Category: show in Big Data from the South

[BigDataSur-COVID] A Brazilian cautionary tale on pandemic negationism: Open data is an essential safeguard for evidence-based policy-making

Header photo by Alan Santos/PR

by Nicolo Zingales

When it comes to COVID 19 deaths, Brazil is the second hardest hit country in the entire world (reaching almost 130.000 at the time of writing). This may be surprising to those who remember that, when the new Corona virus made its way to Brazil, after having caused thousands of deaths in other countries such as China and Italy, there was a widely shared belief that the warm temperatures in the country would prevent its spread. Perhaps this bolstered the confidence of the country´s President Jair Bolsonaro in minimizing the importance of the virus, criticizing the “oversized” concern for its destructive power and attaching economic motives (mainly linked to oil prices) behind that exaggeration. What was more puzzling however is that the President maintained a negationist approach despite the steady increase in the numbers of victims, and in direct clash with the instructions given by health authorities, state governors and even his own Health Minister. On March 24th, Bolsonaro gave a national address on television, where he made clear the key tenets of his strategy in fighting the pandemic: first, a preoccupation for the economic consequences, demonstrated by his admonition that “life goes on, and jobs must be maintained”. Second, a forceful rejection of the social isolation imposed by state and municipal authorities combined with an exhortation to “vertical” isolation, meaning an isolation of those segments of the population with higher risk of death or of developing serious conditions with Covid-19. In support of that strategy, he suggested that for most people the virus would be no more than a “gripezinha” (small flu), and that Brazilians have somehow acquired an immunity to disease by “diving into sewers” (a reference to the fact that in certain areas of Brazil people have to cope with sewage water pouring onto the streets). Third and last, an investment into demonstrating the efficacy against the virus of hydroxychloroquine, a medicine produced in Brazil and widely used to fight malaria, lúpus (SLE) and arthritis, not without some significant side-effects.

While one could oppose this strategy on ideological grounds, a different criticism concerns the way in which it was reached: marking a stark contrast with the position advocated by scientific authorities, and devoid of any evidential justification. The first telling sign of that was the dismissal on 16 April of Health Minister Mandetta, due to a divergence of views over the necessity of social isolation measures. This was followed not even a month later by the resignation of his replacement, Nelson Teich, appointed by Bolsonaro in the hope to find a better ally on the economy-focused strategy. Although Teich did not provide any reasons for the resignation, it is worth noting that it came the day after he learned in a press conference that the President had issued a decree (without consulting the Ministry) classifying gyms, beauty salons and barbers as “essential services” that cannot be interrupted by state and municipal authorities. In later declarations, Teich explained that the government´s request to the Federal Council of Medicine to allow the prescription of chloroquine for mild cases of Covid-19 had a weight in its resignation, stressing that the country´s health care budget is too small to be used for things that don´t work. The epilogue of this saga was the official government guidelines for wider use of chloroquine in mild cases, published when the Health Ministry came under the control (on an interim, but still lasting basis) of Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general. The decision to authorize the use of hydroxychloroquine was reached unilaterally, despite the existence of scientific studies on the medicine finding “no beneficial effect against the disease”, and without revealing any results from the studies announced by the President in his television address in March. Especially considering the delicate nature of this decision (which is liable to impact lives of thousands of people), it was logical to expect that the evidential basis for any decision would be produced and made available for public oversight.

Another tension with the scientific community arose on June 5th, when the Health Ministry removed from its portal key statistics about the Coronavirus, explaining that it was doubting the accuracy of the numbers due to the prevalence of “sub-notifications”: it was alleged that numbers were manipulated by States and municipalities in order to receive emergency aid, and that as a result, new reports would be limited the numbers of deaths occurred (rather than notified) on each day. However, despite the stated purpose, the changes involved a significant curtailment of published data: in the new version made available as of June 7th, one could only see daily contagions, deaths and recoveries without reference to the accumulation of such number in the past, or the breakdown of those per state and municipality, or the records of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, (another useful indicator). In this version, numbers could no longer be downloaded, which created obstacles to further analysis. All this motivated the Sustainability Network, the Communist Party of Brazil and the Socialism and Freedom Party to launch a constitutionality challenge against the new policy, resulting in a judicial order to the health ministry to revert to the original configuration. Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes reminded in his decision that the Brazilian Constitution enshrined the principle of publicity as one of the main vectors for the public administration, giving it absolute priority in the administration´s management and granting full access to information to the entire society. The same principle had been invoked by the judge in another ruling against the government in March, setting aside a decree that created an exception in the law of access to information to the 20 day-response deadline. due to the pandemic. According to the ruling, the decree “ha[d] not established exceptional and concrete situations that would [legitimately] impede access to information”, rather simply turning the principle of publicity and transparency into an exception. In both cases, the Judge spoke clearly: the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to lower transparency standards, which are indispensable (arguably even more so during the pandemic, given the wide range of public measures adopted) to hold public power accountable.

A third and last example of negationism and rupture with evidence-based policy was the case of O Brasil não pode parar”, a mediatic campaign encouraging autonomous workers to continue working despite the imposition of social isolation measures. The video of the campaign was published on the official Instagram page of the Special Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency and shared by several persons close to the President (including his son, Rio de Janeiro´s senator Flavio Bolsonaro), but its dissemination was immediately enjoined by a court in Rio de Janeiro. The injunction followed a complaint lodged by the Federal Public Minister to prevent the spread from official government accounts of this campaign, as well as other information against social isolation that is not strictly grounded on scientific evidence. Interestingly, when these facts were brought to light by the Press, the Secretariat denied the existence of the campaign, despite its wide circulation and the public availability of screenshots of its publication by the Secretariat just three days prior. While this nation-wide campaign was withdrawn, however, Bolsonaro remains able to use his own channel (TV Bolsonaro) to broadcast content of choice to his audience through an app. According to an article published by the Intercept on 15 June, TV Bolsonaro is the main channel in the app “Mano”, produced by IP.TV, who is the contractor of the state governments of São Paulo, Paraná, Amazonas e Pará for the provision of long-distance education to primary and secondary schools during the pandemic. The Intercept documented that the livestreaming app requires users to give broad permissions to the collection of personal data (for instance, access to the photo album), and suggests that this disproportionate data collection may have been the economic value justifying IP.TV´s provision of such services free of charge to the state governments. Unfortunately, no further information is available on these contracts between state governments and IP.TV, and it is not clear what safeguards were included to protect the personal data of millions of students and professors. This lack of clarity over data processing has been a reality for the entire duration of the pandemic in Brazil: the country is still awaiting the entry into force of a comprehensive data protection law and the formation of a data protection authority, both of which have been repeatedly postponed, but are now bound to happen in the next few days. While public-private partnerships could in principle help the country to deliver to citizens the services and information they need, the inadequacy of the applicable data protection framework (at least at the time these contracts were signed) is such that these partnerships must be looked at with suspicion. It is not a coincidence that it was the revelation of the terms of the partnership between telecom operators and the Agency for Statistics for the measurement of unemployment that led to a successful constitutional challenge, on grounds of the insufficiency of the applicable safeguards This Supreme Court ruling was a good reminder of the promises of transparency and open data, highlighted by Judge de Moraes in the two above-mentioned cases, which simultaneously allow direct citizen engagement with evidence and to keep public power in check. And perhaps with even more important consequences in the context of the pandemic, as more transparency and evidence-based policies could arguably have prevented the normalization of agglomerations we are seeing today across the country.

About the author

Nicolo Zingales is Professor of Information Law and Regulation, and coordinator of the E-commerce research group at FGV law school in Rio de Janeiro. He is also a founding member of MyData Global, an organization promoting empowerment by improving the effectiveness of the right to informational self-determination; and a coordinator of its Brazilian Hub, which recently co-hosted a workshop on Data Governance At A Time of Pandemics: Charting A Way Forward For Latin America.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Tejidos comunitarios desde los márgenes: Las cajas de resistencia como herramienta autónoma y autoorganizada en tiempos de necesidad

Por Marta Espuny Contreras*

Las respuestas colectivas como redes de apoyo mutuo y solidaridad y, en concreto, las cajas de resistencia (despensas solidarias, fondos de emergencia, etc.) se han multiplicado a raíz de la pandemia del COVID-19. Se trata de un tipo de activismo digital, unas prácticas de resistencia centradas en el apoyo colectivo y la solidaridad comunal que se han venido desarrollando especialmente en redes sociales.

En este texto se plantea una reflexión crítica sobre los conflictos y contradicciones que derivan del uso de redes centralizadas -como Instagram o Facebook- para la creación y coordinación de redes autónomas, basándonos en las siguientes preguntas: ¿qué posibilidades autónomas de resistencia se activan dentro de estas plataformas?, ¿qué consiguen estos movimientos al hacer uso de las redes sociales? Hablaremos de la fragmentación que sufre el activismo en redes sociales, y cómo las redes estudiadas superan esa centralización e individualización mediante la localidad, es decir, anteponiendo el sentimiento de pertenencia y responsabilidad mutua que diseña un acuerpamiento y una lucha desde la identidad. Esta localidad, adelantamos, necesita ser reconfigurada pues ya no se lee con relación a un espacio compartido sino a una identidad común.

Imagen 1. Ilustración “We The People” realizada por Seth Tobocman. Fuente: sethtobocman.com

Vulnerabilidad social, exclusión y redes comunitarias: Instagram como objeto político

La actual pandemia ha puesto en evidencia las numerosas deficiencias de nuestras no tan bien consolidadas democracias europeas. Las redes de apoyo mutuo surgían como única alternativa válida de supervivencia para los sectores de la sociedad denominados por Sousa Santos como no-existentes; personas y poblaciones que, por su procedencia, falta de regulación laboral, identidad de género, profesión -o todo lo anterior-, permanecen invisibles en los márgenes y no cuentan con el reconocimiento necesario para beneficiarse de las medidas gubernamentales. Una precariedad que aumenta con la imposibilidad de trabajar durante el periodo de confinamiento (o, en algunos casos como los temporeros de Lleida, incluso trabajando).

