This essay traces how sailors aboard wooden sailing vessels (dhows) negotiate mobility across the Indian Ocean, revealing their precarious conditions preceding the COVID-19 pandemic that came to the fore after 2020. Focusing on Yusuf, a sailor in captivity in Iran during the pandemic, the essay suggests that the pandemic shone new light on preexisting patronage relations. However, these relations were creatively harnessed by laborers in times of crisis. Accustomed to sanctions regimes that restricted movement even before the pandemic, Yusuf facilitated his release through new patronage networks that built on his previous experiences of precarity. Rather than seeing this pandemic as a rupture, the essay argues that it led to an intensification of preexisting labor relations, such as patronage. The COVID-19 pandemic saw contagion, threat, vulnerability, devaluation, and precarity being used widely; however, these ideas were sutured to the Global South long before this pandemic, through sanctions regimes, occupation, and conflicts that restricted movement and disrupted supply chains. Patronage, then, was one mode in which maritime laborers navigated a geopolitical realm suffused with the language of threat and contagion. This essay charts a complex geopolitical reordering across the Global South, one not always mediated by the West.

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