The Politics of Sanitizing Space and (Im)Mobility

Yuk Wah Chan's picture
November 5, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Human Rights, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Public Policy, Public Health

The recent global pandemic has resulted in new anxieties about the risks and dangers involved in human mobility. The positive connotations of mobility – such as freedom, opportunity, liveliness and hope – are yielding to their inverses: control, lack of opportunity, deadliness, and despair. The spread of a highly infectious disease has generated a global diseasescape that challenges the conventional view of the benefits of globalization and mobility. It has created temporary dislocations but also exposed and amplified longstanding negative aspects of migration, especially intensifying the precariousness of low-waged migrant workers. The pandemic has forced governments to simultaneously re-engineer policies for temporary health control and longer-term border-crossing and migration policies; characterized by the sanitization of space and mobility. In order to bring the pandemic under control, one new governance mechanism has been a sharpened two-pronged effort to sanitize and to separate. The result is locking down physical spaces (especially dense ones like cities) and immobilizing certain parts of the population to “clean off” carriers and viruses. While people in general have to follow all the rules of keeping physical distance, wearing a mask, washing their hands, and cleaning surfaces, some essential workers (who are often migrants) are particularly subject to the brunt of government instructions and rigorous sanitizing protocol. Stricter regulations are also generally imposed on migrant entries for work. With the swift advances of virus mutations, it appears that COVID-19 will remain in one form or another with us for the foreseeable future, and the so-called “new normal” (that implies sporadic stoppage of flows, home-based activities, different forms of closure and shutdowns) may soon become an established life pattern.

This workshop considers the policies, including health and non-health measures, that have been taken in different countries in response to the outbreak and to the shifting phases in the evolution of the virus itself. While these measures of COVID control are often phrased in medical language and policy discourse, they often serve multiple political goals including increased public surveillance and heightened vigilance in controlling migrants. Thus public health issues become interwoven with old and new debates about values, rights, and basic social and political norms. The politics of sanitization has moved beyond the medical understanding of a particular pandemic and blurred the division between science and politics in a way that will likely linger beyond the pandemic itself.

The workshop aims to:

1. Explore the changing risks and benefits of migration in general, and for specific kinds of migrants (e.g., low-wage, seasonal migrant workers, students, refugees).

2. Explore how the shifting assessment of COVID-related health risks and the dialectics of (im)mobility may reflect existing economic disparity in an age of increasing digitalization of the economy.

3. Explore in particular how the pandemic has created a stronger category of “essential” workers, who are disproportionately migrants and are subject to higher levels of risk and surveillance.

4. Engage in institutional analysis and policy studies: study various governmental policies to sanitize and securitize border-crossing, and how these serve long-term political interests and impact on the implementation of the Global Compact and the Sustainable Development Goals.



Contact Info: 

Workshop Convenors

Yuk Wah Chan (City University of Hong Kong); Nicola Piper (Queen Mary University of London)

Workshop Discussants:

David Haines (George Mason University); Xiang Biao (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

Mode: Online via zoom

Proposal deadline (extended): 6 Sept 2021



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