Are We in the Same Boat? Ethnographic Lessons of Sheltering in Place from International Seafarers and Algerian Harraga in the Age of Global Pandemic

Stephanie Love & Liang Wu

To cite this article: Stephanie Love & Liang Wu (2020) Are We in the Same Boat? Ethnographic Lessons of Sheltering in Place from International Seafarers and Algerian Harraga in the Age of Global Pandemic, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 55-65, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761211

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As the pandemic of the novel coronavirus has swept across the globe, national governments have reacted by restricting the movement of people. The day-to-day mobility of billions has been interrupted, and “non- essential” workers have been instructed to stay at home under lockdown orders, many of whom have reported experiencing “cabin fever” after several days or weeks of staying indoors. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “cabin fever” as “extreme irritability and restlessness from living in isolation or a confined indoor area for a prolonged time.”1 Significant to this article, the concept has its root in the maritime world. “Cabin” literally means a room on a ship or boat, and its compartmental nature is proving to be damaging to both social and political psyches around the world.

For many who are confined to their homes, the “boat” may be a striking metaphor as the weeks of worldwide containment turn into months or more. Nautical metaphors have perhaps never resonated as much as during this global pandemic. However, one must remember that for many others, the “boat” and its accompaniments of movement, containment, and quarantine are much more than metaphors. The word “quarantine” has a nautical etymology, stemming from the 40 days that a ship coming from plague-stricken countries was isolated at port in the 17th century. During this 2020 coronavirus pandemic, 90 percent of all material products and goods, including survival essentials, are still transported by seafarers who are “quarantined” at sea because of concerns about the coronavirus and the need for labor to ship supplies. “The boat” has powerful social meanings beyond the context of seafarers as well. In Algeria, for example, people some- times describe their country as a prison, and for those who lack the social and economic capital to obtain visas, boats of various sizes and capacities are the only avenue through which they can leave their country for Europe.

As two doctoral candidates conducting dissertation fieldwork on different forms of mobility when the global coronavirus crisis hit and rendered us physically immobile, we realized that much more was at stake than our ability to “finish” our research. As our very understanding of mobility went up in the air, the paradoxes of the globalized world became more apparent and the romance of uninterrupted time in the field and “deep hanging out” was thrown out the window. While media reports increasingly point out the health and economic inequalities deter- mining how the coronavirus impacts different people based on class, race and nationality, we also need to think about how people are forced to “shelter in place” differently, reflecting a strong unevenness of intensity and experience. Drawing from our ethnographic fieldwork, we provide two examples of how the novel coronavirus has functioned as a motor for the interruption and containment of people’s physical and social movements.

Figure 1. Graffiti captured in early 2020 on the walls of the Mediterranean port city of Oran, Algeria. It reads, “Life without life is no life.” Next to the boat icon, it says in smaller writing: “I was just about the say that.”

All Hands on Deck: Commandeering and Coercing Labor On and Off Shore

On March 20, 2020, I (Liang Wu) was in a meeting with a guesthouse director named Matthew when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a statewide lockdown. As part of my dissertation research on seafarers and international shipping, I had been frequenting this guesthouse to learn about its background and  operation.  The  facility is located in the historic sailortown area of New York City and is run by a maritime mission. By the time the lockdown order was is- sued, the last tourists who were staying at the guesthouse had checked out. I found myself among the only remaining guests, including asylees, survivors of domestic violence and, of course, seafarers and other sojourners who also had no family or home to go to in the city. The pandemic had underlined our commonality even as we seemed worlds apart.

Figure 2: Intermodal shipping at a modern container port between the container ship and trucks through gantry cranes, all operated by humans.

The lockdown also posed a practical question for my research: How would I proceed from here? I’ve been taught that anthropologists are not supposed to write ethnographies based on armchair speculations but on-the-ground fieldwork. With the spread of the coronavirus though, my original plan of traveling on a container ship to participate  in and observe working seafarers’ life at sea had been postponed indefinitely. Days before the lockdown order, I also received an email from a seafarer center informing me that all ship visits that I had been doing with them at the Port of New York and New Jersey had to be cancelled. The necessity to stay at home and practice social distancing reduces the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus by limiting people’s physical mobility. It also meant that fieldwork had been rendered more difficult if not impossible.

