“My application got accepted, I can go to the bakery!” announced my father, excited that he’d be able to go buy bread after one week of strict confinement. He had just submitted an online request to get a permit to go to the bakery located exactly one block away from our home, in one of the neighborhoods in Santiago that is under lockdown. Legally, we can only leave the house with a permit issued by the national police, which can be downloaded from the Internet after we provide our national identification number, our address, and the address where we are going—“the bakery,” wrote my father, vaguely but indeed accurately. Different permits are available according to the reasons for the trips we are allowed to undertake: purchasing goods deemed essential, walking the dog, going to a funeral, and taking food to an older member of the family, to name a few, and they are only valid for a limited amount of time. Four hours to go to the supermarket, half an hour for walking the dog, and twelve hours maximum to go to a hospital, if needed.
The permit consists of a pdf file that can be downloaded to a smartphone, sent via email, or printed, and should be carried during the whole time we are outside the house. My father shows me the one he was so happy to get: besides all the information he provided, the permit has the exact times of validity, a QR code, and the electronic signature of a high-ranking police officer who my dad is convinced read and approved his application personally. “Nobody read the application, the system automatically creates the file with all the information you filled in,” I tell him. Not because I have some kind of first-hand knowledge about how the system works, but rather because there is no way—I think—an application could be evaluated in the period of about five seconds between clicking on submit the form and download the file. Intrigued by this possibility, my father concludes the conversation by stating that the permit is then “only useful” if he is stopped by the police and that this is highly unlikely in the one block that separates my house from the bakery. I agree with him. It leads me to wonder about all the other documents we obtain, store, and carry only because of the also highly unlikely chance we’ll get approached by the police. This Covid-19 permit is just one more.
Ordinary paperwork for extraordinary times? Maybe, except that for people in Chile there is nothing quotidian about asking for an online, automatic permit to go to the bakery or to walk the dog. This pandemic has brought most of them new ways of experiencing old feelings of insecurity, anger, and abandonment that were behind last year’s uprising, and also new ways of experiencing the law and the state’s reach. As many observers of bureaucracy have pointed out, documents do not, in themselves, resolve the problems that once justified their existence and that the documents seem to address, such as containing the spread of a virus, advancing women’s living conditions around the world (Riles 2001), or improving the transparency of a government (Hetherington 2011). Or at least it is not as clear as establishing a lineal relationship between what a document says it does and what actually happens. Getting the permit will protect my dad from a fine, not from a potential infection, which doesn’t mean, however, that one of the ways people will engage with these documents—by avoiding going out if they are able to, for example—could help in preventing the spread of the virus.
Documents, as Matthew S. Hull (2012) showed, play both semiotic and non-semiotic roles. They can be representations of other things, documenting “realities,” and they can also be tools for establishing relationships between people. As the control of mobility increases, so do the mediations—such as the Covid-19 permit—between police and governments, on the one side, and the governed and policed people, on the other. From a public policy perspective, the effects of these documents can be multiple: they may help in controlling the epidemic, and (or?) the opposite. In the case of Chile, permits to go out in neighborhoods under lockdown, safe-conducts (salvoconductos) during the nightly curfews, and affidavits signed at the airport are the least controversial ones. Special IDs for people who have recovered from Covid-19 and helicopter flight authorizations for rich people to spend the weekend at their beach houses despite the prohibition have been the subject of more heated public discussions—not to mention the recording, gathering, and publication of data on the people infected, recovered, or dead, which requires a large amount of documentation that illustrates how “the state sees” (Scott 1998) in pandemic times.
How did a health crisis become one of controlling populations through an increased amount of paperwork, bureaucratic complexity, prosecutable offenses, and, ultimately, criminal law? How did we come to be “governed through” (Simon 2007), and not only “against” coronavirus? There is no easy answer to this question, and we have yet to see how all these new bureaucratic technologies will shape new ways of living . . . and buying bread.
Hetherington, Kregg. 2011. Guerrilla Auditors. The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Riles, Annelise. 2001. The Network Inside Out. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Simon, Jonathan. 2007. Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.