The COVID-19 Pandemic and the National Borders of the Imagination

a crowd of people wearing mask on platform at a train station

This is the second piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

A year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, scientists and medical practitioners have a clearer picture of the virus. Yet one the biggest challenges that this crisis has posed for many of us is, no doubt, the difficulty of making sense of it. From the unclear origin of the virus to the variety of symptoms it presents to its “invisibility,” COVID-19 has kept a majority of us in the dark.

To understand how a pandemic affects a global community, as Benedict Anderson might have said, many of us have had to imagine that community in the first place. This is not to say, of course, that one must believe in a lie or in something that is patently false. Instead, direct contact and first-hand experience can be replaced by interactions with images that we entrust with meaning and veracity, in the same way no one person knows all fellow country people and yet has the imaginative mechanisms to recognize their existence.

COVID-19 is a world-shaping force that paradoxically unites and separates us all.

Keeping track of statistics and figures has allowed tech users to grapple with the pandemic. Day after day, month after month, we have been able to follow—with varying levels of incredulity, obsession, and fear—the number of positive cases per day, death trends, projections, and infection rates in order to imagine what is otherwise an unseen assault on human bodies. We have made sense of the pandemic at home, drawing parallels between cities, areas, and states, while we have identified global regions with the best and worst rates, comparing other nations’ responses and policies to those of our own countries.

Along with the numbers, the deluge of visual representations has played a crucial role in our imagination of the viral spread. Figures can be translated easily into graphs, and COVID maps have let us place the virus and the bodies it has colonized in space at multiple scales simultaneously. This has allowed us to compare cases across time and sense the virus’s advance and retreat while watching the gates for signs of invasion. As we sipped our morning coffee, we looked at heat maps, studied the cartographies of transmission, and charted the movement of a deathly presence, trying to visualize the places, near and far, that the virus has already entered.

However, the complex global picture presented by this combination of data and maps hides something important about how we track and read the virus. While the pandemic is envisioned as an international historic event, the language in news coverage and government responses suggests that many of us still think of it in national terms. It is important, of course, that we conceptualize COVID-19 this way. Travel restrictions between national borders, for instance, have helped to cordon off the advance of the virus. Healthcare and public safety protocols will not be effective unless coordinated nationally. And national efforts to test and vaccinate the population continue to be essential to fight the disease. However, if left unexamined, some of these seemingly disconnected decisions, reactions, and attitudes can be highly detrimental.

An Impossible Containment

The etymology of the term “pandemic” can be traced back through the conjunction of these two forms of viral imagination: the numbers of people and the visualized global spaces that the virus has penetrated. The prefix “pan-” denotes vast geographical expansion and a totalizing planetary dimension. Indeed, the presence of the virus is now “worldwide or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people.” The second half of the word, “(e)ndemic,” designates the impact of the virus on “a people” (from the Greek demos). However, what constitutes “a people” isn’t so clear—especially when seen through the prism of the nation.

The most obvious problem is the conflation of the nationality of those infected and killed by COVID-19 with the country where they have been registered, as if positive cases and deaths in France or India are automatically those of French and Indian citizens respectively. This glosses over the realities of immigration. Most importantly, it renders invisible the challenges that undocumented immigrants, two-thirds of whom hold what are deemed “essential” jobs in the US, face in trying to access healthcare.

Another concern is that the virus has not affected all people within a nation’s borders in the same ways. In the US, infection and death rates among Native American, Black, and Latinx communities are disproportionately higher, while demographic studies attending to race and ethnicity have been called for in areas historically reluctant to collect disaggregated data.

Signs that say "Stop Asian Hate" and "Solidarity Against Hate Crimes" are erected in a park
Asian Americans show solidarity against hate crimes, which have risen during the pandemic. Photo by Paul Becker, 2021.

National frames have also encouraged a rise in nativist sentiments. From the very beginning, the virus has been negatively associated with specific countries for a number of reasons. Western countries have seen a populist urge to link the novel coronavirus with China since, although there is still much to learn about its origins, the first outbreak was located in the city of Wuhan. This has had devastating repercussions, including xenophobic and racist violence against East Asians in the US and across the world.

New variants have also been informally labeled after the countries where they were first detected, replicating an old and misguided naming practice (as when the 1918 pandemic was imputed to what is popularly known as the “Spanish flu”). Referring to them as the “Nigerian strain” (B.1.1.207) or the “Brazilian variant” (P.1) will arguably reinforce negative associations between those countries and ideas of infection, impurity, and death. As these denominations become cemented, they will undoubtedly pose added challenges to regions already fighting preconceptions and prejudice, such as the Global South, in the post-COVID world.

Nationalistic responses to the virus from governments will likely have a tangible influence on the development of domestic and international conflict.

In addition, many countries’ policies have brought about problematic situations regarding the movement of “human capital” across borders. One major example is the fact that, as has been widely reported, international college students have been facing visa restrictions and delays, a matter with serious repercussions, and not only for the students themselves. Such policies have deprived an entire cohort from enriching their lives by studying abroad. For many, a stint overseas is the result of hard work and much sacrifice. Seen from the perspective of the hosting institutions, the presence of international students in the classroom is essential for cultivating a tolerant and open-minded worldview, even when instruction is carried out online. Furthermore, curtailing international student enrollment does a disservice to our societies, which gain so much from students who either begin their lives afresh and make a positive mark in their new home countries or return to their countries of origin.

