While coronavirus did not significantly affect Routed’s work in any negative way, each of our team members, spread across five continents, had to sooner or later navigate the related mobility restrictions.
We have decided to share our experiences with you in the form of tesserae – individual reflections that, when put together, show the mosaic that underlies the whole issue.
Here’s how the last two–three months have been for the Routed Team.
I’ve grown up not worrying much about borders. It has taken a global pandemic to really make me feel what travel restrictions can mean. When Senegal announced the closure of its borders, people started camping out at the airport, hoping to somehow get a seat on an already overbooked flight. All of a sudden, my nationality did matter as it made all the difference between getting on one of the repatriation flights or not. After a week of anxiety, I did benefit from the privileges my passport provides and was repatriated. One week of uncertainty was already unsettling – I dare not imagine what months and years must feel like.
My mother and I had to cancel a trip to visit the village in Moldova where my Grandmother was born. Her family were ethnic Germans who left Moldova in WWII as part of the ‘Heim ins Reich’ movement – it seems we were rarely on the right side of history. My Grandmother always claimed that her family had to swim across a lake when they ‘escaped’ the village. But she was an unreliable narrator at best – I was never sure whether her stories were true, completely made-up, or if they were real experiences sifted through decades of re-remembering. Since I could not see it in person, I found the village on Google Maps. It is a tiny, quaint place surrounded by rolling fields and bounded on one side by a lake. Whether or not my Grandmother swam it when her family ‘escaped’, I don’t know. She died a few months ago, around the time my mother and I were meant to be in Moldova, so I don’t think I’ll ever be sure. But it is something to know that the lake is there, waiting for me.
What strikes me most is how the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the meaning of certain places. Shops and markets, until then conceived as places of exchange and encounter, have become places of suspicion, distancing and competition. So have public transportation systems, once described as the first and largest social networks. While ‘staying home’ is playing on our nerves, are we ready to reconcile with public spaces?
I confess, when I first heard the air-raid sirens on the Saturday morning in Jordan, my first, sleepy thought bordered on geopolitical tensions rather than the pandemic. Social distancing measures were followed closely by a complete and indefinite curfew preventing people from exiting their houses, even to purchase food. 400 people were arrested the first day of lockdown, heralding in one of the ‘toughest lockdowns in the world’. Jordanians asked why I – someone who had always enjoyed the privilege of mobility and protest – had stayed in a country in which lockdown, curfew, and arrests dictated the mobility of everyone on its soil. ‘Would this complete lockdown be allowed in your country? People would protest, right?’, a friend asked me. Once things started opening up, friends wrote in jest: ‘See? We can move like Sweden now!’. Pandemics unearth structures of inequality surrounding economic cushions to shocks, but also the mobility to mobilise and be mobile.
The pandemic has led to the closure of educational spaces and caused drastic changes. The educational sector’s move from face-to-face to online education has highlighted how digital poverty contributes to learning inequalities in an unprecedented way. Many poor young learners have been stuck without access to online education, while their rich counterparts have been able to create a school-like environment at home. Online learning poses additional barriers to the educational success of most underprivileged students. Social and physical distancing measures have been isolating and disruptive, but it is difficult for me to imagine not having reliable access to a phone, a computer and internet during the lockdown.
Since the lockdown began, all of us who are not essential workers have grown increasingly dependent on our windows (analogical and virtual) to communicate with others. As public spaces grew emptier, a society of windows started to emerge. In Spain, balconies have become a central arena for confined social life, with its own dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. I am lucky: the flat where we live has a balcony looking into the street. Every block has seen its dynamics of cooperation, conflict, and ritual migrate to this semi-private, semi-public sphere. New community-building practices led some to romanticise the rediscovery of neighbourhood ties in the modern city; in my street, we clapped for healthcare workers, sang and danced to the neighbour’s stereo in the evenings, and displayed kids’ drawings with messages of hope. But discontent also crept to the windows, as some people banged their pots and pans against the monarchy’s corruption scandals, while others protested the government’s management of the crisis. Elsewhere, balconies hosted rituals and celebrations, from Easter processions to the April Fair. Now the lockdown has come to an end, bars have reopened, and many people have returned to their workplace. As we recover traditional social spaces, balconies are moving back into the home and further away from the street.
Many things can be said about the UK response to coronavirus. From mask-wearing to lockdown imposition, it can broadly be summarised as 'being convinced we know better than everyone else until categorically proven otherwise'. Maybe it's time to set aside the barrier of belief in UK's overwhelming national uniqueness and recognise that some experiences – like the joy of seeing the Lord of the Rings' cast reunite - are not confined by national borders.
While I usually bemoan being from such a far-flung country like Australia – a 22-hour flight away from London, or 11 hours to Beijing – I now have cause to be supremely grateful. Australia’s health, wealth and – most notably – our distance and sea borders have largely protected us from many of the impacts of the pandemic. Advantaged by our low population density and a cultural keenness to abide by the rules, we’ve entertained ourselves by putting teddy bears or rainbows in our windows for children (and adults) who walk by, or making the weekly act of putting out the bins entertainment for others stuck in the monotony of lockdown.