On April 7, 2020, the German news network WDR aired a short documentary on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on migrant workers in Qatar. By then, Qatar already had a confirmed Covid-19 infection rate per capita that was among the highest in the world, and more than four times that of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. The Qatari government responded with the standard measures of testing, contact tracing, social distancing, and the shut-down of nonessential business activity.
But in an unusual move, Qatar has also established a strict cordon sanitaire around the area of the city where migrant construction workers from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are housed—a 12 km square zone outside Doha called the Industrial Area where worker barracks are squeezed between cement factories, warehouses, and equipment sheds. The government set up roadblocks and built a concrete barrier around the perimeter of the Industrial Area to mark out the boundaries of the cordon.“The government has not permitted residents to leave the zone for any reason, including independently seeking out medical care.”
The cordon sanitaire has been strictly enforced: the government has not permitted residents to leave the zone for any reason, including independently seeking out medical care. The few big box grocery stores in the Industrial Area that workers rely on to purchase food have not been restocked. News media and human rights observers have been prohibited from entering, and the Qatari government has maintained a ban on the use of Voice Over IP platforms for voice and video internet calls, despite calls from human rights and media groups around the world. Still, workers have sent messages on encrypted apps to journalists and human rights organizations. The workers who sent messages to the German television crew reported that they were hungry and unable to access food: “There are a hundred workers in my camp and we ran out of food days ago.”
The government of Qatar ostensibly established the cordon sanitaire as a measure to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, but conditions within the cordon favor rapid transmission. Workers are housed in crowded dormitories—labor camps—provided by their employers, lodged anywhere between six to 12 to a room on stacked bunk beds. The cramped rooms have little ventilation. Bathrooms and kitchens are shared by tens or hundreds of men, and the sanitary conditions are poor. The water supply to the camps, frequently provided by water trucks instead of municipal infrastructure, is not always reliable.1Observations about conditions in labor camps and on worksites in Qatar are based in part on my own fieldwork on the Qatari construction industry, and the subject of my forthcoming book, Skill and Bondage: Migrant Workers in Qatar and in a Warming World.
Even as Qatar has cordoned off the area where workers live, the government continues to allow workers to be transported to construction sites outside the industrial area. Despite suspending nonessential business activity, Qatar has mandated that construction work on the large projects leading up the 2022 World Cup continue. This decision has undoubtedly accelerated transmission back in the Industrial Area. Workers are transported to construction sites on packed buses. Once at construction sites, they work in extremely close physical proximity with thousands of other workers. They work elbow-to-elbow; they share tools and handle the same materials; they communicate and coordinate their physical movements. This close physical interaction favors the spread of the coronavirus. Infections can then be transmitted on to others in the close quarters of the labor camps where physical distancing is impossible and protective hygiene extremely difficult. How much the coronavirus has spread within the Industrial Area is currently unclear: Qatar has a testing rate on par with Germany, but testing has primary been focused on populations outside the Industrial Area.
But on some level, the rate of infection in the Industrial Area doesn’t matter. The purpose of a cordon sanitaire is not the prevention of contagion in a society. The purpose is to cut off the portion of society perceived as diseased from the rest of the social body. How diseased that portion of society ultimately becomes is irrelevant; it has already been amputated.
A century of cordoning off the marginalized
This is different than a quarantine, which is a temporary separation and leaves open the possibility for healing and reintegration. As the 40 days encoded in the word suggests, a quarantine is designed to remove persons from society—or to forestall their entry into it—only for a time, until their disease blossoms and resolves, or until it becomes clear that they are not carriers. The separation is provisional and includes the promise that those who survive can eventually be brought back into society. A cordon sanitaire envisions no such reintegration. It marks out a space as diseased and irredeemable, carves it off indefinitely, and marks all the people in that space as sources of contagion until the threat of disease has passed for everyone.
