The World

The Freedom to Move—or Stay Still

The pandemic has changed how we think about the privilege of mobility.

Overhead shot of an empty highway.
The empty motorway A3 is seen near Leverkusen, Germany, on April 19, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ina Fassbender/Getty Images

We think of the freedom to move as a sign of privilege. In the United States, passing a driving test, owning a car, and getting a passport are milestones that signal modernity and freedom. Wealth also enables travel abroad: Countries with higher income produce more international tourists. Likewise, we think of restrictions on movement as the domain of the underprivileged, like the current and formerly incarcerated. And, more generally, there are millions of people around the world who aspire to migrate but experience involuntary immobility because of restrictive state policies.

But the pandemic seems to have changed who is on the move.

Governments around the world have advised people to self-isolate, but who is able to follow this advice? In the United States, it is largely the richest 25 percent who can work from home. As the New York Times observed weeks ago, the middle class’ swift shift to virtual life has been striking. White-collar workers at large companies are likely to be some of the last to return to the office, if they do so at all. They may even be thriving at home, finding previously elusive downtime and investing in new hobbies.

Meanwhile, essential workers continue to be mobile. People working in manufacturing, food services, and health care—none of them can work from home. These front-line workers are not just disadvantaged in terms of class: They’re disproportionately women, minorities, and immigrants.

In this world of “white-collar quarantine,” is immobility the new marker of status? We might be tempted to conclude from this that the world’s first truly global event has not only changed who is on the move, but also fundamentally altered the relationship between mobility and privilege.

But this conclusion would be premature.

For starters, there have always been (at least) two sides of immobility—not just involuntary immobility but also privileged immobility. The involuntarily immobile include 40 million internally displaced people across the world who are unable to return home, or to leave the country where they reside. But alongside the hundreds of thousands who would migrate if they could, but can’t, there are millions who don’t want or need to leave home to improve their lives or escape violence.

On the flip side, there are also different kinds of mobility. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman offered two metaphors for such people on the move: tourists and vagabonds. The former travel because they want to, the latter because they have no choice. Mobility can be adventurous, free, and modern. It can also be threatening, exclusionary, and limited. Even when mobility is forced, it doesn’t look the same for everybody. As the Venezuelan refugee crisis teaches us, the rich can choose where to go, while the poor have limited options.

What’s more, mobility doesn’t always work the same locally and globally. The authors of this piece live and work in the United Arab Emirates, which continues to operate repatriation flights for Emiratis abroad, many of them relatively wealthy. Once back home, they will self-quarantine. To leave, they must commit afterward to staying put. Nonelite migrant workers within the UAE, by contrast, risk financial ruin if they leave their essential jobs. To stay, they have to move around the cities where they work.

Mobility, then, is not just about movement. It’s also about how that movement is represented and experienced. Health care workers are some of the most visibly mobile in this pandemic, receiving applause in cities across the world. But while the deaths of front-line doctors in the U.S. and China are causing outrage, blue-collar front-line workers might be more aptly described as sacrificial than essential. And across the gulf from us, millions of Indians have been forced to migrate after losing their livelihood as a result of the coronavirus lockdown but face threats of being shot on sight if they violate quarantine.

While many who had previously been mobile have become immobile, the coronavirus hasn’t fundamentally changed the underlying logics of mobility and privilege. This suggests mobility per se might not provide such a good gauge of privilege.

Instead, we can think of the aspiration to be mobile (or immobile), and the ability to realize that goal. The privileged are those whose aspirations match their abilities. The privileged immobile, for example, want and manage to stay put. At the same time, wealthy Americans who want to move around continue to do so. Meanwhile, others experience a mismatch between their aspirations and abilities. At least some of the more than 39 million Americans who have recently filed for unemployment would rather be out working but are now stuck at home. And front-line workers living paycheck to paycheck continue—if reluctantly—to be mobile.

The match between aspiration and ability is a tell of privilege. So, too, is the cost of the mismatch for our physical, financial, and emotional well-being.

How, then, should we think about mobility and privilege in the time of coronavirus? We can start by looking at the conditions that allow people to be mobile as well as immobile.  We certainly feel privileged in wanting and being able to write and teach from home. But many have to stay put because they have lost their jobs. For them, immobility is not as desirable. Both mobility and immobility have different causes.

They also have different consequences. Many are happier and report working more efficiently from home. But it is women, in particular, who shoulder many of the burdens that come with self-isolation. Under lockdown, domestic violence and female genital mutilation have also risen. We yet have to understand the long-term consequences of this moment for whether we’re seeing a return to dated gender relations. And for those who have lost their jobs or who cannot travel home, the fallout may be severe.

In the months and years to come, it is these divergent consequences that will reveal who was and was not privileged, not whether they stayed home.