From Displacement to Quarantine

May 14, 2020 by Aymar Mariño-Maza

Aymar Mariño-Maza is the 2018 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

In last month’s post, I ended by saying that I would use this final reflection to see if it was possible to move past displacement. I planned to turn to the Balkans for inspiration, to use the countries that once made up former Yugoslavia as the multicolored field from which I might harvest some of the ideas that surround the “homecoming” of the displaced. This was late February 2020 and the coronavirus had begun its dramatic appearance in Europe through Italy. I ignored the warning signs in the news and the guidance of my family and friends. I left my family—with a casual kiss on each cheek—in a Madrid that was still feigning normality and set off for Belgrade. It seems clear to me now that I was, ironic though it may be, unwilling to come home. But it wasn’t long before warnings became regulations and I found myself rushing past closing borders to catch a last-minute flight back to the United States. I was forced to leave what research I had begun unfinished, many sights unseen, and the possibility of writing that last post with a semblance of qualification in the gutter.

The abrupt way my travels were cut short was a trivial omen of the global crisis humanity is currently facing. So, instead of writing about the homecoming of the displaced, it seems the only homecoming I am qualified to write about now is my own: the homecoming of the forcibly replaced traveler. In normal circumstances, I would write about my experience the way previous SAH Brooks Fellows have, summing up the things they learned on the road and how they intend to use this newfound knowledge in their future work. A month ago, this would have come easily. But I can’t help thinking that, in the climate we currently find ourselves, introspection is insufficient. In the same way I am currently quarantining myself as an act of solidarity with my society, so must I look back over the past year as a chance to contribute what I can to the current situation. In other words, how can what I have learned about displacement speak to the current health crisis and the manifold repercussions it will have on humanity? This is what I will attempt to do instead.

I always felt there was a beautifully inadequate symmetry in writing about displacement while on the road—with funding, a working passport, and the easy feeling of knowing I could always go home. Sure, I had given up my Chicago apartment and put all my things in storage, so technically I was without a home. But it should be self-evident that the homelessness of the deliberate traveler has no parallel with that of the displaced person past the purely superficial “lack of home” and the shallow definition of “home” that it presupposes.

Now I feel a similar lopsided symmetry between displacement and quarantine. But what does it mean to compare these two states? And, even though it is an inadequate comparison, what can knowing about the former tell us about the latter?

Most obviously, they are both spatial. In displacement, we find the fracturing of a social unit’s space of habitation from its original physical and/or mythical socio-spatial frame. In quarantine, the space of habitation is restricted and partially disengaged from its original physical and/or mythical socio-spatial frame. But let me translate that into English. When displaced, a person or a group of people can no longer live in the place they consider “home” or depend upon the emotional, historical, institutional, and symbolic safety nets that this space provides. When quarantined, a person or group of people can live only in the narrowest space of what once was their “home” and no longer have access to many of those same safety nets that displaced people have to fully do without.

It should go without saying that the degree of loss is disproportionate, just as degree of loss from quarantined person to quarantined person is disproportionate. In displacement, the socio-spatial frame is nearly entirely fractured, while in quarantine many of the frame’s elements may still keep. For example, I can shake my useless fist at the notice below Amazon’s shipping estimate telling me it will take a few more days than usual for my copy of Michael Mann’s thrilling four-tome textbook, The Sources of Social Power, to arrive at my doorstep, but I’m still fairly sure that it will arrive in perfect condition, whenever that happy day may be. As I mentioned in last month’s post, this is one of the many things I can still take for granted, one of the many expressions of my own privilege that still survive within quarantine, and which will most likely survive well past it.

As in displacement, the preexisting conditions of the quarantined reveals even more glaringly the inequalities that already existed among people. And much like displacement, quarantine looks different for each person it affects. A teenage boy living with his family in rural Vermont cannot experience quarantine in the same way as a resident of a high-density Hong Kong neighborhood, nor can a retiree living in a Madrid nursing home experience it in the same way as a Delhi street vendor. Not only is this pandemic revealing the inadequacies of our governmental bodies and our sanitary standards, it is also revealing the inhumane consequences of a world built on inequality. I beg forgiveness to all those travelers who may have come to the conclusion that we are all the same, but no, actually, we are not. Most of humanity lives within an economic, political, and social framework that depends on hierarchy in order to function and changing differences in order to evolve. It is only by taking a closer look at these differences that we can begin to take the necessary steps of promoting that ever-necessary evolution. Ignoring the differences in our world does not bring humanity closer. In fact, it might tear it apart.

