By Gee Imaan Semmalar, Kent University
After spending several months in India during the devastating “second wave” of the pandemic, I decided to travel back to the United Kingdom to continue research for my PhD. Academia is particularly unforgiving to postgraduate students who are on scholarships, doing teaching assistantships on a three-year funded PhD in this country.
It is even more brutal to students who are forced to navigate being oppressed based on caste, class, religious backgrounds, ableism, non-normative genders, etc. While many academic papers have been published and many funds awarded for studying pandemic related issues especially in the “Global South”, little has been done to mitigate the effects – psychological, financial, and academic – on students from these regions. I do not use frames of “Global South” because I believe that there are many “souths” within those regions. The “global south” framework contributes very little to understanding income disparities, resource allocations, or issues of access. It instead obfuscates the fact that there are areas and privileged groups within those regions whose standard of living and access is way better than those not privileged in the “Global North”. There is also privilege in being able to move between these borders if your mobility is not based on forced labour. So, being privileged enough to travel from a country that produces and supplies vaccines to other countries but is facing a huge shortage of vaccines for their own citizens, to a country where I would be invited with multiple calls from the NHS for the COVID-19 vaccine, I flew into the U.K. Unsurprisingly, universities that talk about diversity and decolonisation provided no support for a hefty £1750 towards mandatory hotel quarantine for red list countries.
As the flight pulled into a stomach lunging descent, London city came into my view, with its neatly arranged rows of ostensibly identical matchbox-like houses, lined streets, green patches, and waterways. Often touted as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, it was a reminder once again that diversity doesn’t necessarily mean there is social endosmosis. John Dewey initially developed a theory of social endosmosis in his 1916 treatise Democracy and Education, in which he uses it to denote restricted social interactions and flow of ideas, lack of commonality of interests and experiences between segregated classes of people (p.99). Dr Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste later developed it to theorise the caste system and used it as a yardstick for democracy:
An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards one’s fellow men. (para 14)
What a macro aerial view invisibilises to an untrained eye is this phenomenon of lack of social endosmosis built into the architecture of cities as the disparities between the city’s inner and outer boroughs, the racialised class segregation in residential areas and gentrification in historically black and immigrant neighbourhoods, the policy decisions on which public infrastructure projects are funded and which are unfunded/underfunded, where transport lines are connected to, and area-wise differences in density. In short, the dead ends that form the city and who pays for it literally and metaphorically with their bodies, labour and inter-generational histories. While you are made to believe that you have to cross just one border at the airport immigration or ports to enter this country, you are hyper-aware or ignorant depending on your own social locations, that there are multiple borders within this country/city that are designed to disallow you from crossing over.
The acronym “BAME” (which expands into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities) commonly used in the U.K. when talking about the racialised “other” has many issues, including a confused mix of racialised identities, geographical denoters and the red herring of numerically ascribed minority status. It can also be critiqued on similar grounds to the “global south” one I have presented above. BAME does not allow us to tell the story of why for instance, Asian immigrants, Indian and Chinese immigrants ( 7.6% and 8.4% respectively) are least likely to be living in deprived neighbourhoods in England according to 2019 figures by the UK government. In contrast, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants (31.1% and 19.3% respectively) show a greater presence in deprived neighbourhoods. What these totalising acronyms and terms hence erase is the story of multiple migrations – model minority “meritorious” migrants from privileged backgrounds who go on to become ministers of important portfolios espousing virulent anti-immigrant sentiments and policies and the other side – the less privileged migrants from the souths within the “Global south” who come in search of a better minimum wage for their labour than what they could find in places they couldn’t call home.
From the moment you enter the U.K. as a person who has arrived from a “red list” country, you are unwelcomed by a hostile atmosphere. After long bus rides to take us to segregated terminals for red-list passengers, being chaperoned by airport guards through fire exit stairways and immigration lines, we were taken on buses to the quarantine hotels (often you had to wait for at least an hour in stuffy buses, wearing masks, for the seats to be filled). Upon entry into the hotel, you realise that except for perhaps the front desk, the whole hotel has been taken over by the G4 security (G4S) agency. The London based G4S is the third largest private employer in the world, with more than 620,000 employees and operating in more than 120 countries. G4S works in a range of sectors – from employing guards at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India to employing men in conflict areas and war zones in Sudan, Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It is significant that in many of these places, private military contractors like G4S outnumber the US army troops. More recently, in 2020, G4S secured a 10-year contract to run the new U.K. prison, HMP Five Wells. At the quarantine hotel I was allotted to, G4 security guards swarmed every nook, cranny and corridor possible to ensure that you stay inside your rooms and don’t interact with anyone. Most of them are brown and black immigrants from the south within “global south” regions working for £10 per hour wages.
