The severe consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic dominate headlines around the globe and have drawn the public’s attention unlike any other issue or event. All over the world, societies struggle to respond and adapt to rapidly changing scenarios and levels of threat. Emergency measures have come to disrupt everyday life, international travel has largely been suspended, and many state borders have been closed. State leaders liken the fight against the virus to engaging in warfare – although it is clear that the parallel is misleading and that those involved in the “war” are not soldiers but simply citizens. The situation is grim, and it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the obvious danger of infection, loss of life, the collapse of health services and the economy. Nonetheless, there is a need to stress that this phase of uncertainty entails also the risk of normalising ‘exceptional’ policies that restrict freedoms and rights in the name of crisis and public safety – and not only in the short term.
“Of all the specific liberties which may come into mind when we hear the word “freedom””, philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, the “freedom of movement is historically the oldest and also the most elementary.” However, in times of a pandemic, human movements turn increasingly into a problem. The elementary freedom to move is said to be curtailed for the greater good, particularly for the elderly and others in high-risk groups. (Self-)confinement appears key – “inessential” movements and contact with others are to be avoided. In China, Italy and elsewhere, hard measures have been introduced and their violation can entail severe penalties. Movements from A to B need (state) authorisation and unsanctioned movements can be punished. There are good reasons for that, no doubt. Nevertheless, there is a need to take stock of the wider implications of our current predicament.
In this general picture, current restrictions on movement are problematic for people who do not have a home and for whom self-quarantine is hardly an option, for people with disability who remain without care, and for people, mostly women, whose home is not a safe haven but the site of insecurity and domestic abuse. Restrictions are also particularly problematic for those whose elementary freedom to move had been curtailed long before the Covid-19 outbreak but who need to move in order to find safety. Migrants embody in the harshest way the contradictions and tensions surrounding the freedom of movement and its denial today. It is not surprising that in the current climate, they tend to become one of the first targets of the most restrictive measures.