Queensland stolen wages
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (AAP/Glenn Hunt)

At the psychological core of society’s response to a pandemic is the Other. Multiple Others. The infected are Others until they recover, needing isolation and exclusion. Those who recklessly or even intentionally increase the risk of infection are Others, in breach of societal norms and deserving of denunciation.

The racist demonisation of people of colour in relation to the disease uses traditional Other stereotypes of non-white people as unclean. And ultimately, in an epidemiological twist on Sartre’s l’enfer, c’est les autres, all people other than your own household become Others, to be kept socially distanced, potential sources of plague and death.

That voters in states like Western Australia and Queensland are happy to either keep their borders sealed against interstate travel, or exclude large swathes of the external population, is vexing to the federal government and business who want borders reopened.

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The Morrison government is even backing Clive Palmer’s attempt to force WA to reopen its borders — possibly reflecting its view about the efficacy of border closures, or reflecting its happiness to do anything for the mining magnate who helped it win the last election.

Commerce has always be critical to the spread of microbes, and business has facilitated the transmission of plague since the first merchants demanded that ships bearing their cargoes, as well as the Black Death, be allowed to dock in European ports in the 14th century.

But neoliberalism enshrined this self-interest in ideology: borders are just one more form of government intervention that restricts the individual from maximising their economic potential and money, goods and services from flowing where they should — red tape that prevents resources from being distributed by market forces to where they will be utilised most efficiently.

In this world view, any restrictions on the free movement of people, trade and finance are economically illegitimate, no matter the reason.

That sits poorly with many on the right of a more nationalist bench, or conservatives who fear the social impacts of too rapid a change caused by high immigration, and many on the left who see open borders as an effective way for business to force down wage costs by expanding the pool of labour.

Conversely, many on the left support borderless movement of people, believing wealthy western nations should open their doors to people from low-income countries.

That explains a figure like Tony Shepherd, right-wing business doyen who also advocates for Australia to open its arms to refugees. He’s at least being consistent in his approach to borders.

Much of the backlash against neoliberalism in recent years has combined the opposite impulses of economic protectionism combined with tribalist hostility among whites — something Donald Trump tapped into with his campaigns against illegal immigrants, China and offshoring of jobs, and something which Pauline Hanson exploits here.

Come the pandemic, of course, most governments instinctively closed their borders, first targeting specific source countries and then, where they could, locking them down entirely. That was in defiance of the World Health Organization (and a coterie of public health experts), which for years has maintained borders should not be closed during pandemics, indeed that such closures would be counter-productive.

Instead, border closures have saved countless lives, discrediting WHO and its apologists, who even now insist that border closures are a problem.

Scott Morrison isn’t about to reopen Australia’s borders any time soon, even to countries with low or no infections — while engaging in the double think that his state and territory counterparts should do exactly the opposite and reopen their borders to enable economic activity.

Whether or not they’ve been vindicated by the Victorian outbreak, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan understood the deep sense of psychological comfort that comes from locking the doors against outsiders during a crisis, no matter how much business may have howled. Both lead states with a stronger sense of identity against the economic power wielded by the south-eastern Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne triangle, to the point of various forms of separatism. For people in NSW and Victoria, we’re the Other for many of our fellow Australians.

Morrison will face the same pressure when time comes to consider reopening Australia’s borders. Keeping them closed longer will be the popular option; if people can happily view residents of another state as an Other and a threat, how much more actual foreigners?

And what does business say, other than constantly demanding that the money must flow and the borders checkpoints must be pulled down?

Business has utterly failed to respond effectively to the surge in tribalism and nationalism in recent years. It can’t explain that migration, free trade and global supply chains deliver benefits, because most people in western countries don’t see any such benefits. The benefits go to corporations and shareholders, while workers, consumers and small business struggle with economic stagnation.

By hoarding the benefits of globalisation, business undermined any community support for open borders and free movement, and the pandemic killed it entirely.

In a time when your next door neighbour is now the Other, people will need a strong incentive to overcome their desire to keep the door closed. Business seems entirely averse to providing any.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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