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Containment

Earlier last month, as cases of COVID-19 were exploding in northern Italy, a colleague asked me—“A friend of mine is planning to go to Sicily next week, do you think it’s safe for her to go?” This question, sounding rather preposterous now with a few weeks’ hindsight, underlines the speed and virulence few of us could have anticipated as the pandemic was brewing. It also speaks to a potent spatial imaginary where national categories and state borders continue to mold our sense of safety and danger. Indeed, as northern Italy was suddenly transforming into the principal site of infection in Europe—thus prompting several countries, including the United States, to issue advisory restrictions for the whole of Italy—countries bordering Italy were largely absent from news headlines. In an echo of familiar weather map visuals where atmospheric conditions appear to be neatly bounded by state outlines, Italy was presented suspended in the air—virally tied to distant Wuhan and Iran yet “wholly detached from its geographic context” (Anderson 1991: 175).

The force of these visuals has been evident from the slow response of Italy’s neighbors. France, whose borders with Italy lie only a couple of hundred miles from Lombardy, went into lockdown on March 17, i.e. eight days after Italy. Switzerland, despite being only 30 miles from the European epicenter of the outbreak and with 70,000 workers (including 4,000 healthcare workers) commuting daily from Italy, did not close its schools or stores until March 16, a full week after Italy’s lockdown (The Local 2020). On March 11, Switzerland did close nine secondary border crossings with Italy, but kept the remaining ones open, “directing traffic over main routes to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus while still letting the region’s workers get to their jobs” (Reuters 2020). With the 70,000 Italian commuters making up more than a quarter of the total workforce in the canton of Ticino that borders Italy, the Swiss federal government decided to keep the border open—though closing five additional crossings on March 18.

Economic considerations have of course played an important role in the decision of governments to delay lockdowns and enforce social distancing. The high number of border-crossing commuters, in Switzerland and elsewhere in the European Union, speaks to the deep enmeshment of economies and to the impossibility of managing space in discrete, national units in the face of a pandemic. And yet, this is essentially how lockdowns and shelters-in-place in Europe and elsewhere have been implemented. Decisions have been taken at national level, often on the basis of in-country numbers of infections rather than in response to spikes in hospitalization and deaths across the border.

More than two decades ago, John Agnew (1994) warned us about the “territorial trap” that shapes the ways in which international relations are studied. The discreteness of the nation-state as container may be a potent fiction but it is one to which we are all committed and in which we remain deeply invested. David Ludden’s (2003) assertion that we are unable to imagine political space beyond a cookie-cutter world of national geography, and that scholars work within that everyday experience, holds true nearly twenty years later. Almost in spite of ourselves, the state continues to hold our collective political imagination (Fishel 2017).

This particular imaginary has led to a domino effect whereby countries are implementing measures nationally, but only as their own situation deteriorates. The United Kingdom thus abandoned its initial plans to let the virus run its course through the British population with the view to reach herd immunity not when Italy was reporting catastrophic mortality rates, but when its own numbers began to climb. The very same scenario is currently unfolding in the United States with—as I am writing this article—a third of the population instructed to stay home. Starting with California and Washington, the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, New Jersey have later followed suit. But the majority of states currently behind the curve have not imposed such drastic restrictions—as if their borders were somehow able to keep them entirely separate, and thus safe.

Yet, as border theorists have now argued for decades, borders are never as fixed, hermetic, and secure as they appear on maps. Borders are especially ill-equipped to govern the three-dimensional nature of territorial sovereignty (Billé 2020a) and address global phenomena such as global warming, environmental degradation, or pandemics. In a recent piece about the dust storms that form in the Gobi desert and travel eastwards, impacting air quality as far away as California, Jerry Zee argues that in “this air that skewers two countries,” Chinese dusts act as a “medium of shared meteorological fate rather than an occasion for atmospheric blame.” “This meteorological effacement of national space,” he continues, “might also be an injunction to reconsider, in tracing dust and airstreams, relations between nations in ways that skirt the languages of international relations” (2020: 126-27).

Such meteorological phenomena, which Tim Morton refers to as hyperobjects, are often too vast to be visible in their entirety. Precisely because of their transdimensional nature, they tend to appear nonlocal and temporally foreshortened. “If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world,” he writes, “first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing” (Morton 2013: 70). The cartographic representations of international relations, typically flat and horizontal, have provided an eerily similar response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though, as Ian Shaw (2016: 15) has convincingly argued, the planet’s “mosaic of distinct states has melted into … a scattershot of statelets, militarized cities, and transnational flows,” the idea of the state as a discrete, bound unit remains just as potent, as the proliferation of border walls indeed demonstrates. In fact, it is largely in response to an increasing complexity of global dynamics, and as symptoms of an enduring attachment to the dichotomous view projected by the logomap that border walls are being erected. Walls stand tall as reifiers of a flat political geography that portrays the world in simplistic binaries (inside/outside, us/them, autochthonous/migrant), promising to keep intruders at bay and to stem cultural and economic leakage (Billé 2020a). As I have explored elsewhere (2019), we are in fact seeing a widening chasm between the way territorial sovereignty is popularly imagined and how it actually operates. And thus, just as the United States is battling a deadly pandemic requiring global intervention and international cooperation the border wall with Mexico is proceeding apace (Lakhani 2020).

