by Martin Yip
‘Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.’ So passionately sang John Lennon in Imagine. The imagery of peace and harmony was appealing: if only the physical and psychological barriers between people could come down, we would all be able to live without dispute. The imagery, however, is utopian, and here in the real world, borders need to exist.
Case in point: the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019. (There is advice from the university which is updated from time to time.) The first cases of 2019-nCov, as it is designated, occurred in December in Wuhan, China. Not long after news of the virus outbreak spread, countries neighbouring China began to take preventive measures, such as thermal monitoring and banning flights to and from Wuhan. On January 22, North Korea closed its borders to all foreign tourists. Mongolia followed, as did the Russian Far East. Some Asian countries have also stopped issuing visas to Chinese travellers, and are barring infected individuals from entry. India and Taiwan recently banned the export of some face masks.
All these measures could not have been implemented without borders. Enforcing borders deters the spread of viruses. Having well-defined and operational borders means that each government is focused on protecting those within its territory (and those who are yet to return to it). As community outbreaks have been reported, self-aware citizens are keeping themselves at home, to minimize contact with others and chances of being infected. They are drawing and enacting their own borders, for the sake of not only themselves but their fellow citizens.
Alas, well-defined borders also mean there is a dominant power that can at times do wrong. Just look at the borders within which the outbreak began. Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang worked at Wuhan Central Hospital and warned of the coronavirus as soon as December 2019. A few days later, the local police bureau summoned him and issued a letter of admonishment regarding his ‘false statements on the Internet’ which ‘seriously disrupted social order’. ‘If you remain stubborn and continue your illegal activities, you will be punished by the law! Do you understand?’ it said. ‘Understand’, wrote Li, with a fingerprint on his answer. On the night of 6 February, Li passed away after being infected by the coronavirus. The irony is both striking and saddening.
While some borders are formed naturally by geographical features, others have been the result of negotiation and even warfare. The way they are drawn may be unsatisfactory, but they do need to exist. Yet, beyond physical borders, it is with regard to abstract borders that we must be most vigilant. These are, for example, the border between liberty and state intervention, and the border between rumour and fake news. There is much to be gained from surreptitiously moving these borders, but only for a select few. We must draw our borders and maintain them rigorously, for infections of the mind may well be more disastrous than infections of the body.