Shifting b/orders in times of the pandemic

4. June 2020

In a nutshell, the measures taken to stem the Covid-19 disease consist basically in the drawing of new and the thickening of existing borders. The strategy of bordering practices, as Norbert Cyrus & Peter Ulrich summarize these interventions against the spread of the Corona virus, was pursued first time in Wuhan, China: The right to leave and enter the city area had been restricted and movements across city borders became the subject of surveillance. Also, within the city area, the citizens’ freedom of movement was strictly restricted by imposing a curfew. Moreover, access to stores and working places was only allowed under certain restrictions.

Strategy of bordering practices in Europe

Initially, observers in Germany wondered whether such strict interventions pursued in authoritarian states like China would be conceivable in the context of democratic states. However, in response to the arising corona pandemic governments of democratically constituted states in the EU soon adopted comparable strategies of confinement (see map of the Transfrontier Operational Mission – MOT). In Italy and Spain curfews were not only imposed in particularly affected municipalities but nationwide. 

Picture 1: Source: Transfrontier Operational Mission (MOT), April 22, 2020 

Drawing of new and thickening of existing borders 

The strategy of bordering practices makes use of already existing borders, in particular and foremost nation-state borders. This is hardly surprising, taking into account that national collectives all over the world appreciate state borders as a bulwark against external threats [1]. 
However, the corona crisis reveals that the function of mobility control can be assigned to all kinds of existing administrative boundaries as can be seen in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania: At the federal state border, police began to control travelers and to reject entry for those who could not prove residence within the federal state boundaries or provide a legally accepted reason for entry. Even some German districts like Ostprignitz-Ruppin in the federal state of Brandenburg imposed an entry ban on owners of secondary residences which was annulled after a legal review. Such measures can be described as thickening of a border.
In our understanding, thickening of border encompasses the tightening of already existing control functions and the assigning of additional functions (like mobility control) to a border. 

The Transformation of the bridge of the double city Frankfurt (Oder)-Słubice

The thickening of a border can be well observed at the bridge crossing the Odra river and connecting the double city Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice at the German-Polish border. By dismantling the border fortifications [2], which was accomplished in 2013, the permeability of the German-Polish border was materially observable at this particular location. However, in response to the corona pandemic, the Polish government launched checks on health and personal identity on the border by March 15, 2020, lasting for ten days at first and being prolonged until May 4, 2020. Foreigners without permanent residence in Poland were not allowed to enter Poland. Only Polish citizens returning to Poland and foreigners living in Poland were exempted on condition that they had to quarantine for 14 days. Initially, cross-border traffic was allowed for local commuters in order to enable continuation of cross-border connections, but these exemptions were annulled as of March 27, 2020. The Polish government lifted the entry ban on local border commuters only after about five weeks.

As the case of the city bridge illustrates, the manifestation and materiality of a border changes with the re-assignment of functions like mobility control: Obtrusive stop signs slow down car traffic and pedestrians. Crush barriers, police and border control cars form mobile obstacles. Personnel of border control and police control the narrow crossing. A quarantine tent is set up to carry out health checks (see picture 2).

Picture 2: Peter Ulrich, March 23, 2020

Confining the Freedom of Movement

The sudden popping-up of bordering practices in times of corona confirm the idea that borders are multidimensional, relational and complex entities [3]. As a general rule, borders exists because of and work through practices of differentiation which constitute and mark dividing lines in social space. Due to processes of institutionalization and geographical fixation, such dividing lines turn into administrative and territorial borders [4]. It is observable that interventions against Covid-19 relate to border lines which serve as place for practices of differentiation [5]. 

By imposing curfews, a distinction is made between allowed and unauthorized movement. Through this classification, limits are set to the spatial movement of people. Persons who are possibly or evidently infected by the corona virus or who have travelled from a high-risk area are required to be quarantined and prohibited from leaving their houses.

Strict nationwide curfews were imposed in Italy and Spain when it turned out that measures locally confined to communities like Codogno in Italy and Igualada in Spain failed to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The degree of confinement differs. At times the inhabitants of areas particularly affected by the pandemic were only allowed to move within the vicinity of their own homes. In other places, the limits of what is allowed were not so tightly drawn, but still formed considerable restrictions. All people become subject to a general suspicion as possible carriers of the corona virus.

Proportionality of the strategy of bordering practices

The strategy of bordering practices aims at interrupting connections, which are interpreted as potential infection chains in corona times. Through these interruptions the social order and its members shall be protected – but a long-lasting harsh lockdown and thickening of borders jeopardize the functioning and continuity of this social order.

The new drawing or thickening of existing borders therefore affect persons differently. The strategy of bordering practices distinguishes between categories of professions which are perceived to be relevant for the ongoing of the system on the one hand and categories of professions and persons who can be locked down without risking an immediate collapse of the social order. The distinction thus implies that some functional boundaries are more permeable or even insignificant for members of occupational groups [6] or functionaries considered to be systemically relevant. As Georg Simmel [7] recognized, boundaries always serve as both: barriers and bridges. However, as the corona crisis reveals, the degree of a border´s permeability is not the same for everyone, but differentiated with regard to the perceived needs of society.

Thus, drawing boundaries affects people in a deeply unequal manner: Some can continue working in the office from home, for others domestic work can become a burden when the also locked down children require attention and care. Less privileged are obliged to continue to go to work and face a high risk of infection. Moreover, many business people and freelancers have no income at all and fear for their professional existence. The initially broad social acceptance for the strategy of bordering processes decreased in the course of time [9]. With the increasing and realistic fear that the effects of the strategy of confinement threaten to become irreversible and cause irreparable damages, the issue of proportionality gained importance.

