Quarrels and Quarantine

In public debates, persons who ignore or resist restrictions – e.g. when celebrating so-called Corona parties – are often confronted with accusations of being egoistic, threatening others and showing a lack of solidarity. Scholars in social anthropology are more skeptical of such strong normative claims though they do not automatically have to agree with this behaviour. Rather their analytical questions are concerned with the social reasons of these emerging protests and resistances. What exactly are those underlying cultural implications that come into conflict with each other?

To answer this, a comparative approach is very useful. In 2014/15, the West African states Sierra Leone, Liberia und Guinea were strongly affected by the epidemic of Ebola. There had been earlier spreads of Ebola in rural regions, yet this specific proliferation became an urban problem, as the social anthropologist Danny Hoffman, Washington University, points out. In an article he deals with the situation at West Point, the oldest slum of Liberia’s capital Monrovia (Hoffman 2016). This settlement with its 60,000 inhabitants was set under quarantine in summer of 2014 and quite soon violent riots and attacks occurred. Moreover, various practices of smuggling and attempts to escape took place. Young men were trying to break through the barricades. Only ten days after its implementation the quarantine had to be cancelled. To sum up, it had turned out to be a total disaster.

Segregation and the Fiction of Order

“The encircling, spherical form of the quarantine was, like any form, a political ordering,” Danny Hoffman argues (ibid.: 247). He recalls Michel Foucault’s analysis, „that subjects marked as abnormal, diseased, criminal, or illicit should be isolated for their own betterment and for the collective good.” As Hoffman explains, the “emergence of these spaces of separation and observation, spaces that oppose the dangerous body of the individual to the collective social body, marks the transition into the modern age. Subjects who resist the logic of these disciplining institutions, who fight their confinement or resist enclosure and separation, simply reinforce the perception that they are dangerous, amoral actors who need and deserve their segregation” (ibid.: 253).

“The Liberian government’s quarantine was just such an effort to maintain the fiction of order and control by imposing on the people of West Point a false choice,” Hoffman continues. “They could ‘voluntarily’ accept the enforced quarantine, an obvious if unstated death sentence, or they could challenge the military and the material reality of the Ebola ward in their midst. As an act of resistance, violence directed at security forces and the Ebola ward could accomplish nothing except to demonstrate the absurd impossibility of the false choice they had been given. But it was the path some West Pointers decided to take” (ibid.: 254).

Of course, the specific circumstances and conditions of this Ebola situation differ from those in the current spread of Covid-19. Nonetheless, a detailed comparison is able to investigate common motives on the one hand and reveal idiosyncrasies on the other. Whenever social anthropologists reflect on arising deviations they do not want to simply justify resistant behaviour for any “cultural” reasons in a quite naive way. Unlike flat attacks or premature degradations reflexive cultural analysis asks about subtle notions and divergent performances in social arrangements.

The State and its Citizens

Both the Liberian example analysed by Danny Hoffman and the current discussion on adequacy and strict adherence to the instructions set by Covid-19 show conflicting conceptions of the relationship between the state and its citizens. Liberals argue that the state always has to explain its elaborated policies and must give very plausible reasons whenever individual freedom is restricted. Other political positions stress the urgency and lack of alternative of regulations and interventions and call for strong leadership. Thus, whenever integral civil rights – e.g. assembling at public places – are revoked, there occur highly relevant questions on legitimization and appropriateness in almost any pluralistic democracies. (Just look at Hungary for the opposite.)

In Germany, the restrictions to slow down further spread of Covid-19 are in existence for roughly a single week. However, calls for releasing them and also various discussions about possible “exit strategies” are increasing already. How much will inconvenience in politics and everyday life rise in the next weeks? Which protests might occur? An ethnographic analysis of these “politics of urban space” (ibid.: 248) and the different underlying imaginations of citizenship can gain a much more detailed conception and nuanced understanding of such emerging conflicts on adequateness and acceptability.

Tobias Becker (Freiburg im Breisgau); acknowledgements to Elena Hernandez for pointing me to Hoffman’s article and to Isabella Hesse


Danny Hoffman 2016: A Crouching Village: Ebola and the Empty Gestures of Quarantine in Monrovia. In: City & Society 28/2: 246–264.