Es en este contexto el que surge la necesidad para estos colectivos de repensar sus mecanismos de supervivencia, de crear redes de solidaridad, cuidados colectivos y apoyo mutuo, frente a los paradigmas individualistas occidentales. Estas acciones se presentan como la única alternativa simbólica y material de los colectivos de no-existentes. La construcción autónoma de estos espacios-red es una forma disidente de establecer relaciones de apoyo en las que sus integrantes pasan de ser víctimas -de un sistema, unas jerarquías, una pandemia, de la imposibilidad de adquirir lo mínimo para vivir- a agentes activos, apropiándose del centro de acción y decisión. Cuando estas redes de colaboración se expanden hacia las plataformas digitales, encontramos muchos perfiles que se caracterizan por su gran conciencia identitaria en relación con las exclusiones y procesos de discriminación nombrados con anterioridad.

Imagen 2. Captura de información sobre caja de resistencia “Sexy Box”. Fuente: Instagram @donthitalanegrx.

Desde la Teoría de Medios (STS) las plataformas se entienden como espacios de mediación, que responden a intereses empresariales y económicos -capitalización de datos, captación de la atención-, por lo que no son elementos neutros, sino que están al servicio del sistema. Es en esta mediación y la estandarización -influencia del diseño de la plataforma- donde reside la clave a la hora de entender las posibilidades de inter(acción) que ofrecen estas plataformas a los diferentes actores que la transitan.

Los discursos políticos y activistas se expanden hacia lo digital, donde se fragmentan y estandarizan por la mediación de estas plataformas, quedando reducidos a imágenes, slogans o pequeños textos a pie de foto. En un contexto dominado por la economía de la atención, se publican consignas agresivas y provocadoras, con una aparentemente alta carga política, buscando generar un mayor impacto y destacar entre la sobresaturación de información.

Sin embargo, estos mensajes no pueden presentarse de manera articulada, puesto que las redes sociales no ofrecen la posibilidad de extender los discursos, no dan lugar a que se dibuje un hilo conductor de las reivindicaciones.

Transformando sus narrativas al formato Instagram, las luchas políticas quedan condicionadas por la búsqueda del impacto y la atención. De esta lógica surge la mediada visibilidad, que produce que ciertos perfiles cuenten con mayor visibilidad, mientras que otros perfiles queden aislados en sus comunidades de afines. Esta invisibilización de determinados perfiles hace de Instagram una herramienta de censura y no de amplificación. Las redes y plataformas de comunicación tecnológicas suponen, en este sentido, una amenaza para la emancipación de movimientos autónomos. Entonces, retomando nuestra pregunta inicial, cabe cuestionarse ¿qué posibilidades autónomas de resistencia se activan dentro de estas plataformas?

Para indagar en las posibilidades autónomas que se movilizan dentro de estas plataformas, hemos analizado tres hashtags: #CajaResistencia, #TejidoComunitario y #SolidaridadComunitaria, desde los cuales se ha realizado un muestreo en cadena hasta identificar un total de 40 perfiles (principio de saturación discursiva). Perfiles gestionados por personas o colectivos migrantes o que practiquen un trabajo no regulado (venta ambulante, trabajo sexual, recogida de fruta, etc.), establecidos en el Estado Español, y que publicaron llamados a participar en cajas de resistencia durante el confinamiento por COVID-19 en España.

Imagen 3. Clusterización por colores de las cajas de resistencia analizadas

Activismo y localidad

Los efectos de la estructura, los límites e intereses de las plataformas recaen sobre sus interacciones. Es desde este punto que estos colectivos tienen la necesidad de utilizar las affordances de estos medios para realizar apropiaciones concretas que les permitan la acción. Con relación a las cajas de resistencia hemos percibido cómo estos colectivos, consciente o inconscientemente, ponen el foco en la localidad y en los cuidados. Es decir, superan la fragmentación, centralización e individualización de las redes gracias a que anteponen la localidad, a que se priorizan los lazos comunitarios que hacen de nexo entre diferentes colectividades.

Desde esta perspectiva, resulta necesaria una reconfiguración del término localidad, que pasa de lo físico a lo simbólico, de lo material a lo identitario. Ya no implica necesariamente que se comparta un mismo espacio, sino más bien que se lea a la otra persona como parte de tu grupo. Entendiendo el grupo como las personas tienen un mismo origen, que combaten dentro de las mismas luchas (como antirracismo, disidencia de género, anticolonialismo, transfeminismo, etc.), o que comparten objetivos o prioridades comunes, líneas o espacios de debate, proyectos, etc.

Al publicar (e interesarse por) mensajes y proclamas sobre la misma lucha, perfiles que podrían no llegarse a conectar nunca, debido a las limitaciones espaciotemporales, empiezan a interrelacionarse dentro de los espacios digitales. En la siguiente imagen vemos un ejemplo de cómo la conciencia identitaria resulta una base, un nexo de localidad que, en el caso de la ayuda mutua, tienen claras referencias a las comunidades indígenas que tanta experiencia tienen en este tipo de redes. Reclamos como “tejido comunitario desde los márgenes” o “abrazamos la solidaridad comunitaria para la vida digna” representan esa búsqueda de solidaridad, de acuerpamiento entre iguales. Se subraya la solidaridad como respuesta de contingencia para hacer frente al capitalismo.

Imagen 4. Ejemplo de cajas de resistencia organizadas por colectivos migrantes. Fuente: Instagram @warmikusisista.

Por otro lado, es fundamental la capacidad de las redes sociales para escalar esa localidad, para trascender las barreras locales y nacionales y construir redes de solidaridad globales. Esto se da gracias a la atemporalidad presente en las redes sociales, entendida como el fenómeno que facilita la comunicación simultánea desde diferentes zonas geográficas (lo que Castells denominó timeless time), que hace de las redes un espacio compartido más allá de las limitaciones y barreras de la comunicación presencial. Partiendo de lo local (punto de partida necesario para la construcción de redes disidentes), estos espacios permiten la creación de redes translocales y transnacionales que son, en definitiva, tecnologías preservación colectiva de la vida.

Subrayar el carácter revolucionario de la generación de redes de apoyo mutuo. La mera construcción y subsistencia de estas cajas de resistencia en redes sociales supone una revolución en sí misma, puesto que demuestra que es posible la existencia desde, por y para los márgenes. En esta época lo vemos como una medida urgente, de contingencia frente a la falta de recursos. Sin embargo, la autogestión de tejidos comunitarios podría extrapolarse como solución frente a la centralización capitalista. Con respecto a proyectos de emancipación y autonomía, tenemos mucho que aprender de los paradigmas y estructuras creadas desde las diásporas, de sus tecnologías ancestrales de supervivencia. Se trata de un trabajo de descolonización para sustituir los paradigmas individualistas por proyectos locales y autónomos que busquen una emancipación colectiva, que rompan con la relación de codependencia generada a través de los años con los estados y el capital.

 

* Marta Espuny es una persona en deconstrucción, cuyos intereses se centran en el análisis social y político de/en espacios digitales -digital humanist/researcher-. Trabaja desde una mirada crítica en la intersección entre ciencia y tecnología, platform politics y cambio social. Twitter: @martaespuny Linkedin: MARTA ESPUNY 

[BigDataSur-COVID] Global Data Justice and COVID-19: Governing through technology during the pandemic

By Gargi Sharma with contributions from Aaron Martin
Tilburg University

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped how social, economic, and political power is created, exerted, and extended through technology. Through case studies from around the world, a new book from the Global Data Justice project analyzes the ways in which technologies of monitoring infections, information, and behavior have been applied and justified during the emergency, what their side effects have been, and what kinds of resistance they have met.

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, with countries imposing states of emergency one after another. Lacking protective material resources, sufficient human capacity for contact tracing, or evidenced-based understanding of the disease, policymakers are turning to technology ‘solutions’ for a miracle. The global technology sector has stepped in to seize this opportunity and in doing so has sought to influence policy decisions to the benefit of their businesses. Many governments, too, have welcomed Big Tech interventions and are putting in place digital contact tracing strategies among other data and technology-driven interventions. In the early stages of the pandemic, the Global Data Justice project based at the Tilburg Institute of Law, Technology, and Society in the Netherlands, decided to look deeper into these developments.

We invited a range of contributors and commentators to document the first wave of technology-based interventions as they were unfolding in their respective geographies and to reflect on the implications of these developments for both the theory and practice of data justice (Taylor, 2017). We wanted to better understand the reality on the ground – seeing as nearly all international travel and site visits were suspended indefinitely thus impeding our empirical research – and examine how governments and the private sector are utilizing technology to respond to the pandemic situation, both alongside – and in some cases in the absence of – a healthcare response. To this end, we compiled and edited 37 essays (plus an introduction) into an open-access book, which was published by Meatspace Press last week.

We initiated this collection while observing that the COVID-19 pandemic had amplified a nascent epidemiological turn in digital surveillance with at least two dimensions, namely, function creep and market-making. In the first, governments have repurposed existing technologies for public health surveillance. What was previously done in development and humanitarian contexts has now become a part of every resident’s life. In the second, technology companies – which were well-positioned to deploy such technologies – have entered the public health space and now influence political decisions, with minimal citizen and civil society involvement and input. This has turned out to be what Tamar Sharon calls illegitimate access to the spheres of health and medicine in her newly published paper on Apple and Google’s role in the pandemic response (Sharon, 2020).

