Pandemic Space: Understanding Quarantine and Responsibilization in Times of Corona
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis to be a global pandemic. Occurring in a moment in which ever-expanding flows of people, goods, and information – generally subsumed under the term globalization – seemed inevitable, public health measures enacted from the international to the local level brought these flows to a sudden halt. Border closures, the isolation of cities, and the necessity to quarantine those (suspected to be) infected with the virus revealed the relationship between people and contagious pathogens to be inherently spatial. While broader restrictions of movement tend to be enacted through direct forms of state power, everyday social distancing relies more heavily on appeals to citizens’ responsibility towards themselves and other members of society. The DFG funded project Pandemic Space: Understanding Quarantine and Responsibilization in Times of Corona aims to investigate these points of convergence, where spatial phenomena such as quarantine and discourses surrounding responsibility generate pandemic spaces.
Our project team, consisting of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, approaches these questions from an interdisciplinary perspective. We investigate quarantining strategies and corresponding processes of responsibilization as central tools in the prevention and containment of pandemics. With a focus on the USA and South Africa, we explore the spatial and racial dimensions and implications of quarantine and responsibilization since the early 20th century.
This approach expands our understanding of the theory and history of disease prevention and provides insight into the conditions under which global health efforts succeed or fail. By highlighting the nexus between quarantine and various modes of responsibilization, we analyze the attempts of public health experts to engage individuals in co-producing their own health, while at the same time learning more about how individual actors construe and navigate public and bodily space in pandemic times. Secondly, the project will aid in theorizing pandemic space, with a special focus on the analysis of its racial structuring. We will explore how the histories of racial segregation and quarantine intersect, and ask how different actors dealt with the racial and spatial implications of quarantine. In addition, the project provides a valuable contribution to the field of transregional and comparative studies: It combines case studies from the US and South Africa – societies that have long been shaped by racial segregation – with an analysis of transregional expert networks and the circulation of quarantine knowledge.
For this project, pandemics and quarantining strategies are conceptualized as inherently spatial phenomena: They reorder constructions and perceptions of bodily and public space as well as the ways in which people and pathogens interact. Instead of understanding the construction of space as a top-down phenomenon, we pursue an actor-centered approach and define pandemic space as something imagined, regulated, and accomplished through interaction: Space is produced via people’s practical spatial routines and is, at the same time, a structure that constrains social practices. Building on these premises, quarantine is conceptualized as a spatial format that is the result of spatial practices characterized by durability, routinization, institutionalization, and reflexiveness. Quarantine is not seen as a monolithic measure, but rather as a toolbox of different strategies that are central to the construction of pandemic space. By curtailing people’s mobility in various ways, these strategies produce far-reaching changes in the spatialization of social relationships.
Quarantining practices and strategies rely heavily on various modes of responsibilization: Their success and effectiveness depend not only on the top-down enforcement of rules and regulations, but also on the activation of individuals via technologies of self-isolation, flexible confinement, social distancing, and the policing of compliance. At the center of the concept of responsibilization lies the morally laden, normative ideal of the self-responsible subject. Modes of responsibilization vary, depending on ideas about different diseases as well as (often racialized) presumptions about the ability of groups of people to self-govern. Furthermore, complex webs of care relations and social obligations can lead to competing and conflicting responsibilization dynamics.
The project examines how these different and competing modes of responsibilization intersect with (pandemic) space and quarantine as a spatial format. Considering responsibilization as a modality of spatialization, we will trace the spatial orders that correspond to different responsibilizations, and ask how individuals become co-producers of spatial orders. We also ask how the placing of pathogens and infected bodies shapes quarantine as a spatial format and enacts notions of race, responsibility, and territorial stigma. This line of questioning helps to assess the (lasting) effects of pandemics and public health responses on societies.
In order to better understand how quarantine knowledge is produced by and circulated between expert networks, public health institutions and local actors, we privilege transregional perspectives. This approach helps to specify more-than-transnational, but less-than-global trajectories of knowledge transfers, thereby decentering established narratives of global health and shedding light on transatlantic connections. To reach these goals, the project is built around three interrelated axes of analysis:
Subproject 1 (Laura-Elena Keck) explores the history of quarantine knowledge since the early 20th century, focusing on South Africa and the US and putting special emphasis on the spatial and racial dynamics of quarantine. It analyzes the emergence of transregional networks of public health experts as well as the role of international health organizations like the WHO and its regional divisions (PAHO and AFRO) or the Rockefeller Foundation and asks how pandemic space, prevention practices, and different, racialized modes of responsibilization have been conceptualized and codified internationally in the 20th century. In accordance with the history of knowledge approach, the conditions and methods of knowledge production and processes of translation and knowledge transfer are treated as central aspects of analysis. Published sources as well as the correspondence and personal papers of public health experts and selected archival contents will serve as a foundation for a historical discourse analysis that traces experts and their networks, investigates unexplored transregional connections and helps to enhance our understanding of the history of prevention, responsibilization and the intersection between colonial medicine and international health organizations.
Subproject 2 (Paul Skäbe) investigates the United States during the historical moment of the 1918-1920 Spanish Influenza and, hence, a society fundamentally structured by racialized understandings of subjectivity and health. Through regimes of (de jure or de facto) segregation throughout the country, African Americans were denied political rights and recognition as equally able human beings, while at the same time being subjugated to rigid and often institutionalized spatial separation in housing as well as in their daily lives. As the influenza outbreak of 1918 hit the United States, measures to ameliorate the worst effects of the pandemic focused on appeals to citizens’ responsibilities as well as on varying quarantine strategies. But since African Americans were both spatially and discursively segregated, their experiences of disease can be assumed to have significantly differed from those of other Americans. Especially the interplay of quarantine and segregation, as temporal variations of spatial separation (one being limited in time while the other is conceived of as perpetual), offers significant potential for the conceptual and historical exploration of the racialized production of space, health, and disease. The subproject will investigate that nexus of responsibilization, quarantine and segregation through historical sources such as ego-documents, newspapers, and public as well as private records to conceptualize the ordering of racialized pandemic space in the United States. Thereby it seeks to reconstruct and thus recover the experiences and agencies of African Americans during the Spanish Influenza of 1918.
Subproject 3 (Phillip Willians Leite) examines discourses and practices of responsibilization in their relationship to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. As the majority of the population of the country resides in impoverished townships and informal settlements, urban spaces that are predominantly the result of racialized segregationist policies pose a particular challenge to social distancing and quarantine measures. Focusing on community health workers (CHWs) in Cape Town, the project is guided by three interrelated hypotheses, (1) that CHWs act on the basis of distinct frames of responsibilization, (2) that interactions between CHWs and residents are shaped by competing responsibilization dynamics allowing spaces for toleration of deviating behavior, and (3) that both CHWs and residents will make assumptions about public space based on their evaluation of infection risk, “hotspots” and epidemiological remapping. Through problem-centered interviews, the subproject seeks to investigate CHW’s navigation of global health norms and local social realities. Furthermore, via participant observation techniques, the subproject explores the negotiation of quarantine and responsibilization in interactions between CHWs, residents, and patients.