Here is a link to a powerpoint presentation on COVID-19 and mobility I have scrambled together for the remaining (online only) week of my Geographies of Mobility course. Just in case anyone finds it useful.
Many thanks to Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins, the designer Matthew Young and the artist Julia Barton for providing the plastiglomerate on the cover. See Matthew’s wonderful designs at https://matthewyoung.design and Julia’s art practice at http://www.julia-barton.co.uk. Support her wonderful art project “littoral”.
As I write this, the G7 group of the world’s wealthiest nations are in a stalemate over their combined response to the COVID-19 epidemic. The rising numbers of people who have died from the disease, along with the science of epidemiology has made the need for such a response clear. The stalemate is not based on science. It is based on a name. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State for the United States holds the presidency of the group and in the text he circulated he referred to the virus that causes COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus”. To the other members of the group this was a “red line” they were not willing to cross.
On February 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization announced a name for the novel coronavirus that had been first identified in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2020. They called in SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). At the same time, they named the disease caused by the virus COVID-19 – a name nobody knew and now almost everyone knows. The Director-General of the W.H.O., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made some remarks to contextualize the naming. “We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronouncable and related to the disease. Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.” The statement by the Director-General underlines the important of bringing a whole range of knowledges and imaginations to the current situation. Science is key, but so are the specific skills of humanists and interpretive social scientists. Clearly the power of naming is important. The good work of the W.H.O. recognized this.
The names declared on February 11th need to be understood in relation to a history of naming diseases after places – a history that the officials at the W.H.O. were clearly aware of. The history of pandemics in the 20th century was a history of place name based diseases. Most famously, perhaps, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, that killed from 17-50 million people and infected a quarter of the world’s population, was called the “Spanish Flu”, mainly due to the fact that it was only Spanish journalists who were reporting on it. Later pandemics were called the Asian Flu (1957) and Hong Kong Flu (1968). Other outbreaks have been named after particular animals (Swine Flu, Bird Flu). Other diseases, that did not reach the status of pandemic, have also been given “other” place names. This was notably the case with syphilis in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. The army of King Charles VIII of France collapsed from a mystery illness during an invasion of Naples. The disease spread quickly through Europe and North Africa and was given different names depending on where you lived. In Italy, it was the French disease and in France it was the Italian disease. Russians called it the Polish disease, Poles called it the German disease, Arabs called in the Christian disease. In Japan, they called it the Tang sore – a reference to China. It is certainly the case that human mobilities, of one kind or another, form part of the historical geography of syphilis. It was the marches of King Charles’ army on Naples that brought the disease to light in Europe. The disease became particularly notable in port cities – the Chinese called it the ‘ulcer of Canton’ after the port city that formed their major contact point with the west. It was in the English port of Bristol that syphilis was named the Bordeaux sickness (after another noted port with particular ties through the wine trade to Bristol). Syphilis was not just connected to “other places” but to mobility in general. Early attempts to account for its sudden appearance in Europe looked to nomadic groups such as the Moors and the Beggards. More recently scientists have explored the long-held notion that the disease came back from the Americas with the Columbus expedition as a kind of reversal of the well-known movements of Small Pox.
Clearly it is the case that viruses, and the diseases they cause, travel. Virus’s move from one host to another. In the case of COVID-19 this appears to predominantly be through the air in droplets and in aerosol form as we cough. In order to become a pandemic though, the virus relies on infected human bodies moving over much larger distances from one place to another, both within cities and across national borders. We can see this visualized in any number of exercises in data visualization that have appeared in recent weeks – but perhaps most notably in a moving map produced by the New York Times and based on tracked cell phones. The map shows clusters of red dots (infected human bodies) around the wet market in Wuhan suddenly expanding and mingling with streams of non-infected people (blue dots) as 175,000 people moved across China to celebrate Chinese New Year. These streams become international as human bodies board airplanes and travel across the world – including the first known case outside of China in Bangkok. These dots become more real when we know something of the people involved. One of the early accounts in the United Kingdom was of businessman Steve Walsh who had attended a conference in Singapore before taking a skiing holiday in the French Alps. He was subsequently labelled with the unhelpful term “superspreader” after it was confirmed that (through no fault of his own) 11 British citizens had caught the virus from him.