This is a lesson one finds repeated in so many of the histories of human displacement, where the desire to homogenize humanity, to dissolve difference, and to leave the governed body as an easily digestible whole comes with brutal ramifications. From the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II to the expulsion of dissenters from within the Soviet Union, the mass and violent forced displacement of people seems inexorably linked to this idea of homogenization. Now, I’m not saying that displacement will be one of the outcomes of this pandemic. Though, it would not be too farfetched to imagine that countries with underlying xenophobia would take the crisis as an impetus to legally cleanse their population of unwanted difference.

Another way that we can compare displacement and quarantine is by looking at the relationship each state has with movement. On first glance, one may be inclined to say that displacement is to mobility what quarantine is to immobility. But that’s not the way I see it. That starts from the premise that the state of displacement exists solely within the period of exodus. But displacement extends well past the exodus, into various states of immobility. Take the refugee camp. The camp is a quarantined hub of habitation for persons without a readily approved space of habitation. People in refugee camps can remain immobilized for decades. The kind of immobility that the inhabitant of the refugee camp experiences is disruptive on all levels of how we define humanity. Think of humanity as social, historical, emotional, and intellectual—and the kind of immobility we find in a camp affects all these aspects. The camp is an extreme situation but not the only one in which a displaced person can find him or herself immobilized in this way. In the life of displacement, forced mobility is usually accompanied by an underlying immobility.

The effects of this immobility are manifested in quarantine. Here, social fabrics are unwound, work structures disrupted, and the public space abandoned—the framework of social life so indispensable to humanity ceased to exist as it did at the start of the year. Here we see a strong parallel with what happens during displacement, where the displaced lose, among so much else, this very framework. Forced to move away from it, they must find creative solutions to the newfound problem of social space. In displacement, the framework lost is either replaced by that of another community, recreated in other environments, or even reimagined to create entirely new social forms. In no instance does social space simply disappear. In the quarantined world in which we currently find ourselves, much of this seems to be happening as well. With people unable to go to work, to school, or even to a bar to meet friends, digital communication has taken the place of person-to-person interaction. Morning video chats with my sister in Austin, Texas, my brother in the outskirts of Madrid, my sister in Madrid’s city center, and my parents in Washington, D.C., have become a daily routine. I’ve been messaging, calling, and video-chatting old friends with whom I’d long ago lost contact. New friends I’d only known for a couple of days before the quarantine have become my go-to persons to call anytime something happens to me—in any other context these things would have been unworthy of mention. In other words, my social network has restructured itself to fit the new context and its formal expression has changed to work within the new parameters of social space. The nostalgia many of us currently feel for our mode of life a few months ago and the sense of indignation we have for our current standards of living might help us all to gain a measure of empathy for the struggles that displaced people face.

Looking at the forms of immobility caused by this pandemic on the psychological, economic, and social landscape, one can see traces of the kind of stagnation and destruction that displacement causes on the communities it affects. As always, the long-term effects of this quarantine will most likely look nothing like the short-term ones do. It will be interesting to see which elements of the current situation are maintained, which return to normal, and which evolve to create something new. From the restrictions imposed on travel to new sanitary standards, the long-term effects of this crisis will inevitably change the way we act within the social sphere. What’s more, it wouldn’t be too strange to imagine that this crisis may even force us all to redefine the social sphere itself.

So, my twelve months of travel are up and I am in quarantine. After a year of changing beds weekly, if not daily, I am relatively sure I will be sleeping in this same bed, in this same room, in this same house, in this same city, and in this same country until the end of summer. It is safe to say I’m a bit disoriented by the change—or by the lack of change. But, if there’s one thing this fellowship has taught me is that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. We are in uncertain times—nothing is more certain than that. My father, whose need to proselytize seems to be growing within confinement, told me that this is the time to analyze, that analyzing the situation is our responsibility. An avid reader of current events and a lover of tracking trends on excel sheets, he was talking specifically about the pandemic. I laughed off his comment at the time, but of course he is right. All of us have a responsibility, a single and impossible responsibility, to take a deep and critical look at what is happening during this pandemic. Under the umbrella of such analysis, we must look closely at the world in which we have lived, the one in which we are living, and the one in which we will soon be living. Because, in this time of uncertainty, we have the opportunity to choose how we want our world to change.

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