It started with a Twitter joke.

As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, governments instituted different kinds of lock down procedures to limit the amount of people coming into their country in an effort to reduce the possibilities of contagion. These procedures varied widely, from shutting down all incoming flights, to restricting entrance to citizens, to mandatory 14-day quarantines for anyone coming in. Some countries, such as Turkey and India, even instituted restrictions for internal movement. Within the United States, individual governors took (or opted not to take) measures to restrict who could come into their jurisdiction, and under what circumstances. Then there were the local measures. When the shelter-in-place restrictions in Dallas County and its neighboring Colin County began to differ substantially, an offhand remark on social media signaled the possibility that an administrative division such as the county line could become an actionable border in the time of COVID-19.

Borders in the Time of COVID-19 is a project about tracing the management of local, intra-national, and international borders during this pandemic. Some of these borders are established boundaries that have been reinforced since the pandemic began. Others, like county or state lines, have newly become sites of movement restrictions. Decisions about movement restrictions must inevitably balance limiting contagion with the need to provide essential services and maintain provision of basic goods. At the same time, some decisions taken under the cover of crisis have little to do with public health and may in fact be motivated by other ideological factors.

Border studies teaches us that borders are not only tools for dividing up a territory but also strategies for demarcating differences in society. Who is in, who is out, and who gets to make that decision are all politically charged choices with material effects on people’s lives.

…borders are, to some extent, designed to perform precisely this task: not merely to give individuals from different social classes different experiences of the law, the civil administration, and elementary rights, but actively to differentiate between individuals in terms of social class.

Étienne Balibar, What is a Border?

I envision this project as a public humanities initiative that will marshal the critical insights of border studies with the methodological tools of digital humanities to respond to and make sense of these rapid changes. For Phase 1, I have launched a website asking for information about how border closures are affecting communities at the local, provincial, and national level:

Inspired by the rapid response efforts of other digital humanists like the Torn Apart project, I hope this initiative will engender collaborations with others across fields and locations who are likewise interested in tracking the roles of borders in these uncertain times.