The coronavirus has spread to 184 countries, according to Johns Hopkins University, but while the COVID-19 virus is something nearly every country in the world shares, national responses to the pandemic have had wildly disparate outcomes. Comparing these responses suggest best-path approaches for suppressing the spread of the virus, while simultaneously highlighting systemic weaknesses on both the national and international level. But while nation-states are composed of overlapping economies, social institutions and bureaucracies, they also embody a national identity, made of its collective people and their thoughts.
Without recognition in the international ordersometimes without even geographical territorythe world's micronations are made almost entirely of this intangible spirit. Their response to the coronavirus pandemic can't be waged with medical resources, PPE supply lines and police-enforced social distancing. Instead, they have each other, and the identity they've built collectively. Through diplomatic channels (email), we reached out to micronations founded in the United States, to see how they're weathering the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and to hear what good tidings they bring to the people of the country that surrounds them.
Each had their own purpose behind founding their own country, and they weren't always what you might expect. While often the creations of eccentrics who have built for themselves a fantastic excuse for colorful costumes and elaborate titles, micronations aren't just for individualists and property-rights political gadflies, demonstrating instead a thoughtful and international inclination.
With territorial holdings within the states of California and Nevada, the 11-acre Republic of Molossia has its own currency (the Valora, which is valued against the price of chocolate chip cookie dough), postal service, national parks, volcanological institute, connection to Arthurian legend, national musical instrument (the kazoo-like molossaphone), rockets program and railroad.
President Kevin Baugh has been the leader of Molossia since 1999, except for a few days in 2010 when the country was overthrown and renamed Kickassia (Baugh subverted the short-lived dictatorship in his disguise as advisor Baron Fritz von Baugh). While embodying a light spirit and a certain brand of political satire, Molossia nurtures a surprisingly robust civic life and emulatesin miniaturemany of the functions of the modern state, with outreach via an online radio show, newsletter and state visits with fellow micronations.
Molossia does, however, rely on the larger surrounding nation for health care and other resources, paid back in "foreign aid," i.e. taxes"They need it - have you seen their roads?" a Molossian government website says. As in the surrounding United States, Molossians are adhering to standard practices in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Currently most resident Molossians are on a form of lockdown, with only a couple traveling to their place of employment outside our nation to work. Thus far we have not had any Molossians fall victim to the virus, which is excellent news and shows that our basic plan of lockdown and social distancing is working." President Kevin Baugh of the Republic of Molossia told Newsweek. "Hopefully it stays that way, not just for us here in Molossia, but over the border in the U.S. and all over the world."
Azul from Talossa!
The Greater Talossan Area roughly overlaps with the East Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the Kingdom itselffounded in 1979, when 14-year-old Robert Ben Madison, first in a line of elected kings and queens, declared his bedroom a sovereign stateis one of the earliest and most successful examples of a primarily online micronation, with more than a hundred active citizens around the world. Since 1995, Talossa has developed an elaborate government and culture, with a two-chamber legislature, cabinet ministers, political parties and its idiosyncratic invented language.
"We are like any other micronation out there in that what we do is very tongue-in-cheek and gives our participants a chance to make a difference in a unique societal framework," Talossian Jeffrey Ragsdale told Newsweek.
According to Talossan Prime Minister Daphne Lawless, Talossans haven't had an in-person meet up for several months, ensuring that "community transmission of COVID-19 in Talossa is zero."
"Talossans are pioneers at social distancing," Prime Minister Daphne Lawless told Newsweek, citing the exclusively online nature of their government and civic life. "For our Big Neighbour, the United States of America, I wish nothing but the best of health and welfare."
The Prime Minister ended our email correspondence with a Talossan proverb: "Voastra soleu ispu da srvivon, c' despasar acest malignh crisomileu din la Cas Bianc."
Using their online lexicon, their proverb translates loosely to, "Your only hope for survival is to get rid of that orange goblin in the White House."
