“Since I don’t have any job, my everyday life did not change much. I do the same things that I did before Corona. […] And since I don’t have any plans or schedules, life is good for me. It’s like everyone adjusted their lives to mine. I am the winner here!” (Berkcan from Turkey)
Berkcan’s quote brings a crucial point during the COVID19 crisis to the fore: It ostensibly appears that the disease annihilates temporal and spatial borders as the virus spreads throughout the world, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, age and status. Humans are alike, the same, adjusted to one another.
Simultaneously, this specious glance may hinder one to examine, entangle and unravel the hidden dimensions of power of such borders that underlay the current epidemic. Foucault (2001: 329) writes: “Rather than analyzing power from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consists of analyzing power relations through the antagonism of strategies. […] And, in order to understand what power relations are about, perhaps we should investigate the forms of resistance and attempts made to dissociate these relations.” Thus, we need to ask – are there borders, temporally or spatially, being resisted that did not exist before COVID19? And simultaneously, which borders are torn down, in favor of new equalities or, also possible, in favor of new inequalities? In order to discuss these issues, we have focused on short qualitative interviews in the Non-Western world in late March 2020 – people from Peru, Argentina, Turkey, Iran and the Kurdish region of Iraq have participated. In our analysis we uncovered that spatial, i,e, particularly geographical borders, diminished in favor of other factors that – as Berkcan put it – “adjusted” people across the world to one another. Overall, we found 4 dimensions of power which we unveil from a temporal perspective, namely private, working, societal, and health domain.
In the private realm people’s borders oscillate between boredom, nostalgia, lack of plans and appreciation of leisure as well as family time. A mother from Iran highlights that this routine with forced distance makes her reconsider nostalgia and imposes a challenge to play with a son without a clear structure and plan. At the same time, an Iranian husband experiences very valuable me-time with his beloved ones and to rest and Shalaw from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region particularly finds it important to spend these times with his family and “help out”. Thus, some people in Iran appreciate the time with families, yet miss out on their bonds to their greater circle of relatives, dwell in the past, yet try to make the best of the present moment with their beloved ones. The borders of this ultimate “inner family circle” are respected, and obliged, and even without planning, the moment of now recreates agency. Overall, the private domain is substantially altered: the boundaries between family and work fade – imposing new double-burdens, drawbacks from beloved ones and novel forms of adjustment. Emotionally, new ties come to the fore: whilst some relationships seem to go virtual or are cut, others are enhanced and care, support and help strengthen individual power for new forms of collectives and entities.
The working sector, especially with remote work and no work at all, creates tensions between prolongation, forced flexibility, remote work and solidarity as well as waiting as a patience strategy. An Iranian PhD graduate currently faces a decreased income, whilst he used to have regular working schedules before COVID19, with disturbed sleep due to telecommuting. Another Persian adds that work priorities have changed, though the schedule remained the same. An Iranian academic speaks of a purgatory due to the unstable, chaotic situation in academia, undermined by the same experiences of a Persian student claiming prolongation of time, cancellation of plans and poor quality of online teaching. However, despite the uncertainty, the fallout of any order, Joaquín from Argentina sees no other way than regaining agency through a heads-up attitude. Prices are increasing there, with little governmental support, so the Argentinean turns to social media or weed. Hozan from Kurdistan Region in Iraq finds solstice in solidarity through helping out financially despite personal tragedies. These challenges of remote work, unforeseen financial troubles and the prolongation of time stand in stark contrast to the only remaining opportunity people had: trust in governmental support, patience as a survivor strategy and accepting the borders, the boundaries whilst regaining faith in authorities to overcome the weakened economic situation. Although we see the challenges imposed by digital labor, we simultaneously see it as an advantage for the future to overcome digital divides i.e. borders: unintentionally, we have entered a time period of digitization, much faster than without COVID19. Internet connection and access as human right, which is maybe promising a new temporal digital order for future decades to come?