As the contributors interrogated the particular technologies and structures that determine their application, some came out in favor of these interventions, while others didn’t. The diverse contributions show that this was determined by trust (or the lack thereof) in governments [Mollicchi, Peppin, Safak, and Walker; Veale; Edwards], cultural notions of community care and responsibility [Eenmaa-Dimitrieva, Tikk, and Kerttunen; Sandvik], and the prior scope of intervention by Big Tech [Johns; Wylie], among other factors. We also noted how such (enhanced) digital surveillance can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities [Duarte; Keys; Kaurin; Cohen]. We learned that technology can be a useful tool to address this public health crisis, but is secondary to testing, tracing, and isolating (Taylor, 2020). It is important to note the variation and context of these responses in that each informs us about the common features of a notion of global data justice.

The commentary by Sean McDonald and the contribution from Brazil, for example, uncover a rise in disaster (techno-)capitalism with governments and large technology companies experimenting in this state of exception [McDonald; Evangelista and Firmino]. The Philippine government has also introduced technology-based interventions — without proper checks and purpose limitations — raising concerns that the data could possibly be used in the 2022 elections [Lucero]. The pandemic has been used as cover by authoritarian governments like Hungary and The Philippines, with the latter using libel laws to create a chilling effect on journalistic freedom [Böröcz]. While the inequities in the healthcare system, in addition to the ‘infodemic’, are exacerbating the vulnerability of North American Indigenous communities, tribal governments have been responsive to the crisis by maintaining datasets of both enrolled and unenrolled tribal citizens, which they then exchange with health advocates [Duarte]. In Uganda, the tax authority has repurposed a system originally set up to track goods under customs control from point of loading to a final destination within Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, to monitor truck drivers for COVID-19, thus creating a digital surveillance system with minimal data safeguards in place [Mwesigwa]. The Ghanaian government has used the crisis situation to pass an emergency law, which does not explicitly define a public emergency, lacks a sunset clause and, in essence, lays the groundwork for a state surveillance structure that will go beyond the current pandemic [Oduro-Marfo].

Since the Meatspace collection captures the beginning stages of the pandemic, it does not include the connections and overlaps between recent social justice and liberation movements around the world. We aim to dive deeper and unpack unexplored aspects of technological governance during the COVID-19 experience over the coming months as the state of the pandemic and policy responses evolve at both national and regional levels, albeit unevenly [Daly]. This collection also opens the door for further multi-disciplinary and intersectional analysis of how technology-based interventions are influencing the governance of populaces during and after the pandemic and how that will shape our social and political structures. Critical scholars will also want to better understand how resistance to digital surveillance (cf. Martin et al., 2009) and other technology-led interventions is emerging in pandemic contexts, as well as the growing number of technology failures that have been documented within the COVID-19 response.

The Global Data Justice team worked on this project with funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement n° 757247).

 

About the authors:

Gargi Sharma is a junior researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT), Tilburg University, The Netherlands, where she works on the ERC Global Data Justice project.

Aaron Martin is a postdoctoral researcher on the Global Data Justice project at TILT.

 

[BigDataSur-COVID] Resilient Media in Times of Crisis: Experiences from the Global South (2/2)

Author: Andrea Medrado

This post, published in two parts (FIND PART ONE HERE), reports on a panel session which took place at the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) annual conference, among four initiatives involved with community media responses to COVID-19. Members of the four initiatives, based in India, Brazil, Mexico and Spain, have discussed the role of community media in crisis response, arriving at common themes that this post illustrates.

 

Acknowledging, praising, but not romanticising resilience

“Resilience: the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bentstretched, or pressed.” This definition can be found in the Cambridge dictionary. Here, when we think about resilience from a Global South perspective, it is important to acknowledge it and praise it, but not romanticise it. In Brazil, people (and particularly women) who are resilient, facing all kinds all hardships in life without losing their spirit are called “guerreira(o)s” (or warriors). But I will never forget the words of a female favela activist who once told me: you know what? Do I need to be “guerreira” all the time? This is just exhausting. No one deserves having to fight all the time.

I see a strong link with the work that is being done by initiatives such as Ideosync, Frente de Mobilização, Manos a la Obra, and ReMC. These community-based efforts are at the heart of places that are the most affected by natural disasters and health crises. Their work helps inform people (in a context of mis and disinformation), creates networks of solidarity (in times of social anxiety) and literally saves thousands of lives (in times of death). So, yes, of course, they do seem like warriors in the positive sense of the word. And, yet, despite all these qualities, community media still receive little recognition. No licenses, no subsidies, no support. And what is worse, the people involved in community media are often harassed, threatened, and silenced.

But community media in the Global South(s) keep resisting. They keep speaking up and speaking out against marginalisation and injustice. But are States, authorities, and other institutions of power willing to listen? Here, I evoke Tanja Dreher’s ideas on “politics of listening”. To quote her, “in order to adequately understand and contribute to struggles for media change, media research needs to attend to the politics of ‘listening’ in addition to the dynamics of ‘speaking up’. Crucially, attention to listening shifts the focus and responsibility for change from marginalised voices and on to the conventions, institutions and privileges which shape who and what can be heard in media (2010, p. 85). This implies that the difficulties that community media face, particularly in times of crises, have less to do with an inability to speak up on the part of those oppressed, and more to do with a refusal to listen on the part of State Governments and media regulation bodies, amongst other powerful actors (Dreher, 2010, p. 98). When facing crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, how could community media initiatives be simply ignored in official plans, for instance? Sadly, this is precisely what is happening in many places of the world, as we learned in the four presentations. Would this indicate that the COVID-19 pandemics has made necropolitics – the politics of life and death, with States deciding who may live or who must die – more apparent? I pose this question as a provocation but I will need to leave it aside in this long blog post (it could become another post on its own) because I want to return to South-to-South talking and listening. Whilst Governments fail to listen and cater for the needs of their communities, we have a lot to learn from other experiences in the Global South.

Lessons learned from India, Brazil. Mexico, and Spain:

  • In India, civil society has advocated for many years that community radio should become an intrinsic part of disaster management plans but these appeals often fell on deaf ears. It was only after the Uttarakhand flash floods in 2015, and the civil society action that followed it, that there was some recognition of the important role played by community radio in natural disasters. After the Nepal Gorkha earthquake, also in 2015, the Uttarakhand State became the first Indian state to have a community radio policy for disaster risk reduction. Lessons learned from this process came in useful during the Kerala floods in 2018 when the Government was encouraged to form partnerships with community radios.

  • In Brazil, and specially in Rio de Janeiro, police violence has been endemic for decades. In 2019, the Rio de Janeiro Police killed 1,810 people (BBC News Latin America, 2020). This makes a shocking average of five killings per day. Young black men from favela communities are usually the victims and children, such as Ágatha (8 – killed in 2019), and, as young as Rennan (3 – killed in 2006) have also been killed. Even during the pandemic, as Gizele Martins noted, police operations have killed black favela youth in different favela areas. Recently, pressure from civil society, mothers of victims, and activists led to an important victory: In July 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided to suspend police operations in the favelas. This was a way to mitigate the suffering of favela communities who were dying from COVID-19, hunger, and from being shot at, as Gizele put it. But there is still a long way to go in terms of protecting human rights in the favelas.

  • In Mexico, Renán spoke about the importance of Indigenous languages rescue programmes, which have had a remarkable impact in terms of quantity and quality of audience responses. Additionally, Manos a la Obra Comunicación Comunitaria Antiviral manage to create a “broadcasting corridor”, connecting community radios in different areas and they strengthened these ties when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.

  • Finally, in Spain, in A Coruña, the Government of the Galicia Region tried to shut down a community radio station. As response, the station— called CUAC FM— took the Government to court and won the case. The judge ruled in their favour, indicating the importance for community media initiatives to become legal entities and judicialise issues if necessary.

Speaking of the pandemic context in the Global South(s), the presentations also addressed how a “digital illusion” is being created, with those who are already marginalised being re-marginalised. At the same time, because all things have multiple facets, there have been enriching opportunities for dialogue and exchange for activists and community media practitioners in different regions of the Global South. This second aspect, of course, does not counterbalance the first but, in any case,

Let’s keep talking to each other
Until they listen
Conversations matter
Black lives matter

 

Acknowledgments

The Panel Dealing with Crises, Community Communication and Alternative Media: Experiences from the Global South was organized by IAMCR’s Community Communication and Alternative Media (CAM) Section. The leaders of the section acted as curators for the four initiatives (Vinod Pavarala – India, Andrea Medrado – Brazil, Claudia Magallanes Blanco – Mexico, and Alejandro Barranquero – Spain). Claudia Magallanes Blanco moderated the session and her institution, Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla, provided support for editing the video. To Claudia, Vinod, Alejandro, and all members of the section, thank you!

About the author:

Andrea Medrado is a Tenured Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Communication and at the Postgraduate Programme in Media and Everyday life of Federal Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She worked as the Co-Investigator for the eVoices Network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC UK), analysing different uses of digital technologies and art-ivism (art + activism) to fight marginalisation in countries of the Global South. Recently, she was elected Vice President of IAMCR, and she also acted as the Co-Chair of the Community Communication and Alternative Media Section (CAM) for four years (2016-2020). She earned a Ph.D. from the University the Westminster and worked as a Posdoctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research interests include mediactivism; community and alternative media; South-to-South communication flows; media and favelas; ethnographic approaches; and social media, visibility, and human rights.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Resilient Media in Times of Crisis: Experiences from the Global South (1/2)

Author: Andrea Medrado

This post, published in two parts, reports on a panel session which took place at the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) annual conference, among four initiatives involved with community media responses to COVID-19. Members of the four initiatives, based in India, Brazil, Mexico and Spain, have discussed the role of community media in crisis response, arriving at common themes that this post illustrates.

