Of borders, bubbles, and viruses

The pandemic unleashed in the early months of 2020 has affected border controls in Europe and beyond in ways that were until recently unimaginable. New territorial configurations regulating cross-border mobility have emerged, the most notorious being the “travel zone,” the “corridor,” and the “bubble”. These arrangements represent an instance of “excised territories” carved out of existing spatial configurations within or between jurisdictions – whether international (e.g., the corridor linking Spain’s Balearic Islands with selected European countries, or the “travel bubble” among Baltic states) or sub-national (e.g., the twinning of border regions within Europe with similar color codes, or outside Europe, Canada’s “Atlantic bubble,” which includes three contiguous provinces in the East of the country). While the reliance on “corridors” indicates the instrumental nature of these arrangements (as spaces connecting one location to another), the use of “bubbles” implies a more explicitly social dimension. As a sociological term, “bubble” describes the relationships between the outside world and an individual or group. “Social bubbles” evoke a sense of coziness, predictability, and protection, but also malleability and flexibility, as they can expand or shrink depending on the circumstances. When applied to a particular geographical area, this phenomenon is referred to as a “tourist bubble”: a site where tourists are shielded from the locals (completely or in part) to maintain a sense of homeliness or prevent them from disturbing the residents. In the case of the current pandemic, however, the bubble represents an uncanny reversal of its original meaning. Indeed, pandemic bubbles do not protect tourists from locals. Instead, these arrangements shield the locals from everybody else. They also evoke some of the negative connotations of social bubbles, specifically the insularity that the discouragement of interactions with people with different opinions and narrow mindedness entails—the type of dynamics encapsulated in the “echo chamber effect” on social media. They also evoke hostility against those who breach a bubble, as attested by the string of recent “license-shaming” incidents against non-local drivers in some of these bubbles. The tracking of incomers also creates a sense of siege mentality, even panic. The sense of lightness that should accompany the term “bubble” seems to be lost in the metaphor. Indeed, terms such as “perimeter” or “fence” might be more apt to describe these phenomena…

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