Rethinking the boundaries between economic life and the death of the coronavirus

As governments around the world begin reopen their bordersIt is clear that efforts to revive the economy are redrawing the lines between who will prosper, who will suffer and who will die.

Emerging strategies to restore economic growth force vulnerable populations to choose between increased exposure to death or economic survival. This is an unacceptable choice that only seems natural because it prioritizes the economy over people already considered marginal or consumable.

Border management has always been at the heart of capitalist economic growth and has only intensified with the neoliberal reforms of recent decades. Neoliberal economic growth is increasingly linked to the opening of national borders to cash flows and the selective entry of low-wage labor with limited access to rights.



Read more: What exactly is neoliberalism?


The borders of nation-states regulate this flow and, in so doing, reconstitute the borders between people: those whose lives are to be preserved and those who are considered disposable.

COVID-19 has brought increased visibility to these border-building practices, with the pandemic intensifying decisions between economic and social life.

Exceptions made for seasonal workers

At the start of the epidemic, for example, Canada closed its borders to international travel, but made exceptions for an estimate 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers Latin America and the Caribbean.

Anxious to rule out the potential loss of up to 95 percent of this year’s vegetable and fruit production, temporary agricultural workers were deemed essential the backbone of the agri-food economy. For the health and safety of Canadians and seasonal farm workers, farmers have demanded that farm workers self-isolate for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.

But the death of two farm workers in Windsor, Ont., and severe outbreaks of COVID-19 infections among migrant workers on farms across the country, have exposed systemic forms of racism that reveal the priority given to maximizing health benefits and the safety of black and brown migrant farmers.

Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, migrant farmers are not entitled to the standard labor rights such as minimum wages, overtime or days off, and federal oversight of housing conditions has been noticeably inadequate.

Workers walk on the Scotlynn Group property where 164 migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19, temporarily closing the asparagus farm during the COVID-19 pandemic in southern Ontario in June 2020.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / Nathan Denette

With the welfare of workers largely left to the discretion of employers, it is not surprising that reports of overcrowded and unsanitary housing, a inability to socially distance oneself, delays in responding to symptoms of COVID-19 and threats of retaliation to express themselves have become commonplace in the agri-food economy. Even though cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing in Ontario, provincial guidelines allow infected farm workers to continue working if they are asymptomatic.

It is a tragic irony that the quest for a better life among migrant workers requires levels of exposure to abuse, threats, infection and premature death that few citizens are likely to face.

Choosing between health and the economy

Now, as governments talk about opening borders more widely due to the economic costs of COVID-19, countries are starting to make new tough decisions between public health and economic growth.

For example, across the Caribbean, the brutal closure of international borders has decimated the population of the region. tourism industry overnight. Estimating a contraction of the industry of up to 70 percent, Standard & Poor has already predicted that some islands will experience significantly deteriorated credit ratings.

For example, with tourism accounting for half of Jamaica’s foreign exchange earnings and over 350,000 jobs, it’s not entirely surprising that the Tourism Department justified the reopening as “not just a tourism issue.” He is a matter of economic life or death.“It is also not surprising that resort chains like sandals and Airlines companies were eager to resume their activities as usual.

But the assurances that “the holidays are back”, even as new cases appear, rings hollow given that most Caribbean countries have long struggled with overburdened health systems. And even with new protocols for screening, isolation or restrict mobility of infected visitors, it is likely that the region’s poorest citizens – many of whom are women in front-line reception services – will bear the brunt of the costs of the new infections.

The beach is empty where a few tourists spend time at the water’s edge in Cancun, Mexico in June 2020. The white sand beaches are sparkling clean and empty on the Caribbean coast.
(AP Photo / Victor Ruiz)

Unequal dependencies

The dependence of Caribbean and Latin American governments on tourism and remittances, and Canada’s dependence on blacks and browns to perform essential, low-paid work, are unequal dependencies that are intimately linked. For the most vulnerable, these addictions mark the stark overlap between economic life and death from COVID-19.

Yet COVID-19 has also offered us a unique opportunity to rethink the border inequalities that have governed our lives and the primacy of the economy within it.

This forces us to ask ourselves: who does “the economy” serve? What kinds of activities are valued or rejected when we prioritize economic growth? To whom is life valued and who continues to be expendable?

Prioritizing the economy over the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable should never be an acceptable solution.


This is a collaborative article written by members of the Global Economies and Everyday Lives Lab at Queen’s University, Canada. Nathalia Ocasio Santos, Grace Adeniyi Ogunyankin, Priscilla Apronti, Hilal Kara and Tesfa Peterson co-authored this article.

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