Shifting acceptance for the measure and functional dismantling of the border

On April 24, 2020, citizens of the double city Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice demanded in public protests, taking place on both sides of the Odra river, a relaxation of the restrictions and an imminent opening of the border crossing. The joint action hint that there is a consciousness of existing cross-border connections along the Oder [8] that is felt and expressed in the corona crises. The fact that municipal and regional administrative boundaries coincide with nation-state borders on the Oder is perceived and interpreted in a self-reliant and regionally situated perspective. These inhabitants of the border regions [10] condemned in recurrent protests the disruption of cross-border connections imposed in the name of the national border. This criticism takes up and expresses the vision of a commonality which refers to the regionally existing economic and social interrelationships. The protests seemed to be influential: On May 4, 2020, the Polish Ministry of Health decreed the re-opening of the state border for commuters, pupils and students by abolishing the quarantine obligation for these groups of people while continuing with entry bans for other categories. Here we observe again that the strategy of bordering practices operates with measures determining the permeability of a border.

Suggestions for the field of border studies

This blog post aimed – first of all – at demonstrating that the application of theories and concepts of border studies can contribute to the understanding of b/ordering processes pursued in times of corona. Conversely, the exploration of pursued bordering practices in the corona crisis has the potential to stimulate knowledge production in border studies. Our considerations suggest that the strategy of bordering practices has an ambiguous nature. A smart drawing of new and thickening of existing borders can initially help to reduce risks, but the timing, duration and nature of the bordering measures – as well as their interaction with other measures – are decisive. A recent analysis of the pandemic in Wuhan, published in the renowned journal Science [11], provides evidence that early identification of infected people, hand washing, self-isolation and household quarantine are more effective in containing the pandemic than bordering processes with the goal of restricting and controlling mobility. Thus, the national border is by no means the only and not always the most convincing starting point for protective measures. Other administrative borders can also serve as point of reference for protective measures. From a practical point of view, these observations guided by border-theoretical concepts invite to reconsider the strategy of bordering practices: Which borders should be thickened? For whom? In what way? For how long?

Possible alternatives for the strategy of bordering practices

Above all, the current developments stimulate to consider alternatives to the strategy of confinement practices at nation-state and other administrative borders. With regard to the corona pandemic, the main complements or long-term alternatives discussed are compliance with hygiene regulations, the availability of a vaccine or the development of an app for tracing chains of infection. 

With regard to the experiences of the double city of Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice, we like to point out that a thickening of borders does not merely have to automatically relate to the national border. Instead, alternative concepts should be developed that take into account and start from the relevance of existing cross-border connections and interdependencies within integrated border regions in Europe. Recognizing the regional integration across nation-state borders leads to the idea that bordering processes perceived to be an inevitable response to critical situations could be better placed along the edges of integrated areas. 

Author Information

Dr Norbert Cyrus is fellow at the Viadrina Center B/ORDERS IN MOTION at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder)

Dr Peter Ulrich is scientific coordinator for border research at the Viadrina Center B/ORDERS IN MOTION and PostDoc researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (Erkner)


[1]        Brown, W. (2010). Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Cambridge, Massachessets: The MIT Press.

[2]        Urbanophil, Netzwerk für urbane Kultur:, May 5, 2020.

[3]        Bossong, R., Gerst, D., Kerber, I., Klessmann, M., Krämer, H., & Ulrich, P. (2017). Complex Borders: Analytical Problems and Heuristics. In E. Opiłowska, Z. Kurcz, & J. Roose (eds.). “Advances in European Borderlands Studies”, Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 65–84.

Gerst, D., Klessmann, M., Krämer, H., Sienknecht, M., & Ulrich, P. (2018). Komplexe Grenzen. “Berliner Debatte Initial”, 1/18.

[4]        Cooper, A., & Perkins, C. (2012). Borders and status-functions: An institutional approach to the study of borders. “European Journal of Social Theory”, 15 (1), pp. 55–71. 

[5]        Haselsberger, B. (2014). Decoding borders. Appreciating border impacts on space and people. “Planning Theory & Practice”, 15 (4), pp. 505–526.

 [6]       Koebe, J., Samtleben, C., Schrenker, A., & Zucco, A. (2020). Systemrelevant und dennoch kaum anerkannt: Das Lohn- und Prestigeniveau unverzichtbarer Berufe in Zeiten von CoronaDIW aktuell 28, DIW Berlin.

[7]        Simmel, G. (1903). Soziologie des Raumes, published in Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich, pp. 27–71.

[8]        Ulrich, P., & Krzymuski, M. (2018). Actor´s participation in cross-border governance structures at the German-Polish border. Case Studies from the Viadrina region. In B. Wassenberg (ed.). “Castle Talks on Cross-Border Cooperation. Fear of Integration? The Pertinence of the Border”, Stuttgart: Steiner, pp. 153–183; for a more general consideration of envisioning permeable borders see Cyrus, N. (2020) Vom begrenzten Sehen zum Sehen von Grenzen. Die Thematisierung der Staatsgrenze in Sozialwissenschaften und bildender Kunst. Beitrag zum Projekt Übergänge/Nachbarschaft der Internationalen Gesellschaft der bildenden Künste, Berlin,

[9] Information on the development of the acceptance of measures against Covid-19 among the population in Germany provides the Mannheim Corona Study

[10]      Baud, M., & Van Schendel, W. (1997): Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands. “Journal of World History”, 8 (2), pp. 211–242.

[11]      Chinazzi, M., Davis, J. T., Ajelli, M., Gioannini, C., Litvinova, M., Merler, S., Pastore y Piontti, A., Mu, K., Rossi, L., Sun, K., Viboud, C., Xiong, X., Yu, H., Halloran, M.E, Longini Jr., Ira M., & Vespignani, A. (2020). The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. “Science”, 368 (6489), pp. 395–400.