In the shadow of the pandemic. Dying and disappearing at the borders Sofia Stimmatini, anthropologist, & Constance De Gourcy, sociologist


That we live in uncertain times is a statement widely shared by many authors and thinkers of modernity (Beck, 2001; Giddens, 1991). The Covid-19 pandemic, which since the end of 2019 has been spreading throughout the world, confirms that we are engaged in “irreversible ecological and sustainable change” (Latour, 2020). In fact, the Covid-19 virus suddenly sends us back to the finiteness of our existence in a striking way: despite everything that the human species is capable of, we violently realize that we cannot control everything. Above all, we cannot have complete mastery of biology: our bodies reveal themselves in their naked, pure and simple, killable and unspeakable lives (Agamben, 1997). Individuals who lose their lives on a daily basis after being infected by Covid-19 share a vulnerability common to all human beings. They also share the right to be mourned and the right to receive a dignified burial. This article acknowledges the vulnerability of humans while highlighting how basic rights are being denied to certain people by social and economic inequalities combined with disparities in treatment.

Several testimonies from relatives of the deceased speak of the immeasurable suffering caused by the uncertainty surrounding the loss of a loved one who died without being accompanied on his or her final journey. In Italy, for example, where funerals have been banned, families are left without answers. How did he or she die? Where was the place of death? Will we be able to see him or her one last time? These questions haunt the relatives of the deceased and make the experience of the event extremely traumatic. The changes in the management of death and funerals in the Covid-19 era thus offer us Westerners the possibility of questioning the importance of knowing the context of a person’s death and being able to celebrate funeral rites: when these two conditions are not fulfilled, uncertainty grows and profoundly disturbs mourning. This state of affairs is reminiscent of the anguish that grips the family members of individuals who disappear or die at country borders, after having undertaken the journey to Europe without the necessary documents to enter the Schengen area. Here and elsewhere, as soon as migration is made illegal and leads to the disappearance of family members, the impossibility of mourning relatives, and doubts about their fate, prevails over everything else.

In spite of the similarities, however, there are also significant differences: while the Covid-19 virus reminds us of the vulnerability that characterises us as human beings and shows the very labile boundaries between good and bad death, it is absolutely necessary to complicate the analogy to better account for this fragility. Indeed, despite the deprivation of freedom of movement induced by lockdown, the families of individuals who die because of Covid-19 know that their loved one has died, while the relatives of individuals who disappear or die at the borders know nothing about their fate. In this second case, the uncertainty is total: it marks the entry into a regime of inexplicable and indeterminate absence that permeates all aspects of their lives. This is because the fragility we are talking about is distributed in an extremely unequal manner among the populations of the different continents, even at country level. Some groups retain the right to know the fate of their loved ones, despite the pandemic. Others, who already suffer injustices in times considered “normal”, are now witnessing an exacerbation of the lack of respect for their rights.

Before the pandemic, the families of the disappeared or dead at the borders could gather and organise themselves into a movement with a common purpose. This is the case in Tunisia, where we have carried out research. Here, the mothers and wives of the ‘disappeared’, the harragas in North African dialect, have been meeting since 2011 in front of ministries, equipped with banners and megaphones, to demand the right to know the fate of their loved ones. It is through their collective demonstrations and their physical presence that they bear witness to the injustice they suffer.  Showing their immense suffering, they demand truth and justice for their children and husbands. Souade, one of the mothers, declared during a conference in Morocco in early February 2020: “We are dead, but we are moving.” Being able to take to the streets, being able to use their voices to shout out their pain and anger, being able to show their physical presence to affirm that they and their husbands or children exist, gave them the power to make the event of disappearance exist and to inscribe it into a collective temporality. During the pandemic, they can no longer move.

Like everyone else, they are in lockdown, confined to their homes, frozen in a present that lasts. The possibility of networking in the street, of occupying public space and making their voices heard, is suspended, and it seems difficult to predict how long the right to gather will remain suspended in this way. For many of them, not knowing how to use technological tools, it is difficult to transpose sit-ins to the internet. Atomized and locked up, they no longer have the means to reorganize and mobilize. Indeed, to mobilize in a virtual space requires various skills and tools, and above all, an internet connection, which is not always available. While digitalisation can provide the opportunity to connect people worldwide, it is not democratically accessible. Considering that the majority of families of the ‘Tunisian disappeared’ are living in a difficult economic situation, the online demonstration is not a valid alternative. Moreover, it would probably not have the same effects. Occupying a space physically, with a living human being, is an extremely strong action, which does not allow denial. Conversely, a photograph on the internet can easily be ignored. Lockdown, for these women, means complete invisibility. It also means isolation, not only physical, but also emotional. During the research in Tunisia, one could notice how important it was for these women to support each other, simply by drinking tea in silence, in the same room, exchanging a few words (Stimmatini, 2019). While this mutual support is now impossible, some of the women try to call each other, to remember together that they are not alone and that the struggle to find out the fate of their loved ones is still going on, ready to start again as soon as the situation allows it. This state can be described as ‘suspension in the suspended’.

Although the pandemic has halted most social and economic activities, departures from the north coast of Africa to Europe have never ceased, as the extremely serious situation in Libya testifies. These hyper-vulnerable people, at the mercy of both the sea and irresponsible political decisions, are trying to reach what they consider to be a promising land. However, the Covid-19 is a pretext for European countries to declare themselves ‘dangerous countries’ and thus normalise the practice of not assisting travellers in distress at sea, with murderous results. More and more travellers die and disappear during the voyage, leaving their families unable to understand what happened. At a time when all media, political and economic attention is focused on the consequences of the virus, the continued disappearances and deaths at borders seems to be of less and less interest to the public. However, the suffering of these travellers and their families is increasing, as is the spiral of denial that awaits them. This denial is becoming more and more acute and makes them increasingly invisible in the eyes of the authorities, if indeed this is actually possible while activists on both sides of the Mediterranean are trying to recall their existence.

It seems clear then that, if in the face of Covid-19 we seem egalitarianly vulnerable because of our belonging to a common humanity, as soon as we dig a little deeper, we see that this virus accentuates inequalities in the face of death. In New York City, for example, the bodies of individuals that no family member claims are buried in a huge mass grave on the outskirts of the city. In France, disparities raise the question of a policy based on a principle of health justice rather than health policing. Imbalances become more acute, exposing individuals to death and mourning in different ways. Those who disappeared or died while attempting a journey considered illegal to Europe see the risk of death and disappearance accentuated. Those who did not have the right to mourn continue to be deprived of it. The virus reveals, using Butlerian vocabulary, those who are grievable and those who are not.

Lire la version traduite en français publiée sur le site The Conversation






Citer ce billet
Constance De Gourcy (2020, 1 juin). In the shadow of the pandemic. Dying and disappearing at the borders Sofia Stimmatini, anthropologist, & Constance De Gourcy, sociologist. CRISALIDE. Consulté le 14 avril 2024, à l’adresse