The facts of a virus’s mobilities have no necessary relationship to the stories that this leads to. As Susan Sontag made clear in both Illness and Metaphor, and AIDS and its Metaphors accounts of illness are rarely innocent scientific accounts. Some of the most pervasive narratives we have involved the movement of meaning between disease and society. Diseases are punishments. Carriers of disease are morally dubious as well as medically infected. We already have the leaders of the USA and UK invoking metaphors of war. It is almost as though they have taken Sontag as a how-to guide and missed her point entirely. The production of meanings attached to illness matter. On February 24th, 2020, a Singaporean student. Jonathan Mok, was walking on Oxford Street in central London when he was viciously attacked by four young boys, one of whom said “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”. Mok was so badly beaten he needed facial surgery. This seemingly extreme event is but one example of racist actions that are ill-informed by supposed associations between Chineseness and COVID-19. The list is so long it has its own Wikipedia page. Instants range from people eating less Chinese food, to further instances of bodily violence, to national and local newspapers using racist headlines – such as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph headline of “China kids stay home”.
The history of association between disease and immigrant populations is littered with examples from American history. In Alan M. Kraut’s Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace he traces these links through the various responses of public health officials to disease and immigration. He charts how “medicalization of preexisting nativist prejudices” leads to calls for the exclusion of whole groups of “other” people. His book includes the association of Irish and cholera (1830s), Chinese and bubonic plague (1900), and Italians with polio (1916). Another disease forever intertwined with racism is AIDS. In 1982 AIDS began to be associated with Haitians in addition of gay men, heroin users and people who had blood transfusions. The disease had been identified among Haitians fleeing the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier as well as in people identified as Haitian in several cities across the United States. One immediate supposition was that this disease may have been imported by an immigrant group – a notion that was later dispelled as it was shown that Haitians caught the disease in the same ways as everyone else. The doctor who proved this, the Haitian doctor Jean William Pape, suggested that “he believes the doctors were seeing cases in other nationalities at the same time, but reported only on the Haitians because they did not see them as having the same privacy rights – because they were poor, black refugees”. The link drawn between AIDS and Haiti, including by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), had immediate impacts including the collapse of the Haitian tourist industry. The association between AIDS and Haiti effectively stigmatized all Haitians. In his book AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, Paul Farmer writes “in the United States and other wealthy postslavery societies of the Americas, the stigma of AIDS combined with inveterate racism to ensure the victims of the disease would bear the blame for their own misfortune. Moveover, not only sufferers from HIV but all Haitians were branded as AIDS carriers” and further “Racism was central to the early international responses to AIDS, too, and remains a problem today, as AIDS takes its greatest toll on the continent of Africa, where the heritage of colonialism and racism weighs heavily.” It should come as no surprise that the same President who deliberately started referring to the “Chinese virus” is reported by the New York Times to have previously declared that Haitians “all have AIDS” in an Oval Office meeting.
Beyond associations between disease and foreign “others” on the one hand, and disease and general anxieties about mobility on the other there is a very specific connection in the west between disease and ideas about Chineseness. This includes various diseases such as Cholera around 1900 in the United States but also regulatory constructs that linked race to hygiene, sanitation and public health. In geographer Kay Anderson’s book Vancouver’s Chinatown she charts how the idea of the Chinese as a race was constructed in the Canadian case through the identification of a specific place in Vancouver as “Chinatown”. Part of this process was to place Chinatown affairs under the authority of the municipal sanitary officer alongside disease, water, and sewage. Similar connections were made in efforts to define and defend racially coded borders at Angel Island in San Francisco bay during the period of the Chinese Exclusion Acts 1910-1940. Part of the justification for the immigration detention center was the fear of small pox and bubonic plague. Chinese detainees were often subjected to invasive and arduous medical exams. Sociologist Renisa Mawani has shown how similar connections between race, disease, and sanitation were made at D’Arcy Island off the coast of Vancouver Island between 1891 and 1924 where Chinese people suffering from leprosy were detained. Indeed, leprosy was known on the west coast of Canada as the “Chinese disease”.
The association between foreigners and disease is a common one. It rests on a wider set of narratives of foreign others as dirty and polluting. As the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, reminded us in her book Purity and Danger, when we see references to dirt we are seeing references to matter out of place. Dirt, pollution, is defined by moral geographies – ideas about what and who belongs where and when. Similarly, references to immigrants or foreigners as dirty, polluted, or diseased is a symptom of moral geographies. This is why it matters whether we talk about SARS-CoV-2 as a virus that originated in China or as a Chinese (or Wuhan) virus. The first is simply a statement of the facts as we know them, the second is an attempt to give a virus implied national characteristics that draws on a racist history. It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that President Trump, on the 17th March, in sharp contrast with the experts of the W.H.O., made the deliberate decision to refer to the virus in exactly these terms. Since then, both Trunp and Pompeo have alternately used the terms “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” – a practice that is both racist and unhelpful for a coordinated global response to the pandemic.