This permanence is why the cordon sanitaire acts primarily as a boundary that maps out zones of political exclusion rather than as a means of disease control. Felice Baltan, in her study of cordons sanitaires and quarantines in the United States, defines the cordon sanitaire as a means to produce the “erasure of the juridical being.”2Felice Batlan, “Law in the Time of Cholera: Disease, State Power, and Quarantines Past and Future,” Temple Law Review 80, no. 1 (2007): 26. The cordon sanitaire’s emphasis on diseased spaces rather than on diseased people has made it an especially effective tool for governments to strip those they trap within its bounds of their legal rights and political standing, all the while abandoning them to infection and disease.“The modern history of cordons sanitaires provides repeated examples of the way that the cordons were used to sharpen the exclusion of already marginalized communities.”
The modern history of cordons sanitaires provides repeated examples of the way that the cordons were used to sharpen the exclusion of already marginalized communities. Some examples include: the Australian government’s use of leprosy cases to confine Aboriginal populations to certain areas of the country;3Springer, 2003More Info → the French colonial government’s invocation of bubonic plague to partition Dakar into the colonial city and the quartier indigene for the Senegalese population;4Liora Bigon, “A History of Urban Planning and Infectious Diseases: Colonial Senegal in the Early Twentieth Century,” Urban Studies Research, February 2012. the British Empire’s punitive and military imposition of cordons sanitaires against cholera in Cairo and Alexandria to assert its control over the Suez Canal;5Shehab Ismail, “Engineering Metropolis: Contagion, Capital, and the Making of British Colonial Cairo, 1882–1922,” PhD diss., (New York: Columbia University, 2017). and in Cape Town, South Africa, the use of plague to justify the forcible removal of the city’s black population across a cordon sanitaire line and into segregated camps.6Alexandre I. R. White, “Historical Linkages: Epidemic Threat, Economic Risk, and Xenophobia,” The Lancet 395, no. 10232 (2020).
In the United States, city and state governments deployed cordons sanitaires aggressively against immigrant communities, using them to define immigrants as diseased irrespective of the actual incidence of infection in their populations and to harden their spatial and social exclusion. In 1892, the New York City government cordoned off large sections of the Lower East Side, home to the city’s Russian Jewish population, in response to a typhus scare on a steerage ship. The City Department of Health removed people from their homes, confiscated and incinerated their belongings, and condemned buildings in the neighborhood—all without legal process and with little regard to whether those targeted had been exposed to typhus.7Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999More Info → In the decade that followed, in response to isolated cases of bubonic plague, local governments drew cordons sanitaires around the Chinatowns of major cities. In 1900, the Honolulu Board of Health began incinerating homes within the cordon and started a blaze that burned down the entire area, leaving thousands of families homeless and trapped behind the sanitary line.8 Oxford University Press, 2004More Info → San Francisco’s Board of Health sought to emulate the incineration the following year when it established a cordon sanitaire encircling its own Chinatown, backing down only when compelled to do so by a US Supreme Court decision observing that the cordon sanitaire could not be justified on public health grounds and was therefore an unconstitutional violation of the principle of equal treatment of citizens.9Batlan, “Law in the Time of Cholera.” The cordon sanitaire was abandoned in the United States, as it had already been in most part of the world.
As an intervention for disease control, the cordon sanitaire had never been particularly effective, and as the scientific understanding of pathogens advanced, quarantines, with their pointillistic application, targeted and temporary, have replaced the cordon’s crude line. To be sure, quarantines have also been uneven in their effectiveness and have been used as politically as cordons sanitaires had been, dividing and segregating people based on markers of social difference as well as disease. But because their imposition has been based, at least partially, on disease processes in the biological body of persons rather than on the spatial location of communities and populations, they have tended to have more legitimacy as public health interventions, and the instruments through which they have amplified social marginalization have appeared more technocratic.
Building the future on a present of suffering
Against this backdrop, Qatar’s decision to return to an older, largely inadequate measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus raises questions about the cordon sanitaire’s function. Why would the government mark out a space where it leaves contagion unchecked—where the conditions within it led to accelerated transmission—and then order that the population within that space be shuttled out daily to work on construction projects outside its confines?
