How the ‘left’ became nationalist: Covid nationalism and Border Controls

The fear of ‘diseased foreigners’ infecting ‘us’ has been a part of the right-wing case for border controls for generations.   When the established order was threatened in 1918-1921 they even threw a cordon sanitaire around Russia to stop the political virus spreading along with the epidemic ones.  

We associate the idea of the ‘diseased foreigner’ with Trump and his wall. In the UK we associate it with Farage and his demands to protect ‘us’ from HIV in an earlier panic.  

Now many on the left seem to think that closing national borders and getting behind ‘our’ nation state is somehow progressive. We are supposed to hate the Australian style points system for migrants but love their vicious Covid border regulations.

Why Zero Covid is a myth

Only one human viral disease has ever been eliminated – smallpox. That took decades. We are still waiting for Zero polio. Neither are respiratory diseases. Why is the difference important? Respiratory diseases

  1. are a product of breathing – not dirty water, hands, lice or anything else.
  2. become infectious almost immediately even if a person shows few symptoms.
  3. can affect everyone (in the first instance)
  4. have no life long immunity once caught
  5. continually mutate.

The result is that Covid never will be like smallpox. It will become globally endemichopefully less serious and manageable but always endemic. Even the minority scientific supporters of zero covid do not believe that zero really means 0. What they really mean is suppressing it to an ‘acceptable level’ but they will not say what that is.

Nationalism is always an ‘infantile disease’

There is nothing remotely progressive about people in the rich world trying to solve this problem by locking disease out of ‘their’ part of the world and into the rest of it. Covid nationalism is just as much Einstein’s ‘infantile disease’ as any kind of nationalism.  

It is an absurdity when the left demands that ‘our’ exclusionary states become even more hostile. Do we somehow think that a disease miraculously changes the nature of social relationships and institutions? Do we imagine that once we have turned this tap of prejudice on we can easily turn it off?

Diseases do not obey national borders

The idea that you can control diseases by locking people out is an illusion.  An island like New Zealand may be able to do this but it can then never open up again to the world. The professors of global health never  tell us how long ‘we’ have to lock out the world. – one year, two, three, five, ten perhaps decades? They are equally silent about what to do, if anything, about the health and well being of those locked out. They ignore the racism which leads the UK state to especially penalise people from black Africa and Latin America as carriers of variants that may be less harmful than those appearing in the UK. They are silent on issues of asylum and human rights.

It is not just the rich that move

It is said that it is  the rich who are affected by border closures. But masses of people move for work, leisure, to link with families.

Migrants (who are defined as staying for more than a year) were in 2017 estimated 3.5% of the world’s population. Their share varies by region.

At the other end of the scale are commuters who cross borders to work on a daily basis.  Their global numbers are unknown. In the EU and EFTA c 0.8% workforce does this. In the case of Northern and Southern Ireland the numbers are put around +/- 30,000.

The precise numbers of seasonal workers too are unknown. In EU those who come legally from the non-EU are counted those who come illegally and those who move within the EU are not. But they are significant.

Between them are millions upon millions of people who move for  shorter term work and family as well as leisure.  In the case of the UK in 2018 21 million went through Channel tunnel and 18 million used ferries. The number of people flying into and out of the UK each year in 2019 was nearly 300 million.

Borders are always open to the rich. Shutting borders affects the weakest most. They divide families. They trap people abroad. Amnesty International has a campaign against against Australia because its border controls have also locked out and stranded Australians. Residence rights in the UK are dependent on being here for non citizens but controls have now trapped unknown numbers ‘abroad’ who may lose these rights.

The Absurdity of Borders

Border control is largely a C20th invention – even passports only became normal after 1918.  Borders run through fields, they run through towns, they even run through premises. If you live next to a policed border than you can go any distance one way but not a few yards across it the other way.

Just think about Covid and borders. Getting into and of North Korea – fantastic public heath control? The Iron Curtain – should we bring it back?  That wall with Mexico – a triumph of COVID-foresight?

Why not lock down within?

‘The irony of nationalism is that the argument for the separation of Scotland from England is exactly analogous to the argument for the separation of the Shetlands from Scotland; and so are the arguments against both separations’  Eric Hobsbawm

So let is follow the logic for the UK. It is not one nation but at least four. If locking in and locking out works for the UK then lets apply it to England, Wales, a Scotland and Northern Ireland – yep especially that pesky border with the south.

If the rate of infection is higher in one place, as it was in London,  then lock the people in that area in.  We could quarantine people around the M25. We could keep people out of the Isle of Man or the Shetlands. But wait that is exactly what they have done – except of course those who deliver goods.

And of course, that is the point. We still want the potentially diseased foreigners to produce and deliver stuff to us though some are even arguing that loads should be offloaded on each side of the channel in the UK. We still want teach ‘international students’. We still want the money recycled in the rich world.

So, if you support border closures – best not to tell us what a great human being you are. ‘Our’  lives clearly matter to you more than foreign lives. Perhaps you can salve your conscience by giving some money to charity – there are charities for migrants stuck in border camps across the world, for Australians who cannot get back, for those separated from their families, for those in the poor world who lives are being more impoverished than anything we know in the rich world.  

But don’t be surprised if they curse you and your fake pretensions of internationalism which you abandoned  at the first sign of difficulty.


  1. “Do we somehow think that a disease miraculously changes the nature of social relationships and institutions?”

    I am surprised by this sentence, as the answer would seem to be yes, it does, and Covid-19 is proof of the fact, given the government has imposed measures which criminalize social behavior which until recently had, for centuries, been part of the basic freedoms enjoyed by each citizen.


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