GV: Hi, I”m Gayathri, 

MR: and I”m Mary Rose, 

MR: and you’re listening to Scrolls & Leaves. 

MR: Today in our Chatroom episode, 

Alison: “Common borders that we all live with, geopolitical borders we cross all the time, did arise out of quarantine borders in times of epidemic where people would be checked much more than they normally would be.”

MR: You’ll be listening to acclaimed historian Alison Bashford. She’s a professor of history at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and an expert at medicine at the borders. 

ALison: “For me for many years, it’s been a much harder and more confronting question is, and has long been–  what governments do when there is a really clear epidemiological difference between one country and another, or one part of the world and another. What do epidemiologists do? Is it justified to shut down a border or or restrict entry?”

GV: Alison’s early work was on British imperial and Australian histories, and more recently, she’s been studying the history of medicine and the earth sciences. She’s published five books and edited seven — and the one we’re interested in here is Medicine at the Border: disease Globalization and Security 1850 to the Present. 

GV: This interview was recorded in April. It has been edited and condensed. Just to remind you where the pandemic was back then.. Australia was under lockdown and so was India. Cruise ships like the Diamond Princess were trapped at sea, with no place to dock….

MR: Alison was one of the experts we spoke to for Ep 1, Pandemics and Borders…  we will listen to her as she tries to make sense of the border closings during covid19, a disease that has been unusual in many ways. 


Alison: Hello Yes, my name is Alison Bashford, and I’m a Professor of History at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And I trained as a medical historian a long time ago and became interested in the world of infectious diseases and how they’re managed by individuals, but also especially interested in how they are managed by, by different states over time. 

And I early wrote a book called Imperial Hygiene, which was about borders of disease control of various things. scales and kinds. And then I wrote No, I edited a book called Contagion — thinking culturally as well as historically about disease. And that led to a book called Medicine at the Border. And that was inspired by SARS. And little did I know then that that that line of interest would become so tragically topical…

MR: Thanks, Alison! I want to ask a very basic question — what is a border in the context of disease?

Alison: So I think there’s a historians recently have been… like a lot of social scientists really interested in scale. So how we scale up and scale down things. And in medical history and history of disease, a border can be anything from the …the really critical, as we know now, border of the skin, the border of the human body. And what crosses that border as a microbe, or what crosses that border as a needle that injects a vaccine, say. So that’s one really obvious, but thoroughly important border in this context. It can scale up to households. And so the, you know, the threshold of a door where people are kicked out or kicked in, it can scale up to the borders around a town. So in the early modern period, the idea of a plague town had very policed borders.

And then more in the 19th, and especially the 20th century, and borders, disease borders often became co-terminous with national borders and that’s when you get, during disease times, a kind of a link between keeping disease out and keeping out people. 

So, for me that that kind of scaling up from, I mean, at very literal, not a metaphorical way, but actually a literal way, from the border of the individual human body to the border of a nation state — that’s something that, as I say is often talked about as a metaphor, but in a way I’m more much interested and much more so that being the these things being literal borders between clean and unclean spaces.

MR: That’s interesting — I think most people would think only of geopolitical borders…are borders generally meant to keep the unclean out?

Alison: You know, if we think historically about various diseases, there’s been moments where people have been asked to stay inside a border, not because it’s not because it’s clean but precisely because it’s it’s, it’s it’s unclean, or it’s infected. 

So if you think about plague in early modern England in the 1500s, or 1600s, where a town would have one person, and then often with plague, almost immediately, many people diseased. There would be sometimes an agreement on the part of that town itself, sometimes imposed by outsiders to put a really clear boundary around that town so that people would neither go in nor go out. 

And that was about not because the inside was clean, but precisely because the inside was risky and dangerous and, and diseased and polluted in some way. So, you know, it’s just like, this is the fascinating thing, tragically about borders and disease because they can either mean, if you wear a mask, now, it can either mean you’re wearing a mask to prevent the disease that you have inside you from spreading to others. But a mask equally might mean and actually serve as a border that keeps you on the inside of the mask, clean from outside pollutants. 

So borders can flip from one to the other really quickly. That is to say if we think about the the cruise ship phenomenon at the moment with coronavirus if there’s nobody on that, if a ship’s floating around the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, or the Caribbean, and it’s not docking anywhere and there’s nobody sick on that ship, then it is the most secure places, the safest place that’s not coming into contact — its borders are really protective. But as soon as there’s one symptomatic person or one diagnosed person, then it just flips immediately from the safest place to the riskiest place. And the border is then maintained for different reasons. 