The answer is in the cordon’s placement: Qatar has overlaid the cordon sanitaire on the physical boundary it has drawn across its territory between the country’s past and its future.“The construction workers, factory operators, laborers, and machinists—the workers confined to the Industrial Area—will be sent back home, no longer needed and not replaced.”
Qatar is a nation that has willed itself into existence. Through massive funding and deliberate action, the government of Qatar has reinvented Doha as a city-state for the global elite, distinguishing itself as a destination for international culture and sports. To build this future, Qatar has recruited millions of migrants from around the world. Today, 90 percent of its population is foreign. All migrants, irrespective of national origin, income, or occupation, are in Qatar under the same regulatory framework; they are all governed by the kafala—or sponsorship—system, which binds migrants to their sponsor, generally their employer. But underneath this overarching legal structure is a network of policies that divide them into two categories: professionals who will be part of the country’s future, and workers, who will be vestiges of the country’s past. Qatar’s national development plans envision a city-state inhabited by affluent “knowledge workers,” with an ample service sector to tend to their needs. The construction workers, factory operators, laborers, and machinists—the workers confined to the Industrial Area—will be sent back home, no longer needed and not replaced. These workers are now imported from South Asian and Africa, used, used-up, and replaced, in an ongoing churn of temporary labor that Qatar envisions will one day come to a halt.
Through a web of regulatory actions, policing strategies, and urban zoning directives, the Qatari government has made this social and temporal divide into a spatial one. It has reserved Doha for professional elites and has banned workers from living in or even moving through most areas of the city. The government has required employers to house workers in tracts zoned for industrial use on the city’s outskirts—in areas shaded grey in the color-coded map the government published to confirm its state-ordered segregation. The government has enforced this partition through police action, directing its security services to detain and deport any worker found circulating in Doha without permission.
With the cordon sanitaire’s cement barriers and police enforcement, the government of Qatar has hardened this spatial segregation and turned the Industrial Area into a vast carceral tract. The cordon has wiped out migrant workers’ identity as juridical beings, limited in Qatar to begin with, and now, workers are transported to construction sites not as men but as labor, used instrumentally in the present while their health permits it but already erased from the future even as they continue to build it.“Not only has the government provided little care, apart from a small outpatient clinic to test and monitor workers for Covid, it has used the promise of medical attention to further control and confine migrant workers.”
The government has even used the public health measures associated with cordon sanitaire to crowbar open the divide between the country’s past and its imagined future. In the areas that Qatar has defined as part of its future, the government has invested heavily in limiting the spread of the virus and treating those who contract Covid-19, deploying artificial intelligence tools to map contagion, GPS systems for contract tracing, and providing world-class care in its well-resourced hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients. In the areas that Qatar has portrayed as part of its past, the government has been derelict. Not only has the government provided little care, apart from a small outpatient clinic to test and monitor workers for Covid, it has used the promise of medical attention to further control and confine migrant workers. The Qatari police rounded up hundreds of workers in the Industrial Area, telling them they were to be tested for Covid-19, and detained them instead in overcrowded cells, without sufficient food or water, until they could be deported—a security strategy that is a clear deterrent to seeking medical care. In a sense, the government has used its implementation of the cordon sanitaire to hasten the arrival of the future, allowing the virus to burn through the population of workers it hopes to shed, turning the virus into a fire like the one that burned through Honolulu’s Chinatown.
But viruses, like fires, cannot always be held back by social and spatial divides. Qatar’s use of a cordon sanitaire correlates with a per capita rate of Covid-19 cases that on May 13 (at 904 cases per 100,000 people) ranked third highest in the world, ranked behind only the European microstates of Andorra and San Marino, and was growing fast. Qatar has chosen to barricade the future against the past, but the present it has made is one of illness and death. But Qatar is not alone in its subjugation of public health measures to political goals. From the United States to India, from Brazil to Malaysia, countries are using their responses to the coronavirus to define political membership and to enforce exclusion. But Qatar’s cordon sanitaire makes clear that the salient question is not whether the political use of public health measures causes harm, but rather what it reveals to us about the use of harm—the use of illness and death—to divide and define the nation.