Just when I thought that my research had come to a halt, Matthew met with me and gave me permission to stay at the guesthouse. “You can stay here until things get better,”  he explained. He also asked me to assist the guesthouse in carrying out their ongoing survey project. Having learned about my field knowledge and experiences, Matthew brought me into contact with those seafarer guests still in the guesthouse to arrange and conduct structured interviews at a safe distance. From the vantage point of my guest- house room, I analyzed the survey data and previously collected industrial publications, reviewed archival materials and read news reports. I was “staying home” and continuing my “fieldwork,” all in the midst of a global pandemic. I was literally in an armchair, yet I was also on-the-ground.

Figure 3. View of a normally bustling New York City street from a window of the seafarer guesthouse during lockdown.

“If you see anything that needs to be done, feel free to let us know about it or do it your- self. All hands on deck,” said Matthew upon the suspension of all housekeeping services and the implementation of new policies to protect the guesthouse staff and guests from virus infection. Matthew is an ordained member of the clergy but, in the face of the coronavirus, he served more as a captain or commander. This was a role in great demand as the remaining guests and staffers got on board with keeping this place of shelter running. “We seafarers have learned to be in- dependent while working as a team. That is how we take care of our ships,” explained Gerald, an experienced U.S. seafarer I interviewed and who was waiting for his next ship of duty. “On board a [modern] container ship, you have just enough hands to operate the ship. Everyone has a role to play. The crew does their laundry and cleans their own cabins. So, this is no problem. We have faced a lot of hardships at sea.” The nature of sea-faring seemed to have prepared Gerald and other seafarers for handling the reality of the coronavirus pandemic on shore.

Figure 4. Ship visit at anchorage by means of a connecting boat and a rope ladder lowered by the seafarers on board.

Meanwhile, my phone started beeping with messages from working seafarers to whom I had given my contact information during previous ship visits in both Hong  Kong and New York. As they managed to obtain internet services at ports, they learned about the coronavirus outbreak in the United States and were worried about my situation. “How’s it going in USA? Take care of yourself dude,” Johnny’s text read. I met Johnny at the Port of Hong Kong in December 2019, a time of intense protests and social unrest in the city not long before the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. Hong Kong was virtually a war zone of regular conflicts and violence, and seafarers were advised or ordered by their employer companies not to take shore leave for safety reasons.

When I boarded Johnny’s ship with a port chaplain near the end of 2019, we were not allowed to bring the crew to our shuttle van for them to take a break from the shipboard environment and visit the seafarer center and city. We could only sit down with some crewmembers in the mess room to talk about their situation. Johnny was among them. He was a young Hong Kong cadet  aspiring  to be an officer. Fresh and new in the seafaring world, he had only started to experience the contemporary, harsh reality of sailing at sea. As I have come to learn, this reality is not nearly as romantic or hedonistic as that portrayed in popular literature. Johnny had also begun to realize that the international seafaring industry was subject to local, regional and international uncertainties and disruptions. These included everything from national social movements to, later, a global pandemic. And he came to realize how disconnected it was to be a seafarer who usually worked for weeks or months on end in severe isolation. He had social distancing well be- fore the coronavirus pandemic started.

This may sound counterintuitive, since seafarers are physically traveling across oceans to different ports of the world where they load and unload cargo. If anything, seafarers should be among the world’s most mobile populations working in, arguably, the most globalized industry. But in reality, many seafarers I have interviewed describe their ships as a “prison.” Significantly, their sense of imprisonment has only intensified since the COVID-19 outbreak, as shore leave and crew changeover at different ports of the world have been largely banned over concerns about spreading the coronavirus. This means that as many as 150,000 crewmembers have been forced to continue working on board even when their job contracts have expired. These seafarers are responsible for shipping 90 percent of everything that travels the globe, including fuel, food and medical supplies. Billions of lives around the world literally depend on Chinese, Filipino, Russian, Ukrainian, Indonesian, Indian and many other nationalities of seafarers who keep international trade and the global economy afloat before and during the pandemic. Even so, they are never mentioned in the mainstream lists of “essential workers.”