So at all those scales that I’ve mentioned the border, the kind of disease border can flip from protection of the inside  to protection for the outsiders in an instant.

GV: That’s interesting — so moving to a larger scale… geopolitical borders are very much part of our life today.. When and where and how did they emerge? 

Alison: Border control arose out of a combination of infectious disease on the one hand and what my colleague Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds called the global color line. So — race based immigration acts and borders far more than people think, common borders that we all live with, geopolitical borders we cross all the time, did arise out of quarantine borders in times of epidemic where people would be checked much more than they normally would be. 

And in combination with race based immigration restriction acts, starting in the 1850s, with a suite of restrictions on Chinese movement into the Americas and actually into South America and Australia and New Zealand. 

And these things often became, quite strongly and obviously problematically collated. So, because China was often seen to be a source of particular epidemics — plague, let’s say, in the late 1890s, there were extra cautions and practices and and laws actually put in place to restrict or test or quarantine people coming from China often, into places like New Zealand or North America, or Australia. And though the justification for those was often because of a correlation between epidemic disease and and China. 

And there’s there’s a, there’s a longer history, there actually with migration of people from India and elsewhere in South Asia, especially across the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific Ocean as well that that — I think of often in the current context. (16:37)  and so there was my colleague in university British Columbia realism. Renisa Mawani has just written a fantastic book on this. So there was a ship called the Komagata Maru that sailed. Like so many ships, a steamer that sailed between ports in India, to Hong Kong across the Pacific Ocean to west coast of the States and Canada.

There was a particular moment and episode where it was trying to get entry into it was there was a lot of South Indian people seeking laboring jobs in Canada in the early 20th century, and the ship arrives in, I think it was Vancouver and it was not allowed to dock, it was not allowed to pull into port. 

And we should all right now be thinking of those mini cruise liners that have been, you know, not granted permission to dock in the last couple of months. 

And the Komagata Maru the name of the vessel had perhaps hundreds of mainly South Indians, I think, looking for laboring jobs in Canada, and they were stranded for months and months and months on this ship. And it was a combination of Canadian race, immigration, restrictions and cautions about the introduction of particular diseases into Canada that was used as a justification for this vessel just being stranded. 

And it was sent back across the Indian Ocean and Hong Kong wouldn’t let it dark and it had to go back to India. So this poor folk was stuck on this ship for many, many months. 

And I think and that was a combination of race based immigration restriction laws that always had disease clauses within them. And the disease clause would often get rolled out as the justification that it was about public safety. 

And I’ve often thought about that incident as we’ve all watched the tragic stories of the cruise ships sailing around the world looking for places either with a symptomatic person or with diseased confirmed cases of coronavirus. Have the kind of liminally floating — no one wants them to pull into the airport. And when they do, are people allowed off? Does the ship itself turn into a quarantine station? What laws govern the people on the ship is that the Law of the Sea? Is a domestic law. Can ports legitimately ask the ship the cruise ship to sail on? The poor people stuck on these ships they, as I said much earlier, these ships go from one minute —  the safest place the next minute, the highest risk, extremely dangerous places. 

And I think there are very similar stories from different times that have brought in a way an old maritime world back to the political and epidemiological fore.  So I’ve been as a historian watching the cruise ship phenomenon very carefully and with great interest.

GV: t seems like during Covid, race isn’t correlating so closely with disease — because the people from cruise ships like the Diamond Princess– many of them are well-to-do and from the Global North right? .. 

Alison: Exactly, and I and I think that, you know, so many of my colleagues and friends who have been writing about disease and borders and immigration restriction and the the racializing of all of that, which has been part of the Global South story for for a very long time, and there’s no question about that. That’s just a matter of fact, not interpretation. In a way we’ve been kind of caught wrong footed, if I can put it that way, in and around coronavirus …because our critique of …which has kind of become so well known that we needn’t keep saying it ..that there is this strong history of race disease borders, immigration… just doesn’t help us think through Coronavirus because it’s not — I mean, quite interestingly, Global South and Global North stories have been flipped and old critiques don’t help us think through, in the current circumstance, what’s going on. 

It’s not something that divides, at the moment, clearly in a Global South — Global North axis. Coronavirus is clearly something which inside different nations and different polities, unsurprisingly and equally tragically does operate on a rich-poor access to health care. But then none of this is working on an old kind of racial politics of Global South-Global North anymore, or immigration restriction anymore. 

