiming back states’ responsibility. The borders that COVID has multiplied or made blatant are far more than those enforced by the states: the production of common good could never emerge from peer-to-peer surveillance as a mode of social relationship based on mutual suspicion.
Dr Martina Tazzioli is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, Goldsmiths. Her most recent book is The Making of Migration: The Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders (Sage, 2019).