 

“Conversa puxa conversa” (Chatting starts a conversation, Brazilian proverb)

 

In Portuguese, the word “conversa” refers to both “chatting” as in “jogar conversa fora” (small talk) and having a serious conversation. At first thought, the proverb seems obvious. However, it demonstrates the extent to which establishing a meaningful conversation depends on a willingness to do so as well as on skills to initiate an initial unpretentious chat. As it can be implied in the English words “chat” and “conversation”, there are different levels and styles of conversation. However, what matters the most is that we need conversation more than ever in the current context of health, social, and political crises in many parts of the world.

This post is about a conversation between countries and people in the Global South— India, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain. In these different contexts, three key characteristics are displayed by community media in times of crisis: agility, adaptability, and resilience. As part of one online session for this year’s online IAMCR Conference, we asked four groups to tell us about how they deal with crisis situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic. We also asked them to talk to each other about it. Names of the four organisations, their main activities and panel participants are listed as an appendix to this post.

Dealing with Crises, Community Communication and Alternative Media: Experiences from the Global South

Our goal was to share experiences, echo voices and reflect views from Global South(s) perspective(s). Here, the “South” is not a simple geographic location. One can probably infer this from our inclusion of (the European) Spain as one of the countries addressed in the discussion. Rather, the “South” features as a metaphor for human suffering under capitalism. And what a time to talk about suffering. COVID-19 is taking its toll on the world, causing deaths, illnesses, and economic dispossession. Brazil, India, and Mexico are respectively the second, third, and sixth countries in the world with the highest number of confirmed cases as of the time of writing. Spain was also among the countries most impacted by COVID-19, reaching close to 10,000 new cases in a single day at the outbreak’s peak.

The four experiences from different Global Souths echo what we already know: ‘community media’ derive from a focus on the ‘communal’. This is a point worth stressing, particularly in times of loss, despair, and uncertainty. Community media not only know well the community they address but they also allow this community to speak for itself. All speakers – Ramakrishnan and Venu; Gizele; Renán; Alejandro and Isabel – reveal the multiple ways in which community media are better equipped (than mainstream media, for instance) to address their audience’s needs because of the shared relevance that community issues, given that they are all part of the same community. However, something else is special about community media: its resilience. Ramakrishnan Nagarajan was the first panelist to speak about community resilience in relation to natural disasters. Throughout the following three presentations, the theme of resilience emerged again and again and again. Community media are hyperlocal, language-specific, reliable. All these traits acquire added importance in times of crisis. And perhaps here we should include another important characteristic.

Community media are resilient media.
(examples provided by Ramakrishnan, Gizele, Renán, and Alejandro)

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal reduced large proportions of the country’s rural areas to rubble. The destruction was significant with few structures left standing. Community radios were among the most affected as the damage to their infrastructure buildings was almost total in some places. Yet, it was community radio, not the telecom infrastructure that managed to come back on air first, using small field-based tents and studios, setting up whatever little infrastructure they had. Community radios often work in already resource poor settings and, yet, they were able to get back into action almost immediately to start broadcasting. In Nepal, these community radios were the first to gather stories from survivors almost immediately and to coordinate rescue and relief efforts.

In Brazil, favela residents find themselves in a critical situation, which is, of course, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to a combination of overcrowded spaces and poverty, social distancing becomes almost impossible, and going out to work represents an extreme necessity for many. Yet, the Governments (City, State, Federal) have provided little support for the economically vulnerable populations. In this context, favela communities have demonstrated a high level of resilience and self-organisation, taking matters into their own hands to contain the pandemic. Frente de Mobilização da Maré, based in a large network of favelas in the North Zone of Rio, illustrates this. Many of the members are community media practitioners. They have used their communication skills to devise campaigns and to gather volunteers to assist the most impoverished families. Their work includes creating a local database that people can sign up to and receive food and medicine donations. These volunteers are risking their own lives, going out to streets to help their neighbours, and doing a job that should be done by the authorities.

In Mexico, community radio practitioners have demonstrated resilience in terms of not giving up when their communication strategies do not seem to work. Renán speaks about how they started to lose their audiences during the pandemic because their model of programming became overly formal in its mission to inform people. People were emotionally exhausted, so they wanted to hear more personal experiences. In order to cater for these feelings, they decided to change the style of programming, adopting a more horizontal communication flow.

Finally, resilience is also a key element in the work that is done by ReMC in Spain. As it happens in other Global South contexts, they face major obstacles, such as little money and a lot of red tape. Yet, community radios in different regions of Spain are managing to work together, each from their own homes and “micro-spaces” to produce a weekly programmed called “The Other Coronavirus”. Indeed, community media resiliently show us that violence, inequality and marginalisation are among the many “other” pandemics that we must fight.

PART TWO HERE

Panel participants:

  1. Ideosync Media Combine, India
  • A capacity-building advocacy organisation;
  • Worked on media development and communication for social change across India and South Asia over the last two decades;
  • Research with and on community radio as well as training and capacity building for the sector;
  • Presentation focused on the role of community radio in disaster risk reduction in India and South Asia;
  • Presenters: Ramakrishnan Nagarajan and Venu Arora
  • Website: http://www.ideosyncmedia.org
  • E-mail: info [@] ideosynmedia.org
  1. Frente de Mobilização da Maré, Brazil

  • Started by a group of favela residents, activists, and community media practitioners;
  • Gathered financial donations and supplies from citizens and companies;
  • Organised teams of volunteers to sign up residents who needed to receive assistance during the pandemic, such as food baskets and cleaning products;
  • Devised a communication plan using different types of media, such as street banners, loudspeakers on cars, WhatsApp groups, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to inform and offer assistance to favela residents.
  • Presenter: Gizele Martins;
  • Website: https://www.frentemare.com
  • E-mail: frentemare [@] gmail.com
  1. Manos a la Obra Comunicación Comunitaria Antiviral, Mexico

  • Driven by the need to produce content based on detecting communication needs in the communities;
  • Started with a programme that aimed to create a citizen’s agenda through interviews with community leaders, doctors, teachers;
  • Created a “broadcasting corridor”, connecting community radios in different areas strengthened these ties when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted;
  • Presenter: Renán Martínez Casas
  • Facebook: @PerioSismos
  • E-mail: renanaquiles [@] hotmail.com
  1. ReMC (Red de Medios Comunitarios), Spain

  • A union of associations (a legal entity) that brings together community media from different regions of Spain;
  • Despite its location in (Southern) Europe, Spain differs from other European countries in terms of communication policies. There is no independent regulatory body for the audiovisual sector and there are no public policies for the promotion of community media;
  • Were able to coordinate efforts and produce a joint weekly radio programme called “El Otro Coronavirus” (The Other Coronavirus).
  • Presenters: Alejandro Blanco and Isabel Lema Blanco
  • Website: https://medioscomunitarios.net
  • E-mail: coordinacion [@] medioscomunitarios.net

Members of IAMCR can watch the video here after logging in:

https://iamcr.org/node/13484

Non-members can watch it on YouTube:

https://youtu.be/fIi6Rg4fgO0

 

About the author:

Andrea Medrado is a Tenured Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Communication and at the Postgraduate Programme in Media and Everyday life of Federal Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She worked as the Co-Investigator for the eVoices Network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC UK), analysing different uses of digital technologies and art-ivism (art + activism) to fight marginalisation in countries of the Global South. Recently, she was elected Vice President of IAMCR, and she also acted as the Co-Chair of the Community Communication and Alternative Media Section (CAM) for four years (2016-2020). She earned a Ph.D. from the University the Westminster and worked as a Posdoctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research interests include mediactivism; community and alternative media; South-to-South communication flows; media and favelas; ethnographic approaches; and social media, visibility, and human rights.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Living with Instalive in Iran: Social Media Use in Authoritarian Countries during the Pandemic

Header photo references: Vahid Salemi – Associated Press. LA Times.

Authors: Hossein Kermani and Maria Faust

This article argues that Instalive is not only a channel for personal communication; it also functions as an alternative TV in restrictive contexts with limited access to free and independent media. Therefore, in this article, we briefly discuss how and to what extent Iranians use Instalive to produce, share, and access content which is prohibited in Iranian official media, thus, resisting the political and social structures.

COVID-19 has become the new ‘normal’, and substantially altered the lives of people across the world and led to new forms of (online) communication. One of the most drastic changes to everyday life has been the increase of digital and especially social media use which imposed both opportunities and challenges. With an estimated 4.5 billion internet users worldwide, social made users make up 3.8 billion of these, this equals to almost 85% of overall internet users – now since the surge of the pandemic, social media use has risen from 75 to 82 minutes per day. Social distancing and lockdowns during spring 2020 caused people to search for new forms of connection through video chat. For example, as of 2020 TikTok has 1.5 billion users worldwide; its download rate has increased by more than 100 million from 199.4 in Q4 2019 to 315 million in Q1 2020. At the same time – and this is certainly challenging democratic ideas, both Douyin, the Chinese mainland, authoritarian version, and TikTok, share the same censorship practices of Bytedance, even more so in times of COVID-19. Instalive, the Instagram feature for live video chat, however, increasingly surged as an alternative digital video format across the world. While it is generally contributing to the changes in people’s communicative practices, it is of more importance in authoritarian contexts such as in Iran.

Social and digital context in Iran

In Iran, the country in the Middle East with the severe COVID-19 effects, social media use has also significantly increased. Iranian users have been keen on adopting social media in their everyday life from Yahoo messenger to Twitter and Instagram. To a great extent, social media has played a crucial role in contemporary political protests in Iran (e.g., 2009 Green Movement). The popularity of social media in Iran can be attributed to the fact that these platforms provide dissident Iranians, who were traditionally deprived of access to mainstream media, with a space to share their generated content with networks of others. That is probably why Iranians have continued to use social media through circumvention tools, despite the state’s disincentive actions like filtering, and hardliners denouncing and denial.