Ogilvie Professor of Geography
University of Edinburgh
Originally recorded for the wonderful #InternationalPoetryCircle initiative – but too long for Twitter.
Some thoughts on Covid-19 prompted by a request from Mobile Lives Forum for some commentary. I know some people think this is too early but I think the current moment needs the social sciences and humanities as well as the sciences. This is not meant to be an “academic” “output” but something more like an op-ed for anyone who might find it useful. Also – writing is what I do – its my own kind of self-help practice.
In my 2006 book, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western WorldI wrote that mobility was the lifeblood of mobility and the virus that threatens to undo it. The idea was further developed in reflections on the concept of turbulence in the text that follows, also written a few years ago, without knowing that it would resonate particularly today with the unprecedented situation that has arisen since the appearance of the coronavirus.
Turbulence and disruptions at the heart of mobility systems
Mobilities are frequently disrupted. Any mobility has the potential to do something unexpected – to go wrong. A helpful concept here is turbulence. Turbulence, or disordered mobility, happens when a form of movement encounters friction of some kind. This friction can occur when a form of mobility encounters something immobile. Alternatively it can happen when different forms of mobility collide with each other. Turbulence is inevitably and largely unpredictable. We know it will happen but not where, when and to what extent. Once you produce mobility then you will produce turbulence – a form of mobility that lies beyond calculation and prediction. A good deal of work (particularly by transport planners) has gone into making mobility smooth and predictable. Much of the way the world works in advanced neo-liberal capitalism is based on the logic of logistics – the logic of things always moving in predictable ways (and, incidentally, not stopping for too long). This logic often remains invisible as long as it is working properly. Events of turbulence make it suddenly visible. These events include accidents such as the cutting of undersea cables that route the internet by a ship’s anchor (making most of India go off line), or the sinking of a container ship and the sudden visibility of athletic shoes or rubber ducks floating around the world, or, perhaps, the intentional turbulence caused by terrorists and pirates who seek to feed off of global flows to make their mark.
Turbulence can be both accidental or deliberate – a moment of breakdown and/or a moment of creativity. While terrorists and pirates clearly see the utility in disrupting the smooth space of flows so to do political activists and creative artists who want to jolt us out of our everyday worlds to draw attention to the way the world is being made around us. The everyday world of mobility – the everyday coalescence of movement, meaning and practice – is increasingly a world of order, security and surveillence within which social differences are produced and maintained. So, turbulence – the disruption of this ordering – is not necessarily a bad thing but a positive and creative moment that can occur when that which is mostly taken-for-granted becomes suddenly visible. Turbulence plays a role in the politics of mobility and can arise in relation to any of the facets of mobility – speed, rhythm, route etc. Turbulence is not so much a product of an error in systems of mobility as it is integral to those systems. Systems of mobility such as the distribution of commodities around the world in container ships of the distribution of people around the world in aircraft have turbulence built into them. Turbulence is not a product of the system going wrong but of the system working. Volcanoes erupt, diseases enter countries through airports, pirates in Somalia take over ships, oil leaks from the hulls of ships, hackers break into the computer systems of banks – all of this because of the systems of mobility that produce the modern world. Mobility is both the lifeblood of modernity and the virus that threatens to undo it.
Here I used “virus” as a metaphor for turbulence and disruption within the established and largely taken for granted mobilities of everyday life. Here, “virus” can be either a destructive threat or a creative moment in the creation of a better future. As we are seeing with the virus that causes covid-19, there are occasions when the virus is both figurative and literal. It is a terrible thing that will kill many before their time. As is often the case with turbulence, it also reveals much that is wrong with the ways we move. The following are some reflections on various aspects of our mobile lives that covid-19 has revealed.
When I speak of turbulence I am thinking of the unknowable products of small changes in mobility systems. These mobility systems include various kinds of mappable and quantifiable movement (largely the domain of epidemiologists and their models at the moment), meanings and narratives attached to these movements, and particular embodied practices of movement. Sometimes these coalesce into more or less coherent constellations of mobility, and sometimes, such as now, these constellations are revealed through disruption and turbulence. The emergence of covid-19 is just such a small change. Without the global mobilities we have become used to, covid-19 would not be the global issue it is today. The movement of goods, people, and capital is made smooth by global and local mobilities and the infrastructures, logistics, and regulations that undergird them. These mobilities also make a pandemic not just possible but probable.
