Freedom in Quarantine
The whole world is in lockdown. Or is it?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen some unprecedented measures imposed by governments across the world. These governments have closed down entire cities or even countries in order to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the deadly virus, because, unlike us, the virus is free; it traverses social strata and national boundaries. We need to check its freedom by putting our own freedom to move and to gather in quarantine. This, historians have told us, is an ancient way of combating contagious diseases. We are also reminded, in different ways—some benevolent, some outright racist—that after all in liberal democracies “we are not like the Chinese,” who allegedly can only obey their government’s dictates. This Chinese exceptionalism obscures the fact that most of those who could afford to stay at home in China are not very different from those who are staying home in the “free world.” They are all in one way or another beneficiaries of an unequal distribution of freedom—the freedom to stay home. We do it because we care, we can, or we have to. But one thing is clear: this freedom to stay at home comes at a price.
In mid-March here in Berlin, before the government imposed strict rules governing any outdoor activity but after it had already recommended social distancing, a lot of people were still gathering in big crowds, lining up for flat whites or frozen yogurt “as if nothing had happened,” although just across the street panic buying had already turned some human beings into hamsters. Then the streets were quieter, and large gatherings in public could lead to considerable fines and harassment from the police. (I wrote that sentence two weeks ago. How quickly things have changed: now Berlin has eased some restrictions, and life seems normal again.) With rapidly rising case numbers, most people started to comply with the lockdown measures. The solidarity shown by the majority with those most vulnerable to the virus and with medical workers is heart-warming, although it was only after 100 days had passed and the situation had really become dire in Europe and the US that we heard words of universal solidarity from politicians, pundits, and philosophers, and a “we” emerged that was seen to be worthy of a hashtag referring to a world community: #oneworld. I was shouted at—“Corona! Corona!”—on Berlin’s streets in February. My people’s misfortune crowned me. Through April, despite quarantine measures, we could still walk to buy groceries and exercise, as long as we respected interpersonal distance guidelines. Finally, I could legitimately greet others by curtseying.
But not everyone has agreed to the lockdown measures, and that heart-warming solidarity has been short-lived. It seems self-evident that top-down quarantine measures are state infringements on personal liberty, especially the freedom of movement. Freedom is in quarantine. This valid critique has been taken up by different people with different concerns, by protestors and philosophers who sometimes have drastically divergent politics.
In recent weeks, the most dramatic street protests against the lockdown have taken place in the United States and have involved banners bearing slogans like “Social Distancing = Communism” or “Give me freedom or give me death.” These white-majority, right-wing protests were further stoked by US President Donald Trump’s capitalized tweets: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Right-wing politicians quickly compared these actions to civil disobedience, or even likened the protesters to Rosa Parks: “they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties,” said a member of the Trump administration. Some protestors even went so far as to call the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a Nazi. I am sure this is not the (re)action that Giorgio Agamben had in mind when he wrote, in a passionate critique of the quarantine in Italy: “I would recall that a norm that affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is just as false and contradictory as one which, to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.” Agamben even referred to the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in a dangerous analogy that his translator decided to omit from the English version. (See the Italian text here.)
“Go to China if you want communism,” a protester in Colorado shouted two weeks ago, and this catchy theme has returned with variations in recent media coverage. An angry protester can be seen holding a sign that says, “LAND (of the) FREE,” and shouting at a medical worker. The scene is eerily familiar. In the early days of the epidemic, when the “Chinese virus” was killing Chinese people and the West still thought it would remain unaffected by the outbreak, major media outlets in the “free world” offered solidarity in the form of ridicule, from Der Spiegel’s cover (in February) proclaiming “Coronavirus Made in China,” to the opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that argued, “China is the real sick man of Asia,” to the “cartoon” featured in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that showed the Chinese flag emblazoned with the Coronavirus instead of yellow stars. The BBC featured a story on Danish responses to the backlash that the cartoon caused: “Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reminded China on Tuesday that ‘we have freedom of expression in Denmark – also [the freedom] to draw.’” But this media virality turned real on the street. It incentivized and intensified anti-Asian racism across the “free world,” in the US, Canada, the UK, France, and Germany, including in my own home of choice. Fellow Berliners of East Asian descent have reported racist assaults of varying degrees of severity, from serious physical and verbal attacks to minor aggressions.
Why did right-wing protesters’ rants sound so similar to those in the liberal media? A veritable meeting between the left and the right finally took place in a small but visible and by now weekly protest held against quarantine measures in the highly symbolic Rosa-Luxemburg Platz in Berlin, a protest that started the same weekend the US protests began. Here some 500 participants have reportedly come from both the political left and the extreme right.
