Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – The Unexpected Victory of the Nation State
Agnieszka Bielewska, (im)Mobility Research Center, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland,
Agnieszka Trąbka, Jagiellonian University; SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland
The first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in Poland on 4th March 2020. However, it is estimated that the epidemic started in mid-January. The Government’s first reaction was to close schools, kindergartens and nurseries (12th March); the second was to close borders to all foreigners, with the exception of groups like spouses of Polish nationals. Poles returning from abroad had to undergo 14 days’ quarantine. Within days, similar measures were implemented by other EU countries. In the face of plague, the unity of the European Union started to crumble, and nation states reappeared as the main actors. These units, often perceived as victims of globalisation, whose power has been eclipsed by that of transnational corporations, re-emerged as significant forces, able to take control over their territories. They have closed shopping malls, forced factories to stop production and confined people to their homes, diverting their activities into virtual space.
As a result, the so-called transnational global class  has been grounded. The transnational professionals and “middling migrants”, who have built their life trusting the notions of a united world and a united Europe, have been forced to answer the question of their belonging, and have suddenly found they can choose only one country. The pandemic has illustrated the fragility of the foundations on which these notions of borderless Europe were built. The lightness of the decision to live somewhere was suddenly taken away, together with the conviction that other destinations were just one short, cheap flight away. The world of time-space compression has ceased to exist, at least temporarily. Those who used to see themselves as nomadic, as citizens of the world belonging everywhere and nowhere in particular, all of a sudden have had their home defined for them. Moreover, it was a rather essentialised definition of home based on a passport and not necessarily in accord with how people actually feel. As Olena Babakova aptly put it: “Home is where they let you in during a pandemic”.
This does not mean, however, that forced immobility hits only transnational cosmopolitans. On the contrary, its harsh consequences may be observed at a local level as well, in particular in the border regions. There are towns divided by borders, such as Polish Słubice and German Frankfurt an der Oder, that started healing their wounds thanks to European Union unity. Only after Poland joined the EU in 2004 were the Polish and German populations able to look for opportunities on the other side of the border. People could live in Słubice and work in Frankfurt, and their children could be sent to German schools. There are also those who live in transnational relationships. EU internal mobility was taken for granted and the new reality may have come as a shock. From the end of March till the beginning of May, cross-border activities came to a halt. For those working or studying abroad, entering Poland meant a 14-day quarantine. Cross-border workers therefore faced the dilemma of continuing to work and renting accommodation on the German side, or staying at home and endangering their jobs. Some German schools offered accommodation to their Polish students for the secondary school final exams period. The reintroduction of a “hard border” in the of case doctors and nurses, who constitute a significant proportion of healthcare professionals in a number of bordering cities, poses a problem to German employers as well. Finally, on 30th April, after a week of protests against the quarantine of people who work and study on the other side of border, the Polish prime minister eased restrictions.
It is interesting that the first response to danger was closing the borders between EU member states. Free movement of people, one of the pillars of a globalized world, started to be perceived as risky and in many cases unnecessary. The lack of ontological security also influenced people’s attitudes toward space. Places traditionally defined as static and closed now became perceived as safe. Mobility, previously seen as an asset or privilege, became a burden, whereas those who led a more local life often found it easier to adapt safely to the newly imposed conditions. Suddenly in the time of pandemic, there is no place for Massey’s understanding of places as sites connected to others in constantly evolving social, cultural, and natural/environmental networks  . The space of flows has been limited to the virtual space of online meeting rooms. Physical places have returned to their traditional meaning as a dot in space with clearly defined borders, and at the same time rather essentialised and exclusive rights to be in those places have been enforced . States are opening their borders only to their citizens. Even though Covid-19 is present in all European states, only citizens are allowed to cross national borders, and even they need to go through quarantine. This way, places understood here as states imply the construction of ‘us’ (people who belong in a place) and ‘them’ (people who do not) .
The interesting question is what happens after the pandemic. It may not be easy for nation states to give back the power they regained in a time of fear. It may not be easy for people to restore their faith in a united world, and in an ability to lead transnational lives undisrupted by visible and invisible borders. Once forced to choose their life centre, will they be able to recapture their ties with other locations? No matter how these questions are answered, it seems that nation states are seen as homes that need to be closed against strangers in a time of threat, and the connection between traditional notions of community and locality on the one hand, and identity on the other, are still strong in spite of what many predicted at the end of 20th century .
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