In 2020, following Telegram and WhatsApp, Instagram is the third most used social media platform in Iran with roughly 24 million users out of 84 million inhabitants. Instalive has been becoming more and more popular, especially amongst Persian women. During lockdown, Instagram users arguably increased by about 31%, with some users even using it 4 times as much as before. Thus, Instalive affected people’s communicative practices. For instance, many Iranians who had not experienced online video chat before, have been starting to using Instalive to chat with their families and friends Besides such personal impacts, Instalive works as an alternative TV for Iranians, providing an opportunity for both media practitioners and ordinary citizens to broadcast and consume their favorable content, which they probably cannot access through national and official media.

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) vs. Instalive as an Alternative TV in Iran

Not only all the official media are severely controlled, but establishing and operating private television channels and radio stations are prohibited in Iran. IRIB as Iran’s national radio and television organization, which has the exclusive right to broadcast audio-visual content in national scale, is managed directly by state authorities. It mainly broadcasts the state-aligned content in order to underpin the state’s hegemonic discourse. In this regard, many dissident Iranians, including political activists and public figures, such as singers and cinema stars (i.e., media practitioners), do not have any chance to emerged in its programs. Moreover, other Iranian audiences have been deprived from watching their favorite programs and figures on air. For instance, the IRIB, as well as the other official media are banned from mentioning Mohamad Khatami, Iranian former reformist president. It is argued that there is some form of blacklisting including individuals who never should be shown in Iran’s national TV such as Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the most famous Iranian singer.

In this restrictive context, both camps, i.e., media practitioners and ordinary citizens perceive Instalive as an alternative platform which can serve their need to a form of free audio-visual media. They are using this feature to broadcast and consume forbidden content. Instalive was employed by some of the presidential campaigns to advertise their candidates during the 2017 election, but its use was intensified and diversified during the lockdown. For example, Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, used Instalive to broadcast his presidential speeches as he argued that the IRIB refused to publicly do that. Now, many of Iranian’s celebrities and microcelebrities use this platform to broadcast sexual and socio-cultural content which are mainly against the Islamic rules.

While no program about sex is allowed on the IRIB (even educative programs or erotic scenes), Tataloo-Neda Yassi Instalive broke the record of Instalive viewers around the world by more than 630k viewers. Tataloo is an Iranian rapper who had  more than 4 million followers at that time, well known by his weird and unconventional behavior. However, his page was closed by Instagram because of the accusation of child grooming. Yassi is also an Instagram microcelebrity who is famous because of her sexual posts and stories. Their Instalive was the perfect representation of anything forbidden in Iran regarding sex. Tataloo and Yassi talked about having (group) sex together, explaining sexual behavior, and promoting having free relations with many sexual partners. Given that the only acceptable form of sexual relationship is marriage in Iran, and all other forms of sexual behavior are forbidden and being punished, this Instalive crossed all of the state’s so-called ‘red lines’ as well as the IRIB policies.
Nevertheless, not all popular Instalives during the Covid-19 time were as offensive, in the sense of the state’s discourse, as the former example. For instance, let us look at the case of Aghamiri-Ahlam Instalive. Hassan Aghamiri is a clergy, and Ahlam is an Iranian female singer; they are actually representing two hostile camps in Iran. Women’s singing in public is forbidden in Iran by all means, and it is not allowed on the IRIB conclusively. This restriction is allegedly exerted by the Islamic rules. Here, clergies are considered as the representatives of Islam. It is anticipated that clergies condemn female singing and are not to be seen with them anywhere, as has been the case since the Islamic revolution. To this extent, Instalive disobeyed the state’s Islamic rules, playing with socio-cultural structures in Iran. A clergy co-singing with a female singer, as it happened in that live show, is something that would never be seen on the IRIB.

These two examples clearly show how Iranians use Instalive to overcome the state’s and IRIB’s restrictions and limitations. Employing Instalive, media practitioners produce content based on what is forbidden in the IRIB. Such content gained much attention by Iranians who have been deprived of watching such programs in the national TV.

What’s next? Instalive after COVID-19

Instalive introduced new opportunities for citizens in closed societies to share and discuss sensitive content. While Iranians use Twitter to discuss politics, they use Instagram to play with the state’s hard cultural and social restrictions. In this way, Iranians are undermining the power of the state’s exclusive TV as they perform or watch Instalives. On the other hand, the state clearly showed its intention to censor and control Instalives. Ali Zolghadri, the deputy chief of Tehran’s security police, stated that they would crash those show obscene behavior or say norm-breaking sentences on Instalives. Despite such hard comments, Iranians find alternative spaces to circumvent the state’s hard limitations. This time, they transformed Instalive into a kind of national TV. No matter its use would increase or decrease in the days after the COVID-19 crisis, it can be assumed that Instalive would remain a serious competitor to the IRIB, challenging its exclusivity and hegemony in more ways than we have seen so far.

 

About the authors:

1st author: Hossein Kermani, PhD in Social Communication Science (University of Tehran), is studying social media, digital repression, computational propaganda, and political activism in Iran. His research mainly revolves around the discursive power of social media in making meaning, shaping practices, changing the microphysics of power and playing with the political, cultural and social structures in Iran.

2nd author: Maria Faust, M.A. in Communication/Media Studies and Culture Studies, is a Doctoral Candidate at Leipzig University, Germany. She has published articles, a special section and two edited books on digital media, authoritarian contexts, temporal change, de-Westernization, the Global South(s), theory-building and visual culture(s) and continues her work in these fields.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 in the UK: The Exacerbation of Inequality and a Digitally-Based Response

Authors: Massimo Ragnedda and Maria Laura Ruiu

The COVID-19 crisis has been shown to highlight existing forms of socio-economic inequality across the world’s Souths. This article illustrates the reinforcement of such inequalities in the United Kingdom, showing the heightened vulnerability of minorities and marginalised citizens and proposing a response based on tackling digital inequalities.

The consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak in social, economic, psychological and health terms, are still under evaluation as the effects of the containment measures could last for years. However, something seems to be quite clear: vulnerable people and vulnerable communities are those who suffer the most from this outbreak. This is not surprising, since both social and medical studies have repeatedly shown an interaction between social environment and health status.

In this article, we specifically focus on the UK (even though similar arguments could be applied to other countries in the Global North) where some social groups are suffering more than others from the outbreak. Black, Asian or minority ethnic background (BAME communities) and elderly and marginalized citizens are affected the most by the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has, indeed, triggered inequality by exposing more vulnerable groups to higher risks of experiencing the most severe symptoms of the disease.

BAME communities are the most affected in the UK

Despite the fact that there is no link between genetic predispositions to the virus and racial groups, BAME communities are the most affected in the UK. There are, indeed, several social factors that influence a higher frequency of death from coronavirus among vulnerable communities in the UK. First of all, BAME communities make up a large share of professions considered indispensable in tackling the virus. Many of these jobs are public-facing, so they are potentially more exposed to the virus. Secondly, on average, BAME groups in Western societies, due to longstanding social inequalities, suffer from generally worse health conditions. The link between socioeconomic factors and health status is well known. An emphasis on social aspects rather than a biological or genetic predisposition, underlines that the ways in which societies are organised tend to penalise already disadvantaged communities and citizens, therefore further reinforcing social inequalities.

Digital inequalities exacerbate social and health inequalities

There is also a third element, often under-evaluated, which highlights how socially discriminated people suffer the most from the COVID-19 pandemic: digital inequalities. COVID-19 outbreak has shown, among many other things, how digital skills, high-speed internet, and reliable hardware and software are essential conditions not only for social wellbeing, but also for everyday life. The digital divide, in fact, does not only include uneven access to resources and knowledge, but also limited human connections and unequal access to opportunities and health services. Being digitally excluded also affects the ability to manage the corona virus-related drawbacks. In a time where one-third of the world population is locked down, a exclusion from the digital arena also means a potential exclusion from essential online services, such as health services, e-learning, accurate and trustworthy information related to COVID-19 and purchase of essentials online. In a collective academic effort, we developed the COVID-19 exposure risk profiles (CERPs), which show that “All else equal, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms”.

The digital divide is a real and thoughtful threat that requires tangible and future-proof solutions. This suggests that tackling inequalities not only means providing access to ICTs, but also skills and literacy to ensure an adequate digital experience. In the UK, for instance, 11.7 million people lack essential digital skills. This number suggests that 22% of the UK population have difficulty in accessing online information and updates about COVID-19. Both elderly people (especially from ethnic minorities) and people with disabilities tend to have limited capacity to access ICTs and an elementary digital competence. This suggests that self-isolation might be particularly challenging because the lack of access and skills contribute towards increasing loneliness by limiting people’s contact with relatives or friends.

Tackling digital inequalities to reduce COVID-19’s effects

Access to the Internet is a new civil right and a public utility. In this sense, bridging the digital divide means treating Internet access as an essential service. For this reason, during the COVID-19 pandemic, several public and private initiatives around the world were promoted to tackle the digital divide and support digitally excluded people. In the UK, for instance, some organisations such as “Future dot now UK” launched an initiative named #DevicesDotNow that provides digital devices to help the most vulnerable to access to the digital realm. The purpose of this initiative is to enable the digitally excluded to access online services, support and information needed during the pandemic. However, access alone is not enough to ensure the success of the digital experience. In a time where more than 11 million people in the UK lack digital skills, the possession of devices alone does not guarantee digital inclusion. For this reason, the Goodthing Foundation created a suite of resources to support the most vulnerable in using the Internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. These initiatives included a suite of resources to help people find trustworthy health advice from reliable sources or more practical advice such as how to use apps to call their doctors. Furthermore, the literature shows that giving the possibilities to keep in touch with family and friends to the most vulnerable people (especially when they are required to stay at home) helps reduce the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness (NHS 2019).