At the same time, overall the societal domain fluctuates between long-term crises vs. future-oriented sustainable prospects. An Iranian 40-year-old employee states that his family’s “nervous system […] is severely weakened and the tolerance threshold has reached the lowest possible level”. He predicts a water and psychological crisis due to washing and sterilizing consumer items. This outlook closely relates to what the global world community has long discussed under the key term anthropocene, and it strongly relates to threatening climate change which will eventually hit the whole international community.
However, faith in local authorities is what people try to rely on in terms of COVID19. Mauricio from Peru highlights the successful governmental measures e.g. “Toque de queda” implying a strict temporal order of when to go out, and transit passes to leave the house. Overall, people across the world recognize the borders and boundaries of our current societal systems, yet nevertheless try to put trust in justice, fairness, equality and support of the weaker. People are increasingly becoming aware of the duality of the future and its global challenges and opportunities. This border between denial and recognition paired with faith, hope and belief and at the same time fear of authority’s passiveness impose new forms of awakening and awareness. It cannot be stressed enough, that a mindful and global spirit of just measures will hopefully not be lost after the crisis.
Finally, what ultimately imposes the highest threat at the moment is the Domain of health which alternates between multitasking burdens and sheer faith. A final year medical student from Zahedan in Iran suffered from and survived COVID19. She remembers her infection, hospitalization, recovery in quarantine alongside a lack of education, vulnerability, weakness and still juggling to go to work in the hospital. So while people have no other choice of respecting health infrastructure and its limitations borders across the world, faith seems a strong and possibly one of the few counterarguments to the lack of well-being. Thus, a so far COVID19 negative Iranian finds solstice in personal beliefs: “Regarding my time and schedule, I found my spiritual requirements.” This challenges as described here – burdens, risks, boundaries and borders – are only to be overcome with obedience, yet simultaneously having faith in the measures undertaken, and the for the situation to pass eventually. It remains open if political systems will understand that health is a crucial aspect of sustainability and respect the borders of exploitation, the finitude of organic life forms, and with it the necessity to protect this world for future generations.
So, to conclude, what does the current situation of quarantine and uncertainty about the further course of the disease do with humans? Most certainly, it brings our limits, borders and boundaries back into our consciousness. Here we speak of borders of any kind: geographical, temporal, gender, race, class, social in coexistence, but also ethical such as humanity, understanding, patience, mindfulness, helpfulness. If the restrictions and borders are actively experienced, there is a strong feedback between past, present and future. As the future seems less predictable, the value of what is present and what already has been increased. The power and futility of human destruction such as war, environmental damage etc. should also be recognized, because we all have only one world and only one life.
COVID19 has the ability to adapt and change – we should learn these processes of alteration from the virus. It forces us to think and act accordingly and this implies a matter of power as well – power and agency for us, and for the future. The opportunity that these limitations of our individual everyday and working life open up for us lies in the realization that living in a human community requires the conscious recognition of limits and borders. By understanding the need for protective measures and borders, many people have demonstrated how important it is for them to live together amongst generations. Under best circumstances, the time of isolation results in a return to other difficult experiences and learning from coping with them, and especially in the exchange of experiences between generations when such encounters will be possible again.
Unrestrained, limitless expression of one’s own interests leads to the impoverishment of everything that makes a society human. With the current situation we have the chance to train many good qualities: solidarity, compassion, mindfulness and consideration, practical help, respect, self-control, concentration on essentials. In sum it remains to state: The challenge that this disease poses to mankind is to be seen as an opportunity for a common future on this planet; as agency and resistance in contrast to power as Foucault put it.
Foucault, Michel (1954). Power: The Essential Works of Michel Focault 1954-1984. London: Penguin.
Maria Faust M.A.
Doctoral Candidate, University of Leipzig, Germany
Dipl. Chem. Annemarie Faust
Tourist Guide, Colditz Castle, Germany