"I come before you in a time of great uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic, now upon us, has touched every continent in the world, except for Antarctica," Grand Duke Travis McHenry said in a video address to the citizens of Westarctica, the micronation he founded in 2001. "However, this does not mean we are not affected, for Westarctica is a global community, with citizens in every corner of the Earth."
Westarctica claims as its sovereign territory a 620,000 square mile slice of West Antarctica called Marie Byrd Land (named for the wife of Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd), which is still considered by most nations to be the largest unclaimed territory on the planet.
Its leader sporting a uniform somewhere in the nebulous zone between Napoleonic and tinpot dictator, Westarctica emphasizes martial valor, heraldry and pomp, but aims it all at service-driven ends, particularly combating climate change. Citing its self-interest as an Antarctic country (if so far uninhabited), Westarctica pursues environmental causes via a scholarship grant, initiatives encouraging reduced meat consumption and the Westarctican Civilian Corps, which structures on-the-ground ecological work with military-style honors and awards. By creating their nation in Antarctica and a flag to rally around, Westarctica sees itself as providing a voice for a fragile ecosystem and bringing attention to the state of the Western Antarctic ice sheet.
As for their response to coronavirus, Grand Duke Travis suggested his citizens follow the recommendations of local health services, while emphasizing Westarctica's service-oriented national character.
"Our Foreign Minister, based in Germany, has been activated by the German military to assist with medical operations," Grand Duke Travis told Newsweek. "Aside from a bit of fatigue from the long hours, he's in good spirits."
Westarctica has also appointed the head of their national orchestra, Jon Langer, to the position of Kapellmeister, who will now have the duty of creating Westarctican music for the enjoyment of those sheltering in place.
While COVID-19 has yet to spread to Antarctica and no Westarctican yet lives on the southernmost continent, Grand Duke Travis expressed hope that "scientists at research stations across the continent are taking proper precautions."
The unusual nature of The Ambulatory Free States of Obsidia have made coronavirus precautions a cinch for the microstate. The nation's founder, Grand Marshal Caro Yagjian, took concrete steps against the pandemic, closing "the national briefcase" days before U.S. states began instituting shelter in place ordersthe landmass comprising The Ambulatory Free States of Obsidia consists of a medium-sized volcanic rock, broken into two chunks. Weighing about the size of a large pineapple, the transportable nation is sometimes displayed alongside a sign that reads, "Please feel free to touch country."
"Obsidia sees the U.S. federal response as a complete disaster," Grand Marshal Yagjian told Newsweek. "It is truly a failure of the American system in every way."
Her nation is calling for the United States to provide healthcare, hazard pay, PTO and sick leave for all frontline workers, including agricultural workers and those working at grocery stores and other ongoing food services.
"In times like this micronation activities can feel frivolous," Grand Marshal Yagjian said. "Many of our members are affected by job losses or having to put themselves at risk because they work the low-paying jobs that were not deemed essential until a few weeks ago."
While bordered on all sides by Oakland, California, the Ambulatory Free States were formed as a matriarchal "anti-state," Obsidia models LGBTQ and feminist-led alternatives to capitalism by promoting self-expression in pursuit of new concepts for ideal governance. An artistic collective in spirit, Obsidia citizens have made their own responses to coronavirus, including this guide to sewing your own face mask"
"My only hope is that we will come out of this with an energy that says working people will not tolerate abuse any longer," Grand Marshal Yagjian said. "Our embassy is closed, but our spirit of mutual aid and strength remain the same."
"The whole Zaqistan thing is not necessarily to talk to you here and pretend it's a 100 percent functioning country," New York artist and Republic of Zaqistan founder Zaq Landsberg told Newsweek. "It's a tool to make people question what is a 'real' country."