Except for the early moments when, except the early moments when Trump was very easily able to bring in, you know, the barring of people moving from China into the US. That had a really immediate resonance. And so many of my colleagues and I just thought, Oh, this is this is a replay of a really old trope. But actually since then, that critique that so many of us have been familiar with for so long, in fact, has been insufficient for understanding any clear pattern between You know, a global South global north or old stories of problematic race-based immigration restriction and disease control.

GV: That makes the old patterns of thinking about race as the underpinning of disease and also this idea of filth — which is connected to race in history– it just negates that.. 

Alison:  Yeah, and I think I mean, I think I think our — when I say our, I’m thinking about my generation of historians and social sciences, who are kind of trained — our normal response is to think about race and the modern world, you know. Aand, of course, we need to — it’s not invalid in the sense of the history because — again, just as a matter of fact, not a matter of interpretation — there was so much expedient use of racism in the past to justify all kinds of other things. So that so that’s kind of clear. But whether we, in kind of continually having recourse to that critique, I don’t think as is helping us at all, I think you’re right in the current in the current moment. 

Although I should say, and this there just might be too many dots here to kind of link up, when you know, all the years that I’ve been thinking about borders and race and disease and politics and race based migration acts and so forth, in a way that critique is both true. And you know, after a while becomes so apparent and obvious that it’s, you don’t need to keep — you know, you just keep saying old news again, and that, you know, that becomes dull after a while, even if it is true, if I can put it that way. 

And and so for me for many years, it’s been a much harder and more confronting question is, and has long been–  what what do polities, governments do when there is a really clear epidemiological difference between one country and another, or one part of the world and another. What do epidemiologists do? Is it justified to shut down a border or or restrict entry? Or ask people to have extra tests if they do come from a high high risk country epidemiologically concerned. 

And in some ways that’s, you know, it’s kind of important and but also relatively easy to point to the politics, the Global South-North politics of that. 

In a way, it’s a much harder to question to think well, what what, do we not do that just because it’s connected to a difficult racial or global politics? And I think that in a way, what’s happening now with Coronavirus, is that the differences between as you say — the differences between successful and less successful outcomes in at the current moment just don’t map on to what we would, what we might have expected… that that in some ways…, the whole.. I don’t know we’re still assessing this, even as I say this I’m not even sure myself… is what’s happening in Coronavirus, actually about to shift everything in terms of political economies, in terms of our critique in terms of thinking Global South and North? 

Is everything actually about to shift on a different axis? Again, because it’s not following previous patterns? And I don’t have an answer to that. But I do think that the question that you put is something that many of us are — this is, you know … one Republic on the planet is not doing very well at all. And the land of the free is turning out to be not that and that is the epitome of the land of the North. And the states. You know, what’s happening in the United States is, is a different axis of political economy of disease . You know, it’s an internal one. And that in a way, that’s where the conversation may direct when it comes to thinking about global disease and borders. 

And it may all be heralding a shift away from, you know, the kind of historical world that I know really well, which is a kind of a, you know, the, the borders between global north and global south. 

And I do think that one of the things that has really interested me is with a globalization is not actually what’s most important at the moment. I think that what’s going on within countries, and even the kind of borders that have been set up set up within countries really is the pressing feature of Coronavirus. 

You know, even though we know that people are being, you know, none of us can move between one country and another anymore. But what’s novel perhaps now is the restriction of movement within countries, between states. And certainly here in Australia, it’s highly unusual. It happened in Spanish flu, but it hasn’t happened since — that we are currently not able to travel between one state and another. I’m not sure about India, maybe you can tell me… 

GV: It’s the same in India — state borders are shut down, but whats even more interesting is that even district borders, some neighborhoods are closed off… it’s not about the global anymore…Covid is about the local, about our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes…

you know, globalization doesn’t. It’s kind of old news. Now. It doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on right now, which is so much more about state healthcare structures, limiting movement within polities, a whole kind of novel sets of arrangements. there so, you know, many of us in the SARS moment were really obsessed with this new thing called globalization. But the Coronavirus moment I think is actually about what’s going on inside domestic borders.


GV — You were listening to Alison Bashford on Medicine and Borders on Chatroom. 

MRA: Visit scrollsandleaves.com for the transcript. And we’re just getting started so we’d greatly appreciate your help if you could subscribe to our podcast, rate or leave a review. Stay tuned for more “Chatroom” episodes, and for ep 2, Healing Plants. 



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