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Source: Massey University

Dr Germana Nicklin reflects on the meaning of national and personal borders in the time of Covid-19.

By Dr Germana Nicklin

In New Zealand we tend to take our borders for granted. Edged by ocean, New Zealand does not have the angst of rubbing up against neighbours along a land border. Not for us illegal immigrants slipping across the border in the dark, fearful of armed border guards; not for us the risk of armed marauders from that other place ‘next door’ destabilising our communities. Instead, our borders are largely controlled at airports and ports. Our biggest risk is biosecurity, not people smuggling, illegal immigration or violence. 

Now, in an unprecedented move, our borders have effectively been closed to people movements. We pride ourselves as a nation that welcomes visitors, allowing them to enjoy a change of status from foreign ‘other’ to temporarily becoming ‘us’. In this time of Covid-19, however, we are afraid of what they are likely to be carrying. But it’s not just our overseas visitors. We are also fearful of our own citizens who are returning from overseas. All international travellers have lost the privilege of being considered ‘us’. They are now in the feared ‘other’ group, the ‘not to be trusted other’, at least for 14 days after their arrival. 

Not only has the status of international travellers changed, but we are now experiencing internal borders. Gatherings, internal and external, are forbidden.  There are rules about interacting with those not in our personal bubble. The ‘us’ has suddenly got much smaller. Everyone outside our bubble is now ‘other’, at least in a physical sense.  Given humans are social animals, this physical bordering will affect the way we think about the world. 

Our closed borders means we will no longer be welcoming international visitors for some time.

Bubbles and social borders a new phenomenon

Why is that? Borders have effects. One way of looking at a society is as a reflection of the values held by a population. To combat Covid-19, our Prime Minister is asking us to think about our country in the collective. What we do as individuals is for the good of the whole. We have experienced this before, following the Christchurch mosque attacks of March 15. On that occasion, we were able to gather together in person, to hug, to comfort and to stand alongside one other. But as of March 26, we cannot to do that for at least a month, and maybe longer. It may be that the Police and even the Defence Force will need to ensure these new social borders are being respected.  Granted, it won’t be easy for New Zealanders. These social borders are not natural. They are alien to our values and our identity as compassionate and supportive human beings. 

Or are they? What do these measures mean for our social identity? If most of us comply willingly, we demonstrate our commitment to a sense of collective responsibility, a duty of care for the vulnerable, a regard for our medical staff so they do not drop from exhaustion or sickness. If too many of us have to be forced to comply, we will have to face the evidence – that we are not as caring nor generous as we thought we were. 

Borders have effects, including more restrictions, and judgements, about who ‘deserves’ to be tested and treated. As we sit out the next few weeks or months, have regard to the effects of the Covid-19 borders on your values. Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘other’ to you? Why are they ‘other’? What would ‘othering’ mean in practice? Would it mean they shouldn’t get medical care? Would it mean they should be socially ostracised? Or imprisoned? These are questions we have delegated to our politicians to answer. But it is our actions, individually and collectively, that will now determine whether and how our politicians need to respond. Those responses will be led by our behaviours.

Dr Germana Nicklin, from the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, lectures and researches issues relating to borders and border security. 

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