The Great Immobility

We will learn many lessons from the coronavirus pandemic: the need for guaranteed universal health care and paid sick leave in the United States; the huge danger that comes from undermining federal experts and agencies; the ability to make very large financial commitments when crisis strikes. (Next up, climate change.)

Less obvious is the lesson we could come to learn about mobility.

At first glance, the restrictions on travel to the United States seem to affirm a common trope: our borders need to be sealed against immigrants who would do us harm. Build the Wall; stop the germs!

But there is another lesson that is emerging as we respond to “community spread” of the virus, and the disease it causes.

Americans are now experiencing what it is like to live a life of dramatically restricted mobility.

In some ways, the limits on movement look eerily like restrictions the U.S. has imposed on others:

  • Border closure: Denmark, The Netherlands, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have closed their borders to foreigners, including Americans;
  • Family separation: Nursing homes have barred visits to family members. A close friend was not allowed to enter the hospital room of a child diagnosed with COVID-19 symptoms;
  • Detention: U.S. citizens returning from Europe are being instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

And in many other ways we are daily constructing new restrictions on our taken-for-granted forms of mobility.

New York State has declared a “containment zone” in New Rochelle. San Francisco has ordered “sheltering in.” New Jersey has imposed a curfew. Schools have closed their doors to tens of millions of children. Employees have been asked to work from home or simply to stay home. Next may be federally imposed limits on who can leave or enter cities and states deemed to be “hot spots” — or perhaps even a nation-wide lock-down of the kind that have now been imposed in Italy, France, and Spain.

Our entertainments have been curtailed, unless we can enjoy them in our homes. Spectators were barred from sporting events, and then the games and tournaments themselves were canceled. Disneyland is off-limits: so are plays and movies.

The urgent call for social distancing is a dramatic walling off of ourselves from others and from our communities. We have told to stay away from restaurants, bars and other places where we talk and meet friends. Families will not be traveling to college commencements, nor political partisans to candidate rallies.

Our very modes of transportation have become suspect; it’s hard to maintain recommended spacing in a subway, bus, or train. Reflecting a massive decline in passengers, airlines have grounded their fleets to a greater extent than after 9/11.

At the most personal level, we are limiting ourselves: An elbow bump instead of a handshake; a blown kiss and hand to the heart instead of a hug. As I entered an elevator in my apartment building in Brooklyn recently, a person already in the elevator turned to the wall and covered her face.

The rich usually find a way. They can hire others to be mobile for them, or retreat to second homes in more remote climes. But even here there may be limits: I am told that year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard are expressing discontent about those now arriving with out-of-state license plates.

In noting these limits on mobility, I am not deprecating their importance to public health. Some commentators leapt to condemn Trump’s new travel ban as another exercise in blaming immigrants for home-grown problems. Indeed, in referring to the coronavirus as “foreign,” Trump opened himself to this charge.

But I find the arguments of health professionals persuasive. “Flattening the curve” requires both taking mitigating measures where the virus has become endemic and limiting new arrivals of persons who may be carrying the virus. (Interestingly, Trump’s migration bans have been applied to persons arriving from China and Europe, not the states Trump would be likely to include in his ugly category of “shit-hole countries.”)

Nor am I suggesting that the coronavirus restrictions on mobility provide a direct analogy to the migration measures put in place by the Trump Administration.

My point is this. For the first time in their lives, many Americans are now walking in the shoes of others. Or, rather, not walking. We are confronting government actions, policies, and admonitions that seek to dramatically limit how and when we move.

From these experiences, can we learn empathy for those around the globe for whom mobility is routinely and severely restricted: Syrians refugees trapped in camps on Lesvos, and Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladesh; Palestinians confined to Gaza, and controlled by separation walls on the West Bank; Central Americans pushed out of the United States to wait in border towns in Mexico; Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps in Tibet; African migrants stopped in boats on the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya; victims of mass incarceration in the United States; poor people everywhere who lack the resources to begin journeys to improve their lives.

Donald Trump accused the caravans from Central America of bringing “disease” to the U.S. It is no small irony that Guatemala has now prohibited the entry of Americans.

And from such empathy can we foster greater awareness of this nation’s role in fashioning and enforcing structures of immobility around the world?

T. Alexander Aleinikoff is a University Professor and Director, the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, The New School.

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