With the invisible threat of covid-19 seemingly all around us, governments all over the world instruct us to shelter in place and wait. We huddle alone, or with friends and family, anxious about the future and what kind of society we will step out into once this is all over. A panopticon surveillance state? An opportunity for inclusive growth?
In some ways it feels like the world is visibly contracting, especially for Europeans. What was just weeks ago a patchwork of borderless, cooperative states, has now transformed into a cluster of strong fortifications. Freedom of movement has been replaced with highly regulated movement, as anyone who has tried to enter, exit or move about within the Schengen zone in the last month can confirm. With many EU governments recalling their citizens and countries literally shutting the gates, sheltering within the borders of our ‘home countries’ is now expected and strongly encouraged. Stimulus measures, social security, adequate shelter, food packages and health care, are just some of the things we expect from our national politicians in this frightening moment. Infections, deaths, and recoveries are all measured country by country and our political leaders compare their national statistics to the desperate situation elsewhere. However, this is a global pandemic with global impacts calling for global solutions; the most pressing being international cooperation to develop a vaccine that is globally accessible. We are all in this together.
EU Solidarity MIA
On the 8th of April the top scientist from the European Research Council quit due to profound disappointment in the EU’s response to the pandemic. Some speculate as to the future of the union as countries focus on protection of their own nationals, perhaps losing the opportunity to have a coordinated and integrated approach. In March, in response to the crisis, Serbia’s president stated that European solidarity was just ‘a fairy tale on paper.’
While the institutions of the EU struggle to chart a path through this crisis, the danger of nationalised borders is that it obscures the fact that the virus does not respect them. We are only as safe and healthy as our neighbours, and if our neighbours are unable to access health care when they get sick, or unable to socially distance because of critical overcrowding, we should be incredibly concerned for them and for ourselves. As our collaboration partner #leavenoonebehind demonstrates, this is exactly the situation happening in the EU right now.
The residents of Camp Moria and other offshore detention sites scattered across the Mediterranean are our neighbours and they are at risk. The Greek government has described the situation as a ticking health bomb due to cramped conditions and almost non-existent health care. The EU is aware. Only last month EU officials offered to pay each migrant 2,000 euros to quietly return ‘home’, on non-existant flights, to health systems crying out that they are ‘not ready’ for the virus. Slow bureaucracy and feet-dragging has meant that many who qualify as refugees have languished in poor conditions for years while more and more take the dangerous boat journey to join them. It speaks to the sheer desperation of the situation that migrants are still willing to cross dangerous seas to reach Europe, aware they could land in the middle of a disease outbreak that could cost them their lives.
So it’s time to evacuate the camps. Just as many prisons are releasing low-risk individuals back into the community, so too should migrants in crowded camps be evacuated for their own safety. This will need to be done carefully and according to strict health guidelines, but it needs to be done to avoid a catastrophe. Some European countries already recognise that housing the homeless during this crisis is imperative to maintaining social distancing, so too must we recognise that every vulnerable person, regardless of their situation or their citizenship status needs to be cared for in the interests of everyone.
Political isolationism is not sustainable
So in this inward-looking political environment we now find ourselves in, with the EU unwilling or unable to step up, we must apply pressure. From the safety of our homes, we must ask individual governments and the EU to do more and accept, even temporarily, those who need a safe place to shelter. This is for their safety but also for ours. There is already a world leader in the EU ranks; Portugal, which has announced that until July 2020, migrants and asylum seekers with pending visa applications will essentially have citizenship rights so they can access the national health care system and social services. This acknowledges that inclusivity is integral to halting the spread of disease. Could this be a way forward for the EU?
Here at TEDxVienna, we’ve been discussing how to be politically active during the crisis. Let’s not forget that we need to hold our politicians to account, especially now, with expansive new government powers being announced all the time. So amid this chaos, demand the evacuation of vulnerable groups, like the residents of Camp Moria and others. While closed borders may guarantee some countries can contain the virus for now, if the pandemic rages on the other side of their fence, then they, and the world, will never be safe until widespread vaccinations are possible. The WHO says that may be a year or more away. We have only days and weeks to avert this humanitarian catastrophe here on Europe’s external borders.
picture credits: Joel Filipe via Unsplash