By April 2020, the majority of the world population has experienced or are experiencing localized or national lockdowns. One might argue that the world is finally getting  a taste of the seafaring life, a life of isolation and social distancing. Still, the “cabin fever” across the globe is qualitatively different from that of seafarers, who do not have the provisions of daily life that so many others do. Their necessities and conveniences are restricted to the shipboard inventory. At sea, there are no medical facilities and services, no ready access to the internet and phone services, and thus no electronic proximity to family, friends and other societal members. These are the things that many people on shore, especially the well-off of the global North, take for granted. These are also the things that have enabled me as a fieldworker to continue with my dissertation research while leaving working seafarers contained in their actual cabins on board.

Figure 5. Authorized vendors inside the restricted port areas climbing the gangway of a container ship and carrying bags of commodities to be sold to seafarers.

In late February 2020, a few weeks  before  the global coronavirus pandemic forced me (Stephanie Love) to abandon my dissertation fieldwork site, young people in the large Algerian port city of Oran had begun making predictions. Many people thought that the government would use the virus to shut down al-Hirak. Al-Hirak, or “the movement,” began during the early months of my fieldwork in  the spring of 2019, when Algerians around the country took to the streets in the millions — each Friday before and after the midday prayer— to protest the political regime that has ruled Algeria since it won its independence from France in 1962 after a bloody eight-year war. Al-Hirak was remarkable in that it was the first time that Algerians of all ages and political orientations came together publicly since the 1990s civil  war. Known  locally as the Black Decade, this violent period involved govern- mental forces and opposition militants fighting each other and ushering in a decade-long reign of terror. While the peaceful protests of al-Hirak led to the resignation of 20-year president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, they did not end there. Protestors called for nothing less than a complete breakdown of the iron grip of le pouvoir, a popular expression that can be glossed as “the powers that be” and who are now commonly referred to as “the mafia.”

Nearly six months before the pandemic hit, in September 2019, I was sitting in a windowless computer room with my friend Aziz at the cultural association where he volunteers. As he showed me a documentary he was producing about the Hirak movement, he stopped mid-frame to point out an image of a large fishing boat sitting in the central square of the city in the earlier days of the movement. A large banner, written in French, hung from the boat’s side, saying: “Good news! First, this is the last boat [boti] leaving Algeria. Second, it is reserved for the powers that be [le pouvoir].” According to Aziz, the significance of this symbolic “last boat” would be clear to any Algerian.

Figure 6. A screenshot from Aziz’s documentary. The banner hung from the boat reads “Good news! First, this is the last boat (boti) leaving Algeria. Second, it is reserved for the powers that be (le pouvoir).”

For decades, thousands of Algerians each year have embarked on life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean, often on rickety fishing boats. These travelers are known locally as harraga — “the burners” — refer- ring to the ID cards that they burn before their trips in case the authorities catch them, and perhaps their “burning” desire to reach Europe. Most Algerians know someone who has embarked on this journey, because since the early 2000s, harraga had been the only future that many young Algerians could fore- see. A popular Algerian  expression  goes, “I’d rather be eaten by fish than by worms” (yakulni al-ḥūt mayakulnish ad-dūd). Death at sea is presented as noble when compared to the “slow death” of being “locked in” Algeria where there are few jobs, a stagnant political system, and where corruption is rotting away the material and social fabric of society. It is not surprising that in Algeria an important status symbol is the visa. Being able to obtain a visa to travel means that you are able to legally leave the country, a privilege that the majority of Algerians only dream of having.

However, for a brief moment at the beginning of the Hirak movement, many Algerians began to tell me that harraga had stopped. Young Algerians, they told me, were choosing to “stay in place” in order to work to- ward a future for their country. Part metaphor and part joke, the “last boat” — as the pro- test banner read — would instead be for the powerful elite who have had an iron grip on the country for more than 60 years. Whether or not it was true that harraga had stopped, it became a point of pride for many. The “last boat” out of Algeria was therefore not a metaphor in Algeria, or at least not only a metaphor. It was a real hope that a future could be constructed in Algeria, not just elsewhere. A year after al-Hirak began, at the end of February 2020 when the coronavirus still appeared far away, I was at lunch with my Algerian husband and Aziz. We were sitting around a white plastic table in a small but densely populated Algerian town just outside of Oran. We had eaten at this small road- side cafeteria before, where the grilled sardines were fresh and the atmosphere convivial. With our hands covered in sardine skin and oil, we spoke about what had happened to al-Hirak a year after it began. The excitement of the early days of the movement was gone, and Aziz, like many, was again dream- ing of leaving for Europe. “I cannot take it any longer,” he said, “I have to go live my life elsewhere. I swear to you I feel like I am in prison. Algeria will drive me crazy.” My husband — who fled the violence of the Black Decade in 1995 and has since made a life in exile — looked at Aziz and responded, “You know Aziz, I’ve had a  recurrent  nightmare for the last 25 years that I’m trapped inside Algerian and can’t get out.” As Aziz and my husband laughed, I took notes.