Evidently, digital inequalities cannot be bridged overnight, but these initiatives are particularly useful in time of crisis. More specifically, these initiatives are useful in tackling digital inequalities, because they look at the digital divide not only in terms of inequalities in access (first level of digital divide) but also in terms of uneven digital skills (second level) and uneven tangible outcomes people get from accessing and using the Internet (third level). In fact, by providing devices to access ICTs, these initiatives are reducing the first level, while providing basic digital skills to tackle the second level of digital divide. Overall these initiatives reduce also the third level of digital divide, by providing tangible and externally measurable outcomes (calling doctors, shopping and banking online) that improve people’s life chances. Therefore, the COVID-19 shows the importance of bridging digital inequalities to facilitate social relationships, global functions/interconnections and ordinary activities.

Lessons learned

Social and digital inequalities highlighted how specific subgroups are significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19, compared to their privileged counterparts. The crisis shows that social and digital solutions can be quickly implemented when necessary, but they need continuity to be effective. The lesson learned concerns the ability of policymakers to provide long-term strategies (as well as emergency plans) to tackle social and digital challenges. In fact, during a moment of crisis, the effects produced by social inclusion and digital-enhancing initiatives can only be limited because of the impossibility of tackling all the different levels of social and digital inequalities at the same time. In time of crisis, only a select group of people will be able to access the benefits provided by the emergency solutions in action. It is therefore necessary to consider social and digital inequalities as part of the same problem and promote initiatives to foster social and digital equity.

In conclusion, we may reiterate what we have tried to say throughout this article: the COVID-19 virus does not discriminate, but exacerbates existing social discrimination. It cannot be addressed as the sole cause of inequalities, but it brings to light the vulnerability of our unequal social assets. The COVID-19 might teach us that, despite our social adaptation capacity, being socially and digitally equipped can help mitigate the effects of global crises.

About the authors

Massimo Ragnedda, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Mass Communication at Northumbria University, UK, where he conducts research on the digital divide and digital media.

Maria Laura Ruiu obtained her second PhD from Northumbria University, UK where she is Lecturer in Sociology. Her research interests fall into environmental and media sociology with specific focus on climate change communication, social capital and digital media.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Making the virus visible with (responsible) mobile data

Technologies to track COVID-19 spread with data generated by mobile devices bring the discussion about responsible use of data to a global level, creating an opportunity to push for regulatory frameworks.

 

by Peter Füssy

 

Although the Covid-19 outbreak is known since December, the first images of the virus were published in late January and more detailed captures came only in mid-February. The reason for this is that the majority of viruses are much smaller than a bacteria and cannot be seen with an ordinary light microscope, only with a more sophisticated and expensive electron microscope.

Another method to make the virus visible is by following the hosts, or rather, the “smart” devices carried by the hosts everywhere. These devices display and generate data, which have been mostly used by corporations to predict and steer human behavior for profit. The same data repurposed can be used to see the movement of the disease at different levels, from populations to individuals, but not without generating other risks to the hosts.

These visualizations are not accurate pictures of the virus, but probabilities converted into coloured areas, dots or maps overlaid with statistics. However, they are powerful tools to support decision-making in medical practices and health policies. In addition, these infographics can create high scale awareness when available to a broader audience: they can show how far the virus is from you, sometimes with staggering precision.

Photo: Transmission electron microscope image of the virus that causes Covid-19 (NIAID-RML/Creative Commons)

Tracking the virus (and people)

In China, for instance, the two largest telecom operators, covering 80% of the market, provided data about the number of mobile phones travelling from Wuhan to other regions before the lockdown. The data was used to estimate a better latent infection ratio (transmission before symptoms) in the pandemic epicenter, and can be visualized in an infographic from The New York Times.

Private mobile carriers are also sharing data with health authorities in countries like Italy, Germany, Austria and Brazil to monitor social distancing measures and detect people agglomerations. In those cases, the visual representation shows concentrations and movements of large groups. Examples that handle much more personal data are not difficult to find though – and are even seen as models to limit the virus spreading.

In Pakistan, some residents of Karachi received text messages saying that they may have come in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. According to local reports, authorities are using call detail records (CDRs) from telecom operators to find phone numbers that were recently near a phone owned by someone infected. In Australia, the police said the “threshold” that legitimizes phone tracking of specific individuals – a practice usually restricted to criminal investigations – have been met in the case of a Chinese couple who allegedly carried the virus from Wuhan to Adelaide.

Photo: Map produced by the Hong Kong Government showing the buildings where possible cases of Covid-19 lived for the past 14 days.

In Taiwan, people under mandatory quarantine are “geofenced” in real-time by their cell phone signal – they cannot even let the battery die risking to have police officers knocking on the door. In the same direction, Hong Kong created a map of the city where you can see in which buildings the virus have been spotted along with the infected person’s gender and age. In those cases, each SIM card represents a human being who is a possible host for the virus.

The list of states adopting digital surveillance methods to picture where the virus is could continue for several paragraphs. Those methods for visualizing the virus are shaping actions to “flatten the curve”, controlling citizens in quarantine, detecting social distancing levels and performing contact tracing.

As the emergency of the situation calls for, the arrangements for the data sharing are done fast and, in most cases, with lack of transparency for users and public, which raises questions about future consequences on privacy and freedom. To prevent that, researchers, activists, institutions and NGOs have been building on past experiences to come up with guidelines for responsible practices.

Data sharing and epidemics

The role of visualizations during pandemics have grown in importance since British physician John Snow plotted fatal cholera cases into a map of London’s Soho in 1854 and assumed the source of the disease were the water pumps. During the twentieth century, the introduction of computer-assisted analysis and development of tools for visualizations further increased the reliance on data and graphics to prevent and control infections. More recently, the popularization of mobile phones allowed a new range of possibilities to predict or track the spread of diseases.

Photo: John Snow’s map of cholera in London (Public domain)

Given the sensitive and commercially valuable data that cell phones generate, including call and location history through triangulation of cell towers position, mobile operators are generally reluctant to share this information. Nevertheless, exceptions have been made in research and humanitarian responses during outbreaks of dengue, cholera, malaria and ebola in low- and middle-income countries at the beginning of the decade.

Similarly to the current COVID-19 crisis, in those cases, the perceived benefits from the data sharing have overshadowed potential risks, uncovering an optimistic perspective of technological solutions. As McDonald argues, the push for experimenting with mobile data for contact tracing in Liberia overlooked data protection laws, undermined the coordination ability of local actors and raised tensions with the government, resulting in “big data disaster”.

Potential risks

From the medical viewpoint, call detail records (CDRs) and contact tracing can be somehow helpful to control the virus, but data alone does not solve anything and after shared data do not disappear with the virus, putting in risk privacy and human rights. Even when the data is aggregated and anonymized, researchers have demonstrated that four points (e.g., home address, workplace address, or geo-localized tweets or pictures) are enough to identify 95% of the individuals. If used to political interest, it is possible to track separatists, migrants or dissidents.

Personal data sharing puts in evidence not only the disease but the private life of the host. For corporations, sharing data is not only a matter of doing public good but a decision that is based also on economic and strategic issues. Once data is out, it can be misused by other companies, for instance, private health insurance can determine or deny coverage combining different datasets. This is why we need ethical sharing of data to protect citizens from unintended outcomes of well-meaning initiatives.

In this direction, the Responsible Data community is one of those groups trying to draw a global framework that includes social, legal, privacy and economical-related issues. According to the collective, projects that involve data sharing should consider power dynamics (how the least powerful actors are affected?), have a strong justification, care not just about speed, include diverse perspectives and re-evaluations to understand possible harms and create checks and balances to alert for unexpected effects.

Global opportunity

So far, economic interests, political contexts, local legislations and cultural differences have been a challenge to implement responsible guidelines for data sharing. As a global issue, the COVID-19 crisis could be an opportunity to pressure for regulatory frameworks. In this regard, more groups have come forward with suggestions for technical and social evaluations of actions to track the virus.

The EU Commission recommended a coordinated approach for the use of tracing apps which includes an intermediary (the Joint Research Centre) for processing and storing data from European mobile operators as long as the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing. In addition, the institution that represents the interest of mobile operators worldwide (GSMA) released a privacy guide to deal with data requests. The document recommends operators to proactively implement best practices, encompassing transparency to the public, the prohibition of re-identification of individuals, limits to the scope of use and accountability.

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a white paper which discusses the limits and the effectiveness of location tracking in epidemics, while another group of researchers suggests that an open-source app and crowdsourcing the data with user consent might the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus with the publication of less sensitive data.

The inclusion of big tech companies like Apple and Google certainly brings another dimension to the discussion, raising both the capacity of development and the amount of data collected but also the stakes in place if something goes wrong. In a partnership, Apple and Google announced a system for contact tracing using Bluetooth which will be embedded in the operational systems (iOS and Android) and promises to keep data anonymized.

The responsible data debate has never gained so much attention than now. It is time for legal and regulatory frameworks “to caught up to the real-world effects of data and technology” (Responsible Data). It is also a time when mistakes can have global consequences.

About the author

Peter is a journalist trying to explore new media in depth, from everyday digital practices to the undesired consequences of a highly connected environment. After more than 10 years of reporting for the most relevant digital outlets in Brazil, he is now second years Research Master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Argentina-Brasil: La resignificación del uso de la tecnología en épocas de pandemia

In a world in constant evolution, Latin America is probably the region where the COVID-19 pandemic has most changed the way we communicate as a society, and technology is at the core of this change. This post reviews the cases of Argentina and Brazil as examples to illustrate how the use of technology can create different scenarios of resistance and alterity.

