Crisis and Resistance at the Periphery: Bosnian responses to Covid-19

by | 6 May 2020

My mother tells me that it’s lucky that this time around we have electricity. She was two years older than I am now when the siege of Sarajevo began. I was born during the first summer of the siege and so she had found herself caring for a premature infant in the midst of a war. There was no food that summer, no water, no gas, and no electricity, which meant that for two years my mother had to hand wash my white cotton diapers in water which she had carried for over a kilometre under sniper fire. This is a thing she remembers, as do the joints in her hands, and it is the absence of this burden that she appreciates now. The now is not as scarce – there is electricity, there is also food, water and gas – for the most part. There is no shelling and sniping in the now, death is, even in the midst of a pandemic, still more remote than it was in 1992. And yet, everyone I know has in some way been reminded of the war by the current crisis. The instinct is to compare what has been in order to make sense of what is, but what most comparisons reveal is not so much a difference between the crises, as it is a difference in the society experiencing them.

The crises, at their very core, are both about death, or, if one wants to be more upbeat about it – about ensuring survival. Different threats require different behavioural modifications to maximise chances of postponing death. During the siege one was to seek shelter during shelling, to avoid areas that could be seen through a sniper scope (which as it turns out, are most areas in a surrounded valley), and to secure sustenance (which was often in conflict with the first two principles). Most activities were communitarian – shelters were usually basements and multiple families would hide together; most work was organised in groups, as was childminding and many domestic chores. War was marked by common spaces and common stories – stories of war are many things, but they are very rarely lonely. The pandemic, on the other hand, is as lonely as it gets. Postponing death during covid-19 means avoiding contact, which is government speak for – avoiding people. Like in wartime one should restrict one’s movements, except for sustenance, but unlike life under siege, life during a pandemic is reduced to households. We are instructed to fear communal spaces or gatherings – any space that is shared by others is presented as dangerous, and so are those who are sharing it.

The enemy then, is also understood differently during a pandemic. During the siege the enemy was physically removed, it was identifiable, it was a clear Other. In contrast, during the pandemic the enemy is everywhere, it is invisible, unidentifiable and can simultaneously be the Other and Oneself (both in terms of one being the carrier of infection and thus a danger to others, and in terms of one’s own immune system attacking itself in an overreaction to the virus in what the scientists term a ‘Cytokine storm’). This present enemy is also both real and imagined – real in that it exists; imagined in that it is socially constructed as the enemy. To construct the virus in this way means that it is given responsibility for death. Such a construction presumes that we are powerless before the virus, that there is nothing to be done; it infers causation; death is caused by the virus, not by socioeconomic inequality, structural racism, or inadequate healthcare. Responsibility to save lives is then outsourced from the state to the individual; sickness is stigmatized, it is seen as reflection of poor moral character and inability to follow simple social rules.

I propose that this enemy has been constructed in response to the state’s capacity to fight it – it is simultaneously a reflection of the State’s aspirations and its limitations.

The discursive construction of the ‘virus-enemy’ as that which can be legislated and policed out of existence reveals the Bosnian state’s fixation on the reproduction of the legal system in a time of crisis (I here draw a distinction between two ways in which sovereign power manifests itself through law – power to promulgate and power to enforce). Relevance (and power) of law is re-asserted almost daily through the promulgation and publication of various decrees. Imposition of curfew, complete and then subsequently partial movement bans for certain categories of population (persons aged over 65 in Republika Srpska, and minors and persons over 65 in Federacija), increased control of the media and an ever changing list of stores which are considered essential are just some of examples of the growing catalogue of decrees and regulations. This hyper-production can easily mask the fact that the legal order has produced conditions particularly suitable to the spread and deadliness of the virus. Policing is essential both as a demonstration that the legal system is functioning (in an irony central to most criminal justice systems mass punishment is seen as a triumph, rather than as an indicator of a systemic flaw) and as a way to visibly capture the state doing something.

However, these measures are not merely reproductive, they are also generative. It is estimated that the government has collected hundreds of thousands of convertible marks (local currency) in fines over the past few weeks, mostly targeting pensioners whose income is frequently lower than the standard fine. The state has also expanded its governance structures in ways that are insidious and increasingly invasive – from publishing lists of people who were in self-isolation (including their names, age and contact details), to staging very public police ‘visits’ to those who are self-isolating, the state has successfully outsourced monitoring of compliance with its measures in a steady shift to a panopticon society. The state’s aspiration then is for a reproduction of its imagined self – a self in possession of power so great that it is invisible.

The focus on policing also reveals the state’s limitations – its profound inability to care for its citizens. Two interconnected realities frame this, first, the complete destruction of the public healthcare system in Bosnia, and second, the state’s dependence on international creditors which has trapped it in a vicious cycle of trying to address increasing social inequality by taking out loans which commit it to even more stringent austerity measures.