Calamities always come from elsewhere
As far as we know, the virus had its origins in Wuhan, China and has been associated with a particular “wet market” where traders sell meat and seafood as well as live animals. They are crowded urban ecosystems where the mobilities of people intersect with animals both live and dead. They are places where a zoonotic disease can move between animals and humans.
Along with the fact of movement come stories. In this case all of the stories that have historically accumulated in the West around “China” and “Asia”. There is a long history of naming epidemics and pandemics after their supposed place of origin. If we look at Pandemics of the 20th and 21st Centuries we can see this pattern. The flu of 1918 was called the Spanish Flu. In 1957 it was the Asian flu and in 1968 the Hong Kong Flu. This reflects a deeper history of naming diseases after somewhere beyond home. Syphilis in 15th Century Italy was called the French disease. In France it was called the Italian disease, in Russia, the Polish disease and in Turkey, the Christian disease. The British called it the Bordeaux disease. Diseases are mapped on to others, from elsewhere, usually people with other alleged negative characteristics in xenophobic discourse. Alongside such specific stories of “origins” comes a more diffuse distrust of mobility in general and the disease and its name become part of a conversation about the need for protected and clearly bounded spaces. We know the disease caused by the new corona virus as covid-19 thanks to a deliberate act of naming by the World Health Organization that sought to avoid the use of specific geographical indicators (such as “Wuhan” or “China”) in order to reduce scapegoating and xenophobic reactions to Chinese people. Despite these efforts, there are stories of east Asian people being harassed and Chinese restaurants in London being empty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the 17th March 2021, President Trump referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus”.
The solution to problems associated with turbulent mobilities is often to stop or curtail them. In the last few months we have become accustomed to the use of the word “quarantine”. Most spectacularly this was associated with cruise ships and particularly the Diamond Princess which was quarantined in Japan’s Yokohama harbour on February 4th after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong on February 1st tested positive for Covid-19. Most of the passengers remained on the ship had to stay on it. The final group only left the ship on March 1st and many faced additional quarantine on dry land. In the period spent on board over 700 passengers and crew caught the disease. The process of quarantine originated in Venice as it sought to protect itself from the Plague in the 14th Century. Ships arriving at the port were required to sit at anchor for 40 days (a period that leads to the word quarantine – from the Italian quaranta giorno (forty days)). Venice, at the time, was at the center of early mercantile capitalism based on emerging global trade by sea. In its very origins, quarantine was a response to disease mobilities that piggy-backed on the mobilities of trade. The Diamond Princess was the latest in a history of ships in limbo.
Differentiated experiences of turbulence
Covid-19 turbulence has revealed some stark differences in the mobile practices between people. One notable group has been the rich. A Guardian article from 11 March, 2020 reported on the super wealthy chartering private jets and retreating to specially prepared bunkers and isolated second or third homes in countries with limited exposure to the virus. Many were attempting to escape compulsory quarantine orders they expected down the line. The effects of quarantine on the mobilities of the poor are quite different. Gig workers and those on hourly contracts need to keep working in order to have an income. Requests to self-isolate, or to stay away from public space, are simply impossible for those who rely on insecure incomes – including the delivery drivers that many who can afford to stay at home are relying on. The homeless are another group of people who cannot easily conform to requests to self-isolate. Similar issues arise as universities move very quickly to on-line learning and ask students to go home. Not all students can simply go home at a moment’s notice and even for those who can, they may not access to the high-speed internet that is necessary for many forms of online learning.
Covid-19: exposing global mobility
As planes stop flying, people stop making unnecessary journeys, and streets are freed of cars, mobilities that are most often invisible (because taken-for-granted) become starkly apparent. One of the more spectacular visualizations of the first months of 2020 was a comparison of air pollution (nitrogen dioxide) around Wuhan before and after the strict quarantine measures were introduced. Nitrogen Dioxide is a product of the combustion of fuel. Some estimate that more lives were saved due to the reduction in air pollution than the numbers who have died from the virus – perhaps as much as 20 times as many. We rightly take emergency action to combat covid-19 but not to combat air pollution caused by automobility, or even climate change. Turbulence has made certain aspects of our normal, taken-for-granted and never questioned mobile worlds visible. As I wrote earlier, “Turbulence is not a product of the system going wrong but of the system working.”