The Republic of Zaqistan is one of Landsberg's many large-scale creations, which often present as playfully interactive while subtly (or not-so-subtly, as with the NYPD mobile surveillance tower Landsberg transformed into a menacing spider) highlighting internationalist struggles or critiquing American militarism. Zaqistan is populated by robot sentinels, who stand guard over the Victory Arch, a monument to an unspecified victory ("When it happens, we'll have it ready," Landsberg said).
Landsberg created Zaqistan to explore how national sovereignty, and particularly diplomatic recognition, can be used as a tool to delegitimize people and populations. While initially inspired by how the sovereign status of Taiwan has been systematically delegitimizedincluding by the United Nationsthe creation of Zaqistan raised questions about his own relationship with the United States. Landsberg recalled a sense of shame hanging over his first visit to the land that would become a new micronation, which coincided with the George W. Bush administration's failure to adequately respond to Hurricane Katrina.
"Who decides what American is? If American stuff is happening and we don't agree with it, can we go someplace else? Can we disavow that?" Landsberg said. "Can I create my own country and my own identity?
In some ways, an uninhabitable micronation out in the desert, surrounded by the United States, highlights the absurdity of believing it's possible to fully separate our identities from our national origins"If you and I are born in America, everything we write and do is going to be American," Landsberg said.
But Landsberg came to believe it was possible to consciously transform a national identity, with Zaqistan as a model in miniature of how this process of self-conceiving operates. As he issued Zaqistan passports to a widening circle of friends and traveling companions, Landsberg found surprising power in the assertion of a joint sovereignty independent from modern nation-states. While in India, Landsberg extended Zaqistani citizenship to stateless Tibetan exile friends, who found their new citizenship in the micronation darkly hilarious.
"They travel on Indian residency cards. Literally to this day, Zaqistanwhich is kind of a joke countryis the only country they hold citizenship too," Landsberg said. "That change did it for me, because at first it was a tongue-in-cheek thing, but that made it turn. There was an actual thing that affected their lives, that was a little hard to describe or even for Americans to think about, because there aren't many stateless people in the United States."
Together, they were creating Zaqistani art, "joke or not," and collectively building a Zaqistani worldview. This same worldview informed Landsberg's response to the coronavirus pandemic, who largely dismissed the status of his micronation and instead explored how concepts of nationalism, both micro- and macro- could either become a great strength or a great impediment to how humanity weathers the COVID-19 virus.
"Zaqistan is in the middle of the Utah desert and there's a couple of robot sentinels out there," Landsberg told Newsweek. "In that sense the virus doesn't affect the land, but there are hundreds of Zaqistani citizens throughout the world and I worry about how they are."
Landsberg pointed out how national identity can play a surprising role in how effectively we as a country can combat the virus. For example, undocumented immigrants are more at risk for having less access to healthcare and employment opportunities, but the decision to keep them in this relegated status endangers everyonea problem created by our conception of national identity.
"The virus doesn't discriminate, it just attacks human hosts," Landsberg said. "When it's 'my country or yours' it can make both countries sicker in the long run."
Just as advocates for policies like Medicare for All have held up the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as evidence of the need for universal healthcare that won't endanger or bankrupt the millions of American workers freshly unemployed and without insurance, Landsberg sees in COVID-19 the failures of nationalism and the potential benefits in constructing more fruitful and open identities.
"These are problems of nationality and countries working together," Landsberg said. "Not even in a kumbaya sense, but how as humans we need to figure this problem out. The more we work together, the better it's going to be for everybody. Sectioning and dividing ourselves off could potentially make things worse."
Rather than the abolition of nationalist affiliations, Landsberg sees in micronations the potential for people to self-select identities that can bring them together. While nations in their composition, micronations lack a monopoly on force, making them voluntary associations capable of embodying a collective will. Rather than throwing out national identity, in the micronation model we can see the possibility of improving and better coordinating separate collectives, an activity which has become surprisingly literal in our atomized, shelter-in-place isolation.
"What if everybody starts coming up with a flag and ruling from their quarantine zone and their little identities?" Landsberg asked.
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