Yugoslavia had universal public healthcare – hospitals were well-equipped, doctors well trained, patients used to a certain level of free, high quality care. This, of course, deteriorated during the siege – shortages of materials and equipment, deaths and departures of doctors and nurses, and constant and relentless shelling of hospitals saw what was once a sophisticated system of public health brought to its knees. The Dayton Peace Accords marked the end of the war and a beginning of a free market democracy – public spending has been steadily slashed for the past twenty five years, and with newfound ferocity over the last five, in response to the EU Reform Agenda and IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes. Healthcare has been particularly hard hit by these austerity measures, with savings being the main priority since 2014. Long-term neglect has resulted in doctors leaving the public hospitals and joining the ever growing number of private clinics; nurses and trainee nurses leaving the country to work in one of the EU member-states (mostly Germany); closing of whole departments and a significantly reduced list of procedures which can be performed. For years the number of crowdfunding campaigns in which individuals seek to collect money for medical treatment abroad has been steadily increasing, as trust in local healthcare professionals and institutions decreased. And so the beginning of the pandemic was greeted by a healthcare system unable to cope with the population’s everyday needs, let alone a crisis, and by a population with no expectation that they will receive adequate care.

Faced with a crumbling health care system, at a time when far better systems are struggling to keep patients alive, the state turned to International Organizations and UN Agencies for help – a continuation of 30 years of politics of economic dependence. During the war citizens of Bosnia depended on humanitarian aid for sustenance – aid that was often inadequate, both in its quantity and quality. By the time the war ended the poor quality of food had become a running joke amongst the population, and in 2007 it was commemorated in the ICAR Canned Beef Monument in Sarajevo. The monument is made of steel and marble and inscribed with the words of an anonymous citizen – If there is another siege, I would rather die than eat ICAR. After the war international agencies have poured billions into reconstruction and rebuilding efforts, some of which were beneficial in the short term, but most of which proved problematic over the longer term (see Pough for a detailed account of post-war political economy in Bosnia). On the one hand loans came with conditions set to deepen structural inequality, while making Bosnia more investor-friendly. On the other hand, donations were implemented through short-term projects which contributed to the growth of precarious employment and to the narrowing of space for radical emancipatory politics as empowerment became a thing to be quantified and reported on to the donors (see Porobić Isaković and Mlinarević for a powerful critique of NGO-ization of feminist politics in post-war Bosnia).

The aid offered now, shares this fraught history of humanitarianism in Bosnia – it is beneficial in the short term, while undermining democratic institutions and socioeconomic justice in the long-term. The UNDP and the EU have offered to procure Covid-19 tests, respirators and protective equipment. While well-intentioned, the number of tests is insufficient, the respirator procurement has been stalled (explanations vary from ‘global shortage’ to ‘stuck at customs’) and some protective equipment was already being delivered by health workers’ unions. Beyond this, even if procurement were successful, there is of course, the issue of usefulness – very few public laboratories are actually equipped to process test kits; the ICU unit at the University of Sarajevo Hospital was shut down in 2016 (the unofficial reason was lack of cost-effectiveness, the official reason was not given) which means that there is a shortage of specialised medical personnel. In terms of financial aid, the state received 20 million Dollars from the World Bank, and 330 million Euro from the International Monetary Fund. Agreement with the IMF was reached at a meeting convened by the EU Ambassador and Special Mission Representative in Bosnia, and was attended by heads of the three key ethnic political parties (who do not have the power in domestic law, in their capacity as heads of political parties or by virtue of the posts they have been elected/appointed to, to commit the state to this kind of agreement). The meeting was closed and the public have not yet been informed about the terms of this loan. For a society experiencing the deadly effects of structural adjustment, further cuts to public spending would be absolutely disastrous.

To avoid grappling with this political problem, the IMF and World Bank loans have been conflated with aid in public discourse. This serves to present the loans as exceptional emergency measures, rather than as a continuation of a long-term policy of investment and structural adjustment. In this narrative the state is portrayed as the beneficiary, which is particularly ironic considering the fact that Bosnia has honoured all the arrangements made thus far, at expense of draconian cuts to its public spending.  However, unlike the public in 1995, the public now is more critical of humanitarian discourse, of promised benefits of both aid and loans masquerading as aid. The society experiencing this social crisis is a markedly different society than that which had endured the siege – in the past thirty years the elderly have seen their factories and companies nationalized and privatized (they had been socially co-owned in socialism) and the young have grown up experiencing economic insecurity and inequality; most citizens have endured the kind of extreme poverty that was rare in Yugoslavia. This has produced a particular kind of class consciousness, which has the potential to overcome identity politics and form organized, unified class resistance.

And so, as the numbers of the infected steadily rise, the state attempts to rip apart the social fabric of solidarity which had survived and helped many survive the siege. In what could be the final step in the long transition from socialism to neoliberalism, the state is constructing a new archetype of citizen – individualistic and isolated. Free from social relations the new man becomes utterly expendable. Simultaneously, however, through oppression the state is also generating resistance and this resistance has the potential to overcome ethnic divisions in a way that neoliberal peacebuilding never could – by imagining a society of radical and not relative equality, in which every life is worth living.

Marina Veličković is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Her research interests include International Criminal Law, Political Economy and Critical Theory.  Twitter: @mashavelickovic


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