Recently some theorists have also written opinion pieces questioning quarantine measures in the name of freedom: some (like Agamben) lament the speed and willingness with which we have surrendered our freedom to the state, and some (like Paul B. Preciado) even compare the conditions of bourgeois home confinement to those in refugee camps. There seems to be a creeping sense of jealousy, to say the least, as if these thinkers envied the coronavirus and its freedom, as if there were something that we needed to “learn from it.” COVID-19 has become a true cosmopolitan that travels the world.
For a while, it seemed true that the virus really didn’t recognize boundaries. We heard repeatedly that “the virus doesn’t discriminate.” It therefore seems to offer equal opportunities, though opportunities to be infected. Like many cosmopolitans and the universal “we,” the virus roams freely. But no, the virus does not and has not affected everyone equally. Not everyone is in lockdown, and the virus’s ability to equally affect all bodies has not been and will never be translated into an equal infection rate across populations. The pandemic may have temporarily provided a miraculous solution to the challenge of air and water pollution. It has failed, however, to perform any magic to erase existing social inequalities shaped by the deep logic of capitalist necropolitics. The virus’s freedom makes it painfully clear that “our freedom,” which the state has limited in order to prevent the pandemic from getting out of control, has always come at a price, only that most of the time we acted as if it came miraculously ex nihilo. Note, for instance, that the spread and freedom of the virus have been facilitated by the international travel of people with different kinds and degrees of privileges: the places hardest hit by COVID-19 are also the most industrialized and frequently visited cosmopolitan centers across the world. It is not too much of a stretch to say that this freedom of movement in a time of pandemic is paid for with a deadly price, as within these centers and their “order of freedom” the communities most affected by the virus are those already in deep trouble. But these are also the communities whose work is so essential that they have been allowed the “freedom” to travel to work by subway (in New York, for example) or in crowded charter flights (from Romania to Germany or the UK).
It is our task as critical thinkers to carefully reflect on the emerging reality of a new data totalitarianism, one in which governments will take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch a total invasion of privacy and install a surveillance state (yes, one, not many). It is also our duty to check our paranoia and our pleasure in indulging in a sort of apocalyptic jouissance. After all, none of us who can write and read in seclusion is out there confronting the real danger, with those who sustain our freedom to be at home, or our illusion of freedom. That is to say, our very freedom to critique comes at a price, just as a virus that is only equalizing in theory in fact disproportionately kills certain populations, exacerbating racialized socio-economic inequalities.
Some of us have the luxury and indeed privilege of sitting comfortably in our homes (or home offices). What I do now is not very different from what I did before the pandemic. The inner monk in me secretly enjoys the complete freedom from social obligations, from attending boring meetings, from shouting to be heard in loud bars, from the FOMO (the fear of missing out) I used to feel. The Chinese person in me is also secretly thankful for the complete freedom from the minor aggressions in public spaces that could at any point escalate into physical attack. The ecologist in me secretly entertains the hope that one of these evenings, when I walk three blocks down to my neighbourhood supermarket, a wild boar or an inquisitive fox from the Brandenburg forest will be two feet away from me. We will stare at each other for the first time in both of our lives, meeting for the first time although we have long been “coexisting” on this planet.
Billboard in Berlin, mid-April 2020.
One evening, instead of seeing a fox or a boar, I noticed a billboard bearing phrases written on little pieces of paper. One of them reads, “My father drinks more ever since the social distancing started and he has become more aggressive” (Tobias B); another reads, “My family has only one computer and the library is closed” (Sophia P); and another, “My mother works at the supermarket and I have to look after my sister” (Julius N). None of these authors invokes that magic and abstract word “freedom,” maybe precisely because they don’t even have the privilege of staying at home and comfortably complaining about our quarantined freedom, because they are workers in occupations only recently deemed essential, because they are among those who have sustained our allegedly lost “freedom” all along. They refer to some of the complex social issues that have been affected by the lockdown measures: toxic masculinity and domestic violence against women and children; unequal access to knowledge and the illusion of digital ubiquity; social reproduction and feminized precarious labor.
So, maybe it’s alright, even great, if our costly and hurtful freedom is kept in quarantine for a moment. Just as medieval quarantine measures contained infectious diseases, it is probably useful for us to wait for a moment, to be in seclusion before rushing into action or calling for action, to put that costly and hurtful freedom that we took for granted in check. Maybe only doing this will allow us to really address the inequalities that condition our “freedom,” so that we can start to imagine a new world in which we are free, not from, not despite, but with and for others.
Originally published on "In the Midst" of the Critical Times Journal on May 26 2020