Two weeks later, in the early morning of Friday, March 13, 2020, my husband entered our bedroom, making an effort to remain strong and calm, and reported that we might be trapped in Algeria. President Trump had just announced the shutting down of flights from Europe to the United States. To make matters worse, Morocco and Spain overnight had shut out flights to their airports. At that moment, I thought of another close friend whose children attended the same day care as my daughter in Oran. As the news of the coronavirus began encroaching on our local world in the first weeks of March, and we began to get more and more nervous, she looked at me and said, “Algeria won’t survive this. At least you can leave. We have to stay.” That morning, we quickly packed up our life — 2½ years of baby toys and books, food, clothes,   as   well   as   my   research materials— and left in the early afternoon. As we de- parted on one of the last flights out of Algeria, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was “abandoning ship,” leaving my friends and using my privileged documents to get out while they had no choice but to “shelter in place.” My family and I would, in fact, be taking the “last boat” out of the country, even if that “boat” was a plane. Since I left, my friends have remained in Algeria, living under a strict daily curfew (con- finement) of 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. In an interview  at the beginning of April, the Algerian president’s spokesperson, Belaïd Mohand Oussaïd, suggested that al-Hirak was to blame for the spread of the coronavirus. At least for the mo- ment, “the movement” has been “contained.”


While 2019 could be characterized as the year of the social movement — massive revolutionary protests that disrupted the status quo in places from  Hong  Kong  and  Chile  to Algeria and Lebanon — 2020 might be the year of containment. As governments around the world have begun emphasizing the need for stronger measures to “flatten the curve” of virus infection, this may also prove to be an unprecedented instrument to limit people’s freedom of movement, contain public demonstrations and gatherings, commandeer the labor of workers and consolidate power.

Figure 7. Graffiti on the walls of the port city of Oran, Algeria. It reads, “Travel, you are not a tree. Wake up, you idiot.”

Comparing and contrasting the meanings of “the boat” for Algerian youth and inter- national seafarers, it is clear that there is  no universal, uniform sociocultural meaning of ships and their various  metaphors. For many of its young people, Algeria is something of a prison and the boat is the singular means of liberation, even though that meaning reversed momentarily during al-Hirak, whereas in the case of many sea- farers, the ship is the  prison factory,  albeit a mobile one that travels the world as its workers are locked in place.

Finding ourselves in “the same boat” as our interlocutors during the global pandemic of COVID-19 might momentarily blur the line between the “foreign ethnographer” and “local informant.” At the same time, divergences of our experiences of sheltering in place are further accentuated by the corona- virus crisis. The two examples we offered in this article show how “sheltering in place” is a historically and socioeconomically complex process that is now leading to various outcomes as the crisis unfolds. These types of stories will likely be all the more important for an anthropology of interruption, movement and confinement as ethnographers reassemble their research projects in the light of this global pandemic.


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Stephanie Love is a doctoral candidate in linguistic and cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of  New  York. Her dissertation explores the  social  production of orientation and disorientation in Oran, Algeria, centering on the dynamics of contested urbanism, revolution and language in this post- settler colonial city. She has an M.Ed. from the University of Washington. She has published articles in Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Current Issues in Language Planning, Inter- national Journal of Multicultural Education and other journals. She is the co-editor (with G. R. Bullaro) of the volume The Works of Elena Ferrante: Reconfiguring the Margins (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Liang Wu is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His dissertation examines the lived experiences and meanings of mobility and immobility of multinational seafarers working in the international shipping industry. Through re- search on board ocean-going container ships and at the ports of Hong Kong and New York and New Jersey, Wu hopes to shed light on the lifeways of seafarers as humans at sea and crucial sustainers of international trade and lives around the world, thereby reflecting on the complex reality of con- temporary globalization, logistics, techno-capital- ism and labor. He has published in the Hong Kong Anthropologist and has an M.Phil. from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with the thesis Sailing on a Neoliberal Sea: Multinational Seafarers on Container Ships (2011).

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