Rather than highlight the need for a unified response, the pandemic has, instead, given a new lease of life to borders, including in the well-integrated Schengen zone. For the binational village of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau whose complex of enclaves sits astride the Belgian-Netherlands border, daily life has once again become defined by micropartitioning (see Billé 2020b). Governed by Belgian laws, the twenty-two enclaves that make up the village of Baarle-Hertog—itself surrounded,  and fractured, by Dutch Baarle-Nassau—are following the same rules as the rest of Belgium: nonessential businesses are closed. Stores in the Netherlands, by contrast, remain open as I write this. Given that borderlines frequently run through buildings, this has led to surreal situations where sections of stores are closed while others continue to trade. Zeeman, a clothing chain, thus had to use warning tape to cordon off a section of the store in order to comply with Belgian orders (Ruiter 2020).

If Baarle has been largely overlooked by border theorists as irrelevant and rather gimmicky, it does offer fascinating insights into the politics of bordering, as well as speaks to the aspiration to bend material realities in line with abstract cartographic aspirations. In their response to the pandemic, the two municipalities have sought to collaborate as much as they could: Zeeman is open to both Dutch and Belgian customers and has stocked its most basic items in the Dutch section. Yet, that such a fractured space (some of the enclaves are minuscule, no larger than three thousand square yards) even attempts to replicate country-specific regulations underscores the elusive and futile responses that have been typical in the current pandemic. Rather than a gimmick, through its very miniature scale, Baarle is instead a potent illustration of the predominance accorded to territorial sovereignty and the ways in which “containment” remains lastingly melded to an imaginary that conceptualizes the state itself as container.

Works Cited

Agnew, John. 1994. “The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory,” Review of International Political Economy 1:1 (Spring), pp. 53-80

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso

Billé, Franck. 2020a. Voluminous States: Sovereignty, Materiality, and the Territorial Imagination, ed. Franck Billé. Durham: Duke University Press

—————. 2020b. “Jigsaw: Micropartitioning in the Enclaves of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau” in Voluminous States: Sovereignty, Materiality, and the Territorial Imagination, ed. Franck Billé. Durham: Duke University Press

—————. 2019. “Murmuration,” Society & Space, http://societyandspace.org/2019/04/09/murmuration

Fishel, Stefanie R. 2017. The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Lakhani, Nina. 2020. “Construction of US-Mexico border wall proceeds despite coronavirus pandemic,” The Guardian, March 22, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/22/construction-us-mexico-border-wall-coronavirus-pandemic

The Local. 2020. “Border between Italy and Switzerland partially closed: What you need to know,” March 11, https://www.thelocal.com/20200311/border-between-italy-and-switzerland-partially-closed-what-you-need-to-know

Ludden, David. 2003. “Maps in the mind and the Mobility of Asia,” The Journal of Asian Studies 62: 4 (November): 1057–1078.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Reuters. 2020. “Swiss keep border to Italy open, route traffic over main crossings,” March 11, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-swiss/swiss-keep-border-to-italy-open-route-traffic-over-main-crossings-idUSFWN2B40CB

Ruiter, Paul. 2020. “Belgische grens dwars door Zeeman in Baarle-Nassau: ‘Ik kon geen herenshirts meer kopen,’” Omroep Brabant, March 24 https://www.omroepbrabant.nl/nieuws/3177572/Belgische-grens-dwars-door-Zeeman-in-Baarle-Nassau-Ik-kon-geen-herenshirts-meer-kopen

Shaw, Ian G. R. 2016. Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Zee, Jerry. 2020. “Downwind: Three Phases of an Aerosol Form” in Voluminous States: Sovereignty, Materiality, and the Territorial Imagination, ed. Franck Billé. Durham: Duke University Press


Franck Billé is Program Director of the Tang Center for Silk Road Studies, at UC Berkeley. He is the editor of Voluminous States: Sovereignty, Materiality, and the Territorial Imagination [https://www.dukeupress.edu/voluminous-states] (forthcoming). More information about his current research is available at www.franckbille.com


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