Pandemic Citizenship: Ruptures or Reinforcements of Old Trends?

Jelena Dzankic (European University Institute)

This blogpost was originally published on the nccr-on the move blog on 1 December 2023 as part of the “Towards a Novel Mobility Regime” series. It has been cross-posted here with permission.

How much has the pandemic changed the governance of citizenship? Which ad hoc responses to the global health crisis have become embedded in ways states allocate rights and obligations to their citizens, and which ones have withered away? The pandemic has opened up a number of avenues to reflect on the meaning and underpinnings of citizenship. It illustrates how contemporary modes of governance of citizenship still correspond to old trends and traditional conceptions of citizenship.

The pandemic-related mobility challenges have largely been resolved. We no longer wear masks, keep a safe distance, or present vaccine certificates to board a plane. Although the “new normal” resembles the “old normal,” changes in mobility regimes during the pandemic highlight significant trends in how individuals, territories and administrations are connected. While these trends suggest shifts in the governance of citizenship, they actually reflect remnants of old trends that reinforce rather than disrupt the traditional conceptions of citizenship.

Reinforcing the “Duty” Side of Citizenship for Individuals and States

The “duty” side of citizenship has historical roots connected to ancient Greek and Roman gender-binary ideals. Military duty was central to citizenship, which was limited to males possessing property. Citizens had to defend their homelands. Moreover, city-states ensured protection abroad against external threats. Post-World War II, the notion of duty started to fade from the concept of citizenship, driven by the abolition of compulsory military service in most countries. This trend was also reinforced by increased globalization and mobility, which challenged the idea that an individual can owe allegiance to one state only. Some commentators have even noted that citizenship was becoming “duty free.”

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we could see a reinforcement of the “duty” side of citizenship, both for citizens and for states. The “obligation to protect” was manifest in the range of laws stipulating mandatory masks, confinement, vaccinations, etc. Yet, the state was not the only one to reinforce the duty side of citizenship. The culture of abidance that peaked during the pandemic reflects the citizens’ understanding of  the “duty to protect.” There we can think of different ways in which this seemingly ruptured the traditional views of citizenship beyond the legal and political realm, such as by suppressing pluralism and dissent, or by creating new lines of exclusion Even so, these are not new phenomena, but rather manifestations of the traditional ways in which citizenship has been conceived and governed for centuries – through hierarchies of membership and exclusion.

Dual Nationality in Focus: Redefining Belonging

The issue of providing protection gained salience, especially regarding dual and multiple citizens. Despite the general trend towards greater acceptance of plural citizenship since the 1960s, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic reflected very different state approaches to the protection of their citizens. Argentina, for instance, offered protection to all of their pluri-nationals in all cases. In contrast, the United States evacuated their dual and multiple nationals only if they were not in the country of their other citizenship. Other countries, such as Australia, protected its multiple nationals only if they had used the Australian passport to enter the third country. Some countries, however, did not offer any protection to their nationals holding another passport.

Differences in the degrees of protection offered to pluri-nationals indicate a reliance on nationality as an entitlement to protection, despite a shift towards a greater tolerance of multiple citizenship. This approach turned citizenship into a major liability for plurinational families, because some family members could claim rescue during COVID-19 while others could not. We could see this in the case of 118 evacuations that we mapped for our CMMP project.

Among the 118 evacuations in our dataset, ten included family members. On February 4, 2020, the Malaysian government evacuated non-Malaysian family members from Wuhan and India. South Korea’s evacuation from the Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 19, 2020, included one Japanese spouse, while an evacuation from Iran a month later repatriated 74 South Koreans and six Iranian family members. The UK rescued spouses and family members from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and Peru in late February.

However, early evacuations from Wuhan required the approval of the Chinese government for the inclusion of non-Chinese family members, causing delays and diplomatic efforts. Subsequent evacuations required similar approvals for Chinese family members of German, Japanese and US nationals.

Uneven Border Closures

Many assume that there was full immobility during the pandemic. However, states implemented different choices as to who was allowed to cross their borders. In February and early March 2020, most governments applied specific travel restrictions to all persons – including their own nationals and permanent residents – traveling via air or sea from the People’s Republic of China.

As the pandemic spread globally, borders closed to international travel. Nonetheless, complete blanket travel bans were rare and short-term. Countries frequently exempted specific status holders from these measures, such as frontline workers, medical personnel, and diplomats, attesting, once again, to the partial permeability of borders.

In sum, the examples of how the much-overlooked duty side of citizenship reinforced lines of exclusion, the predicaments of dual nationals and citizens’ family members, as well as the uneven border closures during the pandemic all show continuity rather than discontinuity with the traditional, state-centric, notion of citizenship.

*Data cited in this blog post have been collected through the Citizenship, Migration and Mobility in a Pandemic, a joint project between the EUI and nccr – on the move directed by Jelena Dzankic and Lorenzo Piccoli.