Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Social Borders of Covid-19: From Social Darwinism to Social Recognition



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Vanessa Barker. Vanessa is Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University and Editor in Chief of Punishment & Society

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a new coronavirus (Covid-19) a global pandemic, as the disease spread rapidly and severely, infecting over 100,000 people worldwide at that point in time, and contributing to the death of over 4000 individuals. In response, national leaders and public health authorities issued a series of social and medical recommendations intended to protect the public, including the now routine practices of social distancing, increased personal and public hygiene, self-isolation and quarantines. In addition, most governments have restricted mobility, internally and externally, limiting international and domestic travel. Many countries have also closed their borders. These border closures, while intended to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and “flatten the curve” of the new infections, draw on and reproduce social divisions between the have and have nots, citizens and noncitizens, as foreigners, outsiders and returning nationals are quite literally cast as carriers of disease and social contaminants. 

In the European Union, border closures and the near halt to the asylum process have increased the precarity of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. There are over 40,000 people trapped in an archipelago of legal and social limbo on the Greek Islands as member states have failed to relocate them or evacuate the islands, even in the face of the impending public health crisis. If Covid-19 were to reach the refugee camps or hotspots in Greece, which are already strained by the lack of clean water, sanitation, health care workers, medical supplies and open space for social distancing, the health consequences would be grim. Médecins Sans FrontièresAmnesty International, Save the Children, other NGOs and activists have called for evacuation. Yet, there is little action on the part of the European Union or member states to alleviate this situation, apart from the promise of more blankets and medical supplies (Civil Protection Mechanism) and resources to speed up ‘assisted voluntary returns’ so migrants can return home (EU Home Affairs). Like the 2015 border crisis, the European Union is firming up migration controls and hardening its border, justified in the name of European solidarity (EU Commission President) as it seeks to protect insiders from outsiders, who are increasingly rendered expendable. Put in the stark terms of the pandemic, the dynamics of social recognition—those who are considered members, those who have value, those who belong and are considered worthy—determines who gets to live and who might die. 

We can already see how this dynamic of social recognition is playing out in terms of access to information about Covid-19 and access to care and social protection. Many of the rich jet off to private islands or country retreats while low paid warehouse workers continue to fill and delivery orders at the usual breakneck pace. The white middle classes are advised to order home delivery, as their food and provisions are dropped off by poorer people of color, whose own health risks are minimized. People, young and old, with health preconditions or disabilities worry they may be cut off life-saving equipment to save another (Ne’eman) as their life has been deemed less worthy of living by someone else. And in some places, the elderly are called upon to quietly sacrifice themselves for the greater good as the general population builds up immunity. 

This is a kind of social recognition on steroids—or put more bluntly, a return to Social Darwinism, where only the fittest survive, while the weak, the poor and marginalized die off. In this case, the fittest are those with the highest social status, those higher on the social hierarchy and recognized as such. Those who already have better health because of better access to resources, material and social wellbeing. Where does that leave labor migrants, the homeless, noncitizens, foreign nationals, refugees and asylum seekers? Unlike the 2015 public debate over immigration in which people on the move were the subject of high and low politics, lauded by cosmopolitan elites and derided by the far-right—migrant bodies provided a scrim to project ongoing social conflicts and social anxieties about core social values and character of social relations--  they are now nearly invisible from public discourse. Many are simply left behind in camps, at the border, or in detention centers, facing a major health care crisis behind locked doors and enclosed spaces. The European Union does not have a plan for them because they are not recognized as part of the union. By contrast, the Executive Board at Border Criminologies recently issued a statement to release all immigration detainees from this void. It is a statement, a cri de couer, of social recognition. Migrants, noncitizens, asylum seekers and refugees are part of our societies. Full stop. 

While most public debates on fighting the pandemic have focused on a false dichotomy between saving the economy and saving lives, there is an emergent critical commentary focused on saving our societies, our democracies. There are growing concerns about power grabs, the rise of authoritarian regimes, surveillance apps, restrictions on liberty, and the undermining of democratic processes. I would add to this list the short and long-term consequences of border closures. Border closures create new social closures. They create dangerous dichotomies between insiders and outsiders, citizens and foreigners—they validate a retreat to nationalistic impulses, xenophobia, and reinforce social hierarchies of survival. Once entrenched, they are difficult to undo. But not impossible. 

Advised to end on a more positive note, I can say even at the risk of sounding trite, this global pandemic has opened up new possibilities to rethink bordering and the social boundaries of belonging. We have a chance to rebuild our way of life and we should take it. And do so in a way that opens up social recognition rather than closes it off. For a start, we could promote amnesties for migrants and asylum seekers caught in camps and detention centers, regularizing their status, evacuating them from harms’ way, abolishing these kinds of institutions, once and for all. This would at minimum allow people on the move a fairer chance at life. In the long run, it might help to repair our broken societies and move away from indifference and antipathy and instead move towards an ethics of care, providing a stronger moral foundation for an open society that nourishes social equality and social protection. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Barker, V. (2020). The Social Borders of Covid-19: From Social Darwinism to Social Recognition. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/04/social-borders [date]


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