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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Reconfiguring Mobility Struggles – reflections on a workshop that was not


The workshop “Understanding Africa’s Mobility Struggles” planned for the end of March in Uganda was postponed to a later date due to implications of the corona virus. Dr. Jochen Lingelbach, one of the workshop’s conveners, reflects on the situation.

By Dr. Jochen Lingelbach, member of the research section “Mobilities”, Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence

On March 31 and April 1, some researchers in the cluster’s research section “Mobilities” wanted to convene an international interdisciplinary workshop titled “Understanding Africa’s Mobility Struggles” at Makerere University in Kampala. We had invited some twenty scholars from fourteen countries in order to reflect and discuss struggles around the differential mobility of people, things and ideas. Among others, we wrote in our workshop concept “the mobility of the people of the “majority world” is actively controlled, contained and restricted” and “African scholars are more likely to be denied visas to attend “international” conferences—which not only implies restrictions to their own mobility, but also the mobility of their knowledge.” In contrast “a European travelling to Africa in most cases only needs a plane ticket, and without much interrogation, is privileged to enter a country by use of the so-called “visa-on-arrival”.” One of the reasons to locate this workshop in Uganda was to ease the mobility and access of African scholars. We were well aware of the problems and difficulties that African scholars have to go through to get permission to take part in a workshop in Germany. Uganda in contrast, boasts a comparably liberal immigration regime. Travelling to Uganda is visa-free for citizens of nearly twenty African countries. And with the exception of Somalians, citizens of all countries in the world are allowed to enter after filling in a simple e-visa application and paying 50 USD.

Reconfiguring mobility

On March 7th, however, this did change. The Ugandan Minster of Health, Dr Ruth Aceng, announced that in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 (or the “novel coronavirus”) travellers from seven countries had to undergo 14 days of self-quarantine, even if they did not show any symptoms of the disease. Among the seven countries, there was Germany and France, thereby affecting two organizers and two of the workshop participants. After three days of considerations and reflection we decided that it was necessary to postpone the workshop to an unknown future date. On March 11th, this list of dangerous countries was extended to sixteen, including the US and the UK which would have affected three more participants of the workshop. While most of the time it is Africans and other non-Europeans who are categorized as dangerous by European immigration authorities, now Germans became the dangerous group. Still, it was only a fourteen-day self-quarantine and not a complete ban that most people are facing when they try to enter the European Schengen area. Most of the people who are brutally hindered from crossing the Greek border into safety in the last weeks would be at least as happy as the US embassy staff in Uganda, to stay at home for fourteen days(after returning from a conference in Germany). Looking at a map of the detected corona cases around the world today, we see that Africa, especially East Africa, seems to be one of the safest places on earth these days. Contrasting this with a world map of malaria-related deaths this is, however, completely exaggerated. But there is currently a temporary reconfiguration of mobility regimes happening around the world.

Is Corona becoming a European virus?

During the last weeks, corona has changed from being the “Chinese virus” (as Abdou Rahim Lema rightfully criticized the discourse surrounding the virus here ) into becoming a European virus as well. This has considerable repercussions on the ease of travelling that Europeans are accustomed to enjoy. According to the Henley Passport Index German passport holders have the third best passport in the world. The Hanley index shows the number of countries the respective passport holders are able to enter without visa. Looking at the constantly updated list of travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 outbreak it becomes clear that something is changing – at least temporarily. The complete travel ban from Europe to the US is maybe the most drastic measure. And it is interesting to see, how the US president has been extending the xenophobic externalization of the virus as “foreign” to include Europeans next to Chinese people.

Long history of Europeans as carriers of disease

If we look into the longer history of mobility and diseases, we see that the role of Europeans as dangerous carriers of diseases is nothing new. Europeans brought measles, smallpox, influenza and other Eurasian diseases and thereby killed an estimated 90% of the native American population. In the 18th century, South Africans were killed by a smallpox epidemic brought in by Dutch sailors. However, endogenous diseases in Africa did also partly slow down the colonial conquest, especially in the so-called “white man’s grave” West Africa. Mobility and diseases are closely and complexly interlinked. The current emphasis on isolation, quarantine and immobility in battling the spread of COVID-19 is just the latest instance. But it is not simply the case that mobility spreads disease and immobility means safety. The deadly diseases of earlier centuries could kill so many people, because they had not been in contact before. In today’s connected world there is no possibility of cutting all linkages at the national borders. The only chance is to slow down the spread of new diseases and never stop them completely. The current drastic measures of mobility control around the world are just slowing down the spread of the virus and will hopefully give humanity enough time to develop measures to help the infected. Postponing a workshop to an uncertain date in the future is a small sacrifice in this endeavour.

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