Food is left in brown paper bags outside your door at the same time every day for three meals. You are given plates, cutlery, and washing up liquid. For ten days you are then to self-isolate with no direct interaction with any human beings. On request you will be escorted by a guard to the parking lot for 15 mins a day for exercise or the rare sunshine. You are tested on the 2nd and the 8th day for covid (self-testing and you leave the kit outside your door to be picked up). If both are negative, you are released on the 11th day. Rather than a precautionary measure to control the pandemic, the whole quarantine system is designed to make you feel like a criminal for having travelled from a “red list” country. There are no assurances from community workers or health departments, no messaging that we will be taken care of even if sick. Just a dehumanising experience that comes with an expensive price tag.
After a few jet-lagged and cranky days, I got into a routine of my own. Of course, the logic and system of quarantine is carceral. It is really the government appointed front desk/immigration office that has the invisibilised panoptic vision of all the rooms and the inmates/immigrants. The irony is that people pay a ton of money outside of the pandemic to stay in a spruced up carceral complex a.k.a hotels. We are surrounded by carceral systems which give us the illusion of choice to make us dependent on them “willingly”. I saw two white people playing a game of ball in the parking lot who were wearing orange coloured American prison jumpsuits. They probably ordered it online. They could be COVID deniers who were protesting being made to quarantine, or racists who didn’t want to be made to quarantine with brown and black people or perhaps simply exhibiting some dark humour. In any case, I finished my walk and went back to my room. While the quarantine system is carceral in its logic and operation, including the fact that racialised people in the UK are disproportionately targeted by both systems, it cannot be compared to the actual living conditions in a prison. You have so many privileges here – the most important is that of knowing when you will get out. Of knowing that you will get out for sure.
On July 11th, I watched the horrifying spectacle of the Euro Cup on TV, as maskless English and Italian football fans (1000 Italian fans were allowed without isolation) chest thumped, drank and spat beer and flouted all pandemic related precautions in patriotic frenzy. Predictably, there are now reports of a surge in covid cases among the younger male demographic in the U.K. As I write this, further 51,870 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases, the highest daily figure since January has been reported in the UK. The government removed most covid related restrictions on July 19th, leaving it to “individual common sense” as to what precautions, including use of masks, one would like to continue with. This effectively leaves those who are clinically and socially most vulnerable at high risk in a white supremacist, capitalist system where the possibility of a self-imposed responsibility of care towards others is very low. Those who have been unable to cross the many external and internal borders of this country and navigate precarity on an everyday level as undocumented immigrants don’t have the privilege of basic health care. In a context where white supremacy is so virulently tied with patriotic fervour and anti-immigrant sentiment the fall out of this “Freedom Day” can be imagined. All of this while 1200 scientists have written to the Lancet calling the unlocking plans for England a “dangerous and unethical experiment” which could trigger vaccine resistant variants of the virus. This raises the question of individual choice and collective responsibility and who bears the burden and the repercussions of each.
The traffic light system for international travel is based on the proportion of populations that have been vaccinated against Covid-19, infection rates and the prevalence of variants of concern. There are many variants of concern believed to have originated from different parts of the world that have spread far and wide and many variants of interest are becoming variants of concern. No doubt there will be many more in the future especially with government actions/inactions that allow the virus to rage through significant parts of large populations. Given that the delta variant has spread across the world and is the most dominant strain in many countries including India, U.S.A (amber list), Russia and Britain, we can assume that in many countries that are struggling with genomic surveillance this is the case too. Even the US, with its vast scientific resources and financial power is struggling to keep up with genomic surveillance. The efficacy of the traffic light system at preventing the spread of COVID is itself questionable. Data from Scotland for instance, shows that out of a total of 7,323 people who were hotel quarantined between February 15 and June 22, just 76 tested positive for the virus. A look at the table below shows the contradictions in the traffic light system for U.K entry. Having experienced first-hand, the devastating second wave in India and witnessed the government apathy alongside the total collapse of the health system across urban and rural areas, I have abstained from making a case for India. I am also not liberal enough to believe that numbers don’t lie. Indeed, I would have conscientiously and willingly agreed to quarantine for greater good upon arrival from India had the colonial hypocrisy of the system not been so stark.
|Country||Listing for UK travel entry||New cases in 7 days||New deaths in 7 days||% of population vaccinated|
|Sudan||Red (mandatory 10 day hotel quarantine)||181||16||0.29%|
|Kenya||red( mandatory 10 day hotel quarantine)||3735||36||1.09%|
|France||Amber (mandatory quarantine at any chosen place of residence, covid tests on 2nd and 8th day upon arrival)||40,681||149||40.37|
|UK||Coding other countries red,amber and green||277300||282||53.18%|
Source: John Hopkins University and medicine, coronavirus resource centre data. Accessed 17/7/2021.