The Future is Not a Nation

Now that the vaccination phase is in full motion in countries like the US and Israel, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic continues to be thought of in largely national terms. The development, sale, and distribution of vaccines have been strongly associated with the countries where they are produced. In fact, the distinct national character—the nationality, even—of each of them is already visible, with the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine affiliated to the UK, Sputnik V to Russia, BBIBP-CorV to China, BBV152 to India, and Moderna to the US. Yet inoculation against the virus reveals a dynamic in which resources are subject to national boundaries and sovereignties in ways that favor certain countries and exacerbate existing inequities. As the pandemic will only be defeated through a concerted global effort, national rancor and rivalry will likely be a serious obstacle to vaccinating the entire world population. And even when nations offer their vaccination capabilities to others, international alliances that allow for preferential treatment or exclusion will only make the virus harder to eradicate.

A race has started, too, among the world’s nations to access vaccine stocks. Competitive market logic, which rewards nation-states for using scientific innovation, purchasing power, and negotiation tactics as leverage, stands at odds with the need to address the virus as a fully global assault on human life. Additionally, given that some vaccines are the result of state-sponsored research whereas others are the product of private enterprise, funding-related issues further muddy the question of access to the vaccine. Of course, the organization of resources and infrastructures varies from nation to nation, but one thing is certain: phenomena such as “vaccine nationalism” will enable the virus to continue spreading, mutating, and setting the pace of life across this planet.

In front of an airplane engine, cargo containting Covid-19 vaccines is being uploaded
COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the Cayman Islands in January 2021. Photo by Cayman Islands Government Information Services, 2021.

Another matter of concern relates to the dangers of public misinformation. Conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns (including those pushed by governments) have proliferated, accusing international players (either a state or some other agent with enough global clout) of working to destabilize the efforts to fight the virus. Other conspiracies claim that “domestic enemies,” foreign actors, or international cabals are colluding under an array of pretenses, falsehoods, and fictions to pursue corrupt agendas. This reveals a nationalistic kind of self-defense that can have deleterious consequences as conspiracy narratives rely on the virus as a vehicle to articulate national antagonisms and fear of the other.

The pandemic continues to be thought of in largely national terms.

For their part, news and media organizations cater to the interests of their consumers in the production and dissemination of (mis)information. Just as the reporting of fatal events abroad such as plane crashes often separates and identifies nationals from all the other victims, much media coverage of the pandemic across the world has focused on impacts inside country borders. At the same time, online content providers use personalization and geolocation to target users, often shaping how they conceptualize the pandemic and their role in it.

Thinking of COVID-19 through such a national prism is not accidental. Governments have the mandate to enact policies that pertain to the territories their borders contain. This, as I have already noted, is a rather logical step given the urgent nature of the pandemic, at least when it comes to the immediate management of the emergency. However, we should not overlook the fact that nationalistic responses to the virus from governments will likely have a tangible influence on the development of domestic and international conflict.

A Shared Humanity

These and other ways of framing COVID-19 nationally establish in our imaginations an artificial separation between countries that jars with the fact that the virus “knows no borders.” In reflecting on this phenomenon, we might be able to re-frame the current crisis despite the existing disparities between nations regarding their capabilities to fight the virus. More broadly, COVID-19 has forced us to rethink what it is to be human, casting this as a much more vulnerable form of life than previously imagined. Only by attending to the human population—instead of specific portions demarcated by national difference—will governments and institutions be able to rise to the challenge of returning life to any version of normality that a controlled pandemic might allow.

Storefront decoration showing a painting of planet earth and raised arms underneath
Local business signage advocating for international solidarity, not pandemic nationalism, in Washington, DC. Photo by dmbosstone, 2020.

One must not forget that COVID-19 is a world-shaping force that paradoxically unites and separates us all, as many of the entries in the new COVID-19 lexicon demonstrate. “Community spread,” the controversial “herd immunity,” and “social distancing,” to name a few, paint a communal picture of contagion and isolation, propinquity and separation, shared pain and individual preservation. These terms illustrate the ways in which the virus cruelly trifles with individual and collective bodies, forcing us to reckon with our own humanity and that of others.

Despite the semblance of distance that might exist between a positive PCR test result and a negative one, we are ineluctably linked together, as the virus has already reached planetary distances by way of its human hosts while threatening to creep into more territories. National borders play an essential role in the battle to overcome the pandemic, but they cannot determine the way we understand COVID-19, especially as we witness how, day in and day out, humans are biological vehicles for a virus that, as far as we know, is here to stay.

Featured image: Copenhagen Airport Railway Station during COVID-19. Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, 2020.

Juan Meneses is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. His work focuses on global literature, postcolonialism, foreignness and the nation, post-politics, environmental matters, and visual culture. He is the author of Resisting Dialogue: Modern Fiction and the Future of Dissent. Contact.