 

by Julián Cordoba Pivotto

 

La situación del COVID-19 ha cambiado la manera de comunicarnos como sociedad. No importa en qué país y situación nos encontremos, algo ha cambiado para cada uno de nosotros a partir de las consecuencias de esta pandemia y uno de los factores principales y más presentes en este cambio es el uso de la tecnología. Gracias a ella, entonces, es posible prolongar y continuar con ciertos aspectos de nuestra vida como el trabajo, el estudio o el encuentro con amigos y familiares. A la vez, también es interesante ver cómo la tecnología nos permite vincularnos de nuevas y diferentes maneras con los gobiernos, que juegan un papel fundamental en esta situación, debido al poder de decisión que tienen.

Sucede que, poco después de que el contagio se esparciera en primer lugar por Asia, Europa, y Norteamérica, llegó el turno de que los mandatarios y líderes de América Latina se enfrenten a los desafíos que trae esta cuestión, adaptándose y concentrándose en las características propias que tiene esta parte del mundo. Así, en un lugar donde se encuentran alteridad, resistencia, subversión y creatividad -como lo sugieren  Milán y Tereré-, los líderes han tomado posiciones y estrategias muy disímiles entre sí, como en el caso de Argentina y Brasil. Como resultado, los habitantes de esos países han respondido de maneras distintas a cada una de estas estrategias. Mi propuesta es revisar estas estrategias y estas respuestas, para encontrar cómo se dio el uso de la tecnología en cada ocasión y pensar en cuales situaciones se distinguen las características que hacen de la región un lugar tan particular. Para eso, creo que es conveniente revisarlas caso por caso.

 

Argentina

Este país fue uno de los primeros en decretar un aislamiento obligatorio, que aplicó para el total del territorio nacional y sólo tuvo como excepción a aquellos considerados “personal de servicio esencial”, como el personal médico o aquellos ligados a la producción y comercialización de alimentos y medicamento. La tecnología jugó un rol principal para la gestión del gobierno: cada transmisión en televisión para comunicar las medidas elegidas se vio reforzada por una fuerte campaña de concientización en redes sociales, con indicaciones sobre qué podían hacer los ciudadanos para evitar los contagios. Un dato interesante es el aprovechamiento de la emergente red social Tik Tok: allí, la cuenta del Ministerio de Salud de Argentina publica consejos para evitar el contagio con un mensaje simple y sencillo, mayormente dirigido a jóvenes, que es el grupo que mayor actividad tiene en esa red.

El gobierno argentino también utilizó la tecnología para desarrollar una aplicación para smartphones, como sucedió en otras partes del mundo. En este caso se trata de CuidAR, una aplicación de descarga obligatoria para quienes requieran el permiso de circulación, que da un autodiagnóstico basado en los síntomas que indique el usuario. Sin embargo, ante la aparición de esta aplicación, los expertos explican que podría no tener el resultado esperado, ya que no queda claro qué hace el gobierno con los datos que se recolectan, o cómo se usan. Además, como la aparición de síntomas podrían restringir el permiso, algunos usuarios podrían optar por simplemente mentir al ingresar esos datos. Falta ver cuál es el futuro de la aplicación, que ya es blanco de críticas por vulneración a la privacidad, pero su diagnóstico no es muy optimista.

Por otro lado, los argentinos y las argentinas también supieron aprovechar la tecnología. Gran parte de la población, aquellos que cuentan con un dispositivo con acceso a internet, aprovecharon este medio para continuar con sus trabajos, clases, reuniones y obligaciones. Sin embargo, no sólo se usaron para eso, sino también para mantener contacto con el gobierno y expresar tanto su apoyo como su disconformidad. Un ejemplo de esto es el uso de Twitter, que se convirtió en el lugar principal para organizar muestras de apoyo hacia el personal de salud: así nacen los aplausos desde los balcones, cada día a las 21 hs como hora pactada.

Pero esos balcones también fueron escenario de otro tipo de expresiones, como las manifestaciones en contra de la misma decisión del gobierno. Sucede que, pasados más de 70 días desde la declaración del aislamiento, cierta parte de la población decidió manifestar quejas y malestar, alegando la defensa de cuestiones como la actividad económica y la caída del consumo. El modus operandi de la organización fue la misma que para el agradecimiento al personal de salud: otra vez las redes sociales en general y Twitter en particular fueron protagonistas. En la actualidad, esta movilización ha tenido respuesta, las demandas fueron escuchadas y se han flexibilizado algunos sectores del país para que parte de la población pueda volver a trabajar.

 

Brasil

El país vecino tuvo una respuesta institucional y poblacional distinta a los efectos de la pandemia. Desde el gobierno, la respuesta fue totalmente distinta a la argentina: su presidente ha calificado al virus como “un resfriadito” y no ha decretado ningún tipo de aislamiento, explicando que priorizaba la actividad económica en su lugar.

El gobierno hizo una campaña con este posicionamiento: con el hashtag #oBrasilNãoPodeParar, justificaba su postura por la negativa de detener la producción y la actividad laboral. La idea del gobierno, al parecer, era que la base de apoyo de Bolsonaro reproduzca y comparta el hashtag para demostrar apoyo a esta incitativa, apoyo que no se dio en redes ni por medio de la tecnología, sino en las calles, del modo habitual y sin respetar el aislamiento social. Allí también, el presidente se hizo presente.

Pero el uso del hashtag no fue solamente por parte del oficialismo brasileño. Del otro lado, también hubo -con mayor expansión y éxito- cierto activismo: con el slogan #ForaBolsonaro, que ya había sido usado anteriormente, alentado y difundido por referentes sociales, líderes de opinión y figuras opositoras, se dio respuesta a la campaña oficialista.

De un modo diferente, otra gran parte de la población de Brasil tuvo una respuesta distinta ante esta (in)acción por parte del gobierno nacional. Se trata de los habitantes de las favelas, quienes habitan zonas donde viven los sectores más económicamente empobrecidos de la sociedad brasileña. En Rocinha, Río de Janeiro, los habitantes empezaron a comunicarse por servicios de mensajería, como WhatsApp, para organizar una cuarentena “autogestionada”, que consistía en un horario límite para la circulación por la zona. En Paraisópolis, São Paulo, se creó la figura del “Presidente de Calle”: un vecino voluntario que se encarga de vigilar y dar apoyo a las 50 familias de su entorno más próximo, quien debe alertar si alguno de los habitantes que vigila presenta alguno de los síntomas, para así hacer más inmediata la atención médica.

En ambas zonas, además, los mismos vecinos junto a algunos voluntarios de distintas organizaciones entregaron los llamados “COVID-19 kits”, que incluyen tapabocas y jabón. La comunicación por servicios de mensajería sirvió para orientar y mejorar su distribución, fundamental para estos habitantes que -en su mayoría- tienen empleos informales y debido a esto la imposibilidad de continuar con ellos o recibir ingresos.

Teniendo en cuenta las características de este tipo de hogares, en los que suelen vivir 10 personas en construcciones de hasta 3 habitaciones -como menciona una activista en este reportaje-, sumado a la falta de información y reacción por parte del gobierno nacional, es necesario actuar. Así lo consideraron los voluntarios y vecinos, quienes decidieron compartir información sobre medidas de distanciamiento social y prevención de los contagios en un contexto en el que proveer información es de vital importancia. Aquí, nuevamente los servicios de mensajería jugaron un factor fundamental.

 

En conclusión

En conclusión, los casos de Argentina y Brasil nos permiten ver cómo la población suele responder, dentro de los vínculos gobernante-gobernados (es decir: los funcionarios en el poder y la ciudadanía), de distintas maneras ante las decisiones que tome el gobierno. A veces apoyándolo, a veces manifestándose en contra, pero siempre reaccionando, lo que demuestra que existe una ciudadanía involucrada.

El apoyo y el rechazo como expresión desde la población hacia los gobernantes varían en consecuencia de las decisiones que tomen y las acciones que elijan los mandatarios. De esta manera es posible notar diferencias ideológicas entre los grupos que las realicen, diferencias que se acentúan con más firmeza al analizar el contenido de las expresiones.

En Argentina, el descontento se manifiesta en demandas de carácter predominantemente económico. En Brasil, por otro lado, las demandas son por mejoras sanitarias. Lo destacable de la comparación entre ambos, es la forma en la que se involucran sus poblaciones: la ciudadanía se preocupa, decide comunicar y actúa en consecuencia: todo eso debido a la pandemia y gracias a la tecnología. El nuevo desafío es que, una vez superada esta situación, esa involucración y ese compromiso se mantenga. Ojalá así sea.

 

About the author

Julián Cordoba Pivotto is currently studying for a Political Science BA at Catholic University of Córdoba (UCC) in Córdoba, Argentina. He intermittently writes about comparative politics and federalism. Contact: juliancordoba11 [@] gmail.com

[BigDataSur-COVID] National stereotypes in times of COVID-19: the ‘frugal four’ and the ‘irresponsible South’

When EU leaders discuss the coronavirus Recovery Fund at the upcoming meeting of the European Council on Friday, some persistent European stereotypes will accompany negotiations.

by Luiza Bialasiewicz

 

The on-going debates regarding the coronavirus Recovery Fund that will form the focus of discussions at the upcoming EU summit on July 17 have highlighted the pernicious persistence of national stereotypes that continue to afflict political positioning and decision-making within the Union.

It would be easy to dismiss such stereotypes as simply an easy short-hand adopted by politicians to position themselves and others within EU political debates on matters regarding everything from migration quotas to budgetary questions. Self- and other- stereotypes also play very well to domestic audiences, providing an easy set of representations on which to draw when arguing for the national position both vis a vis Brussels or other EU member states.

The self-ascribed moniker ‘the frugal four’ adopted by Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden is no exception. Intended to mark out these countries’ opposition to ‘irresponsible’ and ‘excessive’ spending of the proposed EU-wide Recovery Fund, it speaks to a ‘moral’ as well as economic positioning.