What this table shows us is that the developed countries bought from developing countries and manufactured in their own countries while guarding their patents, “successfully” administering vaccines at a faster pace than the rest of the world. However, going by active cases, some of the most populated countries in Africa do not show jaw dropping numbers in spite of snail-paced vaccination rates. Nevertheless, they are on red lists for UK entry and forced to undergo exorbitant, mandatory hotel quarantine while the colonial cousins from France, can be trusted to do so based on individual responsibility to quarantine in places of their choice. The latest changes to travel rules, effective from 4 A.M on July 19th, instead of placing France on the red list makes special mention that people returning from France are not exempt from quarantine even if they are double vaccinated unlike other amber list countries and must self-isolate for 10 days (different from mandatory hotel quarantine).The adherence to the rules of self-imposed isolation and admission of non-compliance similarly rests on the individuals concerned. In undemocratic societies that are structurally racist, gendered, casteist, ableist and classist, ascribing a collective, ethical duty of care to oppressors towards the othered is naive at best and disingenuous at worst. Quarantine is preventive detention for “greater good”. Who is compulsorily quarantined for whose greater good and in what ways needs to be examined critically. What could be more colonial than a system that prescribes – individual, self-isolation based on goodwill to some European countries but a collective, carceral system to mostly ex/neo colonies of the British empire? This system signifies the anxiety of “outside” threats that is at the heart of the moral contagion of colonialism. Apart from the policies and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 socially, medically, financially and psychologically on racialised citizens and residents, there are direct links to the role of disease in histories of colonialism.
The word “quarantine” (quaranta giorni ) supposedly emerged from the 14th century Italian imposition of a period of isolation for 40 days on ships coming into the port city of Venice to prevent health risks to the local population. Maritime travel, “exploration” and the setting up of trade and commercial interests in different parts of the world were crucial to the establishment and expansion of colonial ambitions. In 1832, when New York imposed a maritime quarantine following a cholera outbreak, many English immigrants who arrived in the United States on their way to settle in Canada, escaped despite efforts by armed militia to stop them. On the other hand, the spread of diseases during the age of conquest was a violent tool often used by colonial forces to wipe out entire native populations. By the end of the eighteenth century for instance, most of the first nations, (in what later came to be called the United States of America by the settlers)had been exposed to smallpox. During the Pontiac rebellion in 1763 in which several native tribes including the Ottawa, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Huron, Miami, Weas, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Piankashaw, Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Seneca-Cayuga joined under Chief Pontiac (Ottawa) to launch a series of attacks against the British, smallpox was used as a bio-weapon through the distribution of smallpox infected blankets to native populations. There are archival sources (dated 13 July 1763 and 16th July 1763)in the form of letters between Lord Jeffery Amherst, commanding general of British forces in North America and Colonel Henry Bouquet, Swiss-born British army officer that referred to the distribution of blankets to “inoculate the Indians”. The genocidal projects of colonialism with the incessant burning, looting, murdering, starvation, malnutrition and violent dispossession from native lands meant that diseases that native populations suffered under, due to contact with European settlers wiped out large sections of their population. This points towards the ways in which the outsider-insider binary has been created by colonialism and sustained till present day. While the U.K. government compulsorily quarantines who they consider to be “outsiders” and relegate the threat to that brought in by outsiders rather than the patriotic English football fans packed into pubs and stadiums, the history of colonialism betrays another dynamic. When English outsiders forcefully settled in native lands bringing weapons, diseases and sickness to wipe out those who were the original insiders/owners of the land and resources only to relegate them in law, social life and political power to the peripheries of the empires they went on to build.
While I walked round and round the parking lot every day, with these thoughts raging through my mind, I noticed these drawings on the ground and began to photograph them every day.
Were kids sending out hope and joy in these dystopian times?
Or were they telling me that we will soon be fossils of the past?
All data regarding COVID-19 and travel restrictions in this essay are correct as of 24th July 2021. All images used in this essay are photographs belonging to the author. The author would like to acknowledge Murali Shanmugavelan who provided valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
 Drews, Kelly. 2013. “A Brief History of Quarantine”. The Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review 2 citing Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987) 21-26.