Indeed, the term ‘moral hazard’ that was wielded by Dutch politicians in 2012 when a previous proposal for mutualizing European debt was floated has once more appeared on the scene – today, as then, tied to a distinct geographical imagination of hazard, irresponsibility, and excess. We need to take such monikers seriously, for in this moment of common crisis they tell us much not just about radically different views in different EU countries regarding the role and responsibilities of the national state towards its citizenry, but also radically different views regarding responsibilities to Europe and fellow Europeans.

Moral geographies

The most striking example of a ‘clash of stereotypes’ is certainly offered by Italy and the Netherlands. In the past months, Dutch PM Mark Rutte has taken on the role of the most vocal leader of the ‘frugal four’, threatening to block recovery funding to Italy and other (mostly southern European) states if these do not undertake a comprehensive package of reforms.

With this positioning Rutte and his Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra maintain a long-standing self-representation of the Netherlands’ position in the EU as an economically ‘thrifty’ if not directly self-serving actor: ‘effective without empathy’, as the leading government think tank Clingendael described perceptions of Dutch interest promotion within the EU in a report published in the spring of 2019.

Beyond re-playing long-standing self-stereotypes within EU institutions, however, Rutte is also playing to a home audience, conscious of the parliamentary elections that await him in the coming year. When Italian PM Giuseppe Conte arrived in The Hague this past week for a meeting with Rutte, he was greeted outside of the Parliament by far-right leader Geert Wilders, holding up a sign reading: ‘Not a cent for Italy’.

Wilders may represent the extreme wing of Dutch nationalist politics, but the same slogan featured just a month earlier on the front cover of Dutch popular weekly Elsevier Weekblad, accompanied by an illustration that summed up the competing stereotypes: at the top, two industrious Dutch workers, below, two supposed Mediterranean types, lounging in the sun.

The cover caused popular outrage in Italy – though curiously it was Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-nationalist Fratelli d’Italia party, allied with Wilders for the 2019 European Parliament elections, that filed a formal complaint, demanding that the government exact an immediate apology from the Dutch ambassador to Rome. ‘The cover is repugnant’ she noted, depicting Italians and other Mediterraneans as ‘parasites’. ‘We don’t accept lessons from Holland which has created a tax haven in Europe and is draining resources from all other Member States’, she added.[i]

There were also immediate reactions from other southern European opinion makers, many in jest, with a Portuguese re-working of the image to depict fat and sun-burned Northern European tourists lounging at the bottom of the image instead, in this tweet from El Pais Brussels correspondent Bernardo de Miguel:

Belgian MEP and chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, was even stronger in his criticisms: ‘This sort of false reporting led to Brexit’, he tweeted, noting that under the terms of the plan ‘not 1 NL citizen will pay 1 euro more to the Covid Recovery Fund’. Elsevier Weekblad simply discounted the protests with a headline noting “Neo-Fascist Fratelli d’Italia demands apologies”.

The still-authoritarian South

Notwithstanding the accurate descriptor (Fratelli d’Italia is, indeed, the direct heir to the ‘post’ Fascist Alleanza Nazionale party), the choice of terminology also offered the Dutch weekly yet another easy stereotype: the Southern European authoritarian, if not directly (ex)Fascist.

Along with the spendthrift image, the stereotype of the (still) authoritarian Southern Europeans (whether Italian, Spanish or Greek) was indeed another powerful trope circulating all through the months of the lockdown. And not even a particularly implicit one: in his weekly televised addresses to Dutch citizens in the early weeks of the Netherlands’ so-called ‘intelligent lockdown’, PM Rutte insisted on the differences in ‘national character’ that would make the sort of harsh measures adopted in Southern European countries impossible in the Netherlands, since Dutch citizens would simply not accept the sort of limitations on their personal freedoms imposed in Italy and Spain.

Dutch citizens would simply not accept the sort of limitations on their personal freedoms imposed in Italy and Spain.

The choice to adopt only a very limited set of restrictions was a risky one, and indeed in the first months of the ‘intelligent lockdown’ the Netherlands had one of the highest mortality rates from the virus in Europe. The government position also initially insisted on the need to ‘build up population immunity’, though with the rapid debunking of the UK’s ‘herd immunity’ approach, that notion was ‘rapidly repackaged as a useful by-product rather than the main goal’, as Anna Holligan writing for BBC News noted in her report on the scientifically-questionable Dutch strategy. The country also had one of the lowest Covid-19 testing rates in Europe, and it was not until the start of June that testing became available to the general population: a convenient way of ‘keeping the numbers down’.

In justifying the limited range of restrictions – as too the limited state intervention into public health measures – Rutte repeatedly described the Netherlands in his weekly addresses as a ‘grown-up country’. As he noted in one speech, ‘what I hear around me, is that people are glad that they are treated as adults, not as children’. The implication was that the Dutch did not need to be treated like children ‘to behave responsibly’, unlike other European citizenries.

It was not until the start of June that testing became available to the general population: a convenient way of ‘keeping the numbers down’.

Irresponsible children

The paternalism at work in such imagined geographies of Europe is, again, not new, with very similar imaginations at play during and following the 2008 financial crisis which had profoundly unequal consequences across the European space.

As Greek economic geographer Costis Hadjimichalis has argued, to properly understand the geographies of uneven development in the EU, we need to appreciate their founding ‘economic mythologies’, that continue to frame to this day popular imaginations of political-economic choices and outcomes in Europe’s North and South.[i] Disparaging geographical metaphors like ‘Club Med’ or the infamous ‘PIIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) were an evident example of this in the post-2008 years.

The tropes of childishness and irresponsibility applied to Southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece today thus draw on a much-longer standing set of imaginations, tracing a direct line of continuity from the financial crisis to the Covid-19 crisis. So too do the prescriptions offered: self-reliance and individual responsibility, the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism.

‘Italians must learn to make it on their own’

In a front-page interview on the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in the first week of July, Dutch PM Rutte outlined his country’s position on the Recovery Fund. ‘Dear Italy, learn to make it on your own’ the headline announced.[ii] In the interview (the first given by Rutte to an international newspaper since the start of the pandemic) the PM was direct in his assessment: European solidarity at this moment was important, of course, but so too was ‘national responsibility’. ‘This means that Member States that require and request assistance right now must do what is necessary to be able to face a future crisis of this sort on their own, in resilient fashion’, Rutte noted.

The prescription? ‘Measures that will not be popular’, including ‘reforms that should increase the productivity and competitiveness of Italy’ and the ‘sustainability of public finances’, along with ‘promoting fiscal integrity and transparency’. The irony of the head of the EU state widely considered to be one of the least transparent as a corporate tax haven calling for more ‘fiscal integrity and transparency’ was not lost on the Corriere interviewer: an accusation immediately rejected by Rutte stating that ‘ours is an open economy’, that needs to ‘protect its tax base’.

It is not just a question of competing economic visions that is at play here, however. As Alexander de Croo, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance wrote in an editorial published on politico.eu in mid-June, the battle over the Recovery Fund was not simply an economic one, regarding whether or not to create debt: it was ‘an existential one’.

It was nothing less than a battle for the future of the European project. As de Croo wrote, ‘it was time ‘to break free from the narrative of the ‘lazy’ south and the ‘hard-working’ north’, since ‘when it comes to the economic impact of the coronavirus we are all in the same boat’. De Croo’s words were echoed just last week by Angela Merkel in the extended interviewshe gave to a group of European newspapers, as Germany took up the rotating presidency of the European Council on July 1.

It is a much broader, yes, ‘existential’ question, regarding what Europe is ‘for’.

In discussing the proposals for the Recovery Fund, Merkel rejected the question that the proposal for the Fund was a ‘major concession to the southern countries’. As she replied, ‘I don’t find it helpful to talk about thenorthern countries, the southern countries and the eastern Europeans. That is seeing things in black and white. I expect each of us always to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider problems from the other’s point of view’. Keeping in mind ‘the huge burden in economic, medical and, of course, because of the many lives lost, emotional terms’ faced by countries like Italy and Spain, it was ‘only right for Germany to think not just about itself but to be prepared to engage in an extraordinary act of solidarity’.

The Recovery Fund proposal, originally advanced by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, is indeed about much more than keeping the EU economy afloat. It is a much broader, yes, ‘existential’ question, regarding what Europe is ‘for’. And, as with all existential questions, the symbols, metaphors and stereotypes that inscribe it matter greatly. Is the EU simply little more than a free-trade area, where every state can advance its own particular interests (if need be, also at a cost to others)? Or should it also be an autonomous and supranational political actor, able to make, collectively, fully ‘political’ choices? In a moment in which the well-being of all Europeans is at stake, the choices made at Friday’s summit will have much wider consequences.

Elsevier Weekblad cover.
Elsevier Weekblad cover, May 29, 2020. | All rights reserved.

[i] Just days after the publication of the unfortunate cover story, the European Tax Justice Network published a calculation – widely reported in Italy – on how many millions of euros the Dutch state was ‘stealing’ from Italian state coffers by offering multinational companies (including Italian ones like car maker FIAT) a tax haven in the Netherlands. The report remarked on how ‘the EU countries with the highest reported cases of Covid-19 have been the biggest historical losers of corporate tax to the Netherlands, which is currently a leading opponent of solidarity measures proposed by the EU’.

[ii] Costis Hadjimichalis (2011). ‘Uneven geographical development and socio-spatial justice and solidarity: European regions after the 2009 financial crisis’. European Urban and Regional Studies 18(3):254-274.

[iii] Paolo Valentino (2020). ‘Cara Italia, impara a farcela da sola’. Corriere della Sera Weekly Newsmagazine ‘7’, July 3rd, 14-19.