The Spirit of Lockdown
Thank you to all my friends IRL and to all my like-minded twitter pals (many of whom I know IRL now) for keeping me sane during a pandemic and for speaking out and being critical. I have connected with many wonderful people outside of my discipline and I am excited for the research we are doing together, The most frightening part of this pandemic has been watching intelligent people being blinkered and the moralizing discourses that have allowed the state to deflect responsibility. Never underestimate the power of speaking your truth and thinking outside of the box. I would also like to pay tribute to all emergency and key workers.
[Photo by Gemma Ahearne]
The Spirit of Lockdown
The pandemic has seen the state using an emergency raft of legislation in form of the Coronavirus Act that means we have made a public health issue into a law enforcement issue. We should never have criminalized behaviours in this way. It has terrorized the most vulnerable in society and had much broader ramifications. We have allowed the fear from this very real Virus (I have had Covid) to be weaponized against us.
I did care, and was a vocal critic of these measures, documented in blog posts below and my forthcoming journal article.
In The Law Gazette, human rights barrister Adam Wagner is quoted as tweeting: “Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I would find myself interviewed on Good Morning Britain about whether it is illegal to sit on a park bench” (Taddia, 2021). And yet this is the dystopia we have plunged into.
Kirsty Brimelow QC tells the Gazette: ‘I am regularly advising people who are worried about being arrested if they sit on a park bench or walk their dog more than once a day.’ According to Brimelow, ‘the police have put too many resources into stopping those who would be unlikely to be presenting a danger in spreading the virus… [they] often lose sight of the purpose of the regulations – they aren’t to stop people walking on their own or in pairs or having a rest distanced from others” (Taddia, 2021).
Both Wagner and Brimelow have been key figures in holding the police accountable during the pandemic. Far from being an attack on the police, I believe that this has put officers in an unenviable position. They should never have been asked to do this. It has caused untold damage between public-police relations.
Citizens were encouraged to act ‘in the spirit of lockdown’ rather than being educated about the difference between the law and guidance. The ‘spirit of lockdown’ took on a ‘common sense’ discourse whereby everyday acts would be criminalized. Much of the public supported the issuing of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNS) as people were ‘breaking the rules’. The descent into authoritarian rule came at the cost of comradery and care for our neighbors and communities. The most vulnerable in society were abandoned as we virtue signaled with claps and rainbows for NHS staff and key workers who were burning out and denied meaningful pay rises. A divide and rule that deflected from the failures of the state response and instead blamed Jean from over the road, a widow who had a friend in her garden for a cup of tea. Or Nathan, a carer suffering from severe depression, who went for two runs a day to fight the black dog engulfing his life. Abuse victims were locked inside with their abusers, and those suffering from a range of addictions and recoveries were abandoned by the government and the third sector.
Staying at home is a bit difficult when you do not have one. A deadly virus did not stop house repossessions from happening. At least 130,000 households have lost their homes during the pandemic so far (Jayenetti, 2021).
The aggressive “stay the fuck at home” messaging on social media sought to regulate fellow citizens through judgement and surveillance. This ignored a gendered risk assessment and those experiencing domestic violence and other abuse (Boyce Kay, 2020; Walklate et al, 2020). We locked people at home with their abusers.
‘The Virus’ and ‘The Science’ became religions, and people who voiced legitimate concern at the wide rafts of harm and collateral damage were labelled as ‘cranks’ ‘deniers’ and ‘anti vaxxers’. ‘Science’ was presented as a homogeneous objective truth, and little coverage was given to the heterogeneity that exists within every facet of medicine and public health (in addition to the competing interests of money and power). Dr Anthony Fauci recently claimed that: “Attacks on me are attacks on science” (Kilander, 2021) representing a terrifying understanding of medical control as a state apparatus.
I interrogate this health/power/criminality-nexus with my co-author being published later in 2021 (Freudenthal & Ahearne 2021).
Critiques of the fear used to control the population has become more frequent, with many vocal critics worried about the long-term fallout from a public that no longer trusts medical experts. This could have been remedied with a nuanced and balanced assessment of concerns and risks. I wrote a blog called the ‘War on Dissent’ here, and ‘The state we are in’ here.
It is clear that the very real pandemic has been used as an opportunity for the state to make an unprecedented grab for power whilst we are in the state of exception (Agamben, 2005; Arendt, 1951).
Freudenthal and Campling (2021) argue for the need of medical professionals to protect the rights of individuals who face both mental health and public health restrictions. They state: “The public health restrictions from the covid-19 pandemic also cause significant deprivations of liberty in wider society. Being detained as a result of mental ill health during a wider national “lockdown,” compounds the deprivations of liberty that are already imposed on the whole of our society”.
Zoomocracy and the collapse of left politics
During the pandemic the Labour party has not presented an adequate opposition.
Leftie Historian (2021) has argued that there has been a collapse of left politics : “The scale of collapse bears comparison with that of 1914 when the international left folded in the face of the challenge of war. One explanation then was that these policies reflected the interests of a privileged layer – the labour aristocracy. Perhaps the same is true today. It is not a labour aristocracy bought off by super profits. It is a privileged, better paid and educated white collar layer – the Labour Zoomocracy”.
The Labour Zoomocracy has been quick to call for further lockdowns, harder border controls and has failed to acknowledge the inequalities that they both benefit from, and are complicit in. The middle-class sneers about pubs reopening and the protests against lockdown, whilst happen to attend and support their own protests. This demonstrates how removed many on the left are from the lived experience of suffering. It is easy to call for extended periods of lockdown when you are saving money, baking banana bread and transferring your risk to precarious warehouse and delivery staff.
Preston and Firth argue convincingly that plans for quarantine and social isolation systematically work against the needs of the working class, and rely on classed assumptions about how markets and altruism operate (Preston and Firth, 2020).
In the interests of transparency, I have been in the first 3 year fixed-term contract of my life, a middle-class job for a working-class woman. I have been incredibly privileged during the pandemic to be working from home and having the stability and security of a regular monthly wage. I know how privileged this is and it is one reason why I never moan about my working conditions. I grew up in poverty as one of 6 kids to parents on benefits. That lived experience of poverty and addiction are deep in my bones, and I openly champion the centering of lived experience (Ahearne, 2021).
The problem is that the decision-makers are very privileged people and theory sanitizes their decision-making. It is easy to stay at home when groceries magically appear at your door and you have a large comfortable home and garden. It is a world away from being trapped in unsuitable damp housing with several children. We plunged many people into utter hell through repeated lockdown strategies. We abandoned the most vulnerable. Public Health policy must never be allowed to do this ever again.
The idea of restricting services and movements has meant a growing number of collateral damage that was not factored into calculations/ modelling.
Limb (2021) writes in the British Medical Journal about the record-high of alcohol related deaths during 2020. As the daughter of a dead alcoholic I have been worried about those struggling with alcoholism throughout the pandemic. I wrote about it here.
Inclusion London argues that “Despite the government’s rhetoric about protecting and supporting Disabled people, the reality is that they have been treated less fairly and discriminated against across all areas of their lives” (Hughes, 2021).
We terrified the vulnerable into staying at home, ruining mental health in the process. Again, in the interests of transparency, I am ‘clinically vulnerable’ and I have had Covid. It is about a balance of harms, and I fear my mental health more than I fear the virus.
And yet at the same time the government released elderly people who had Covid back into care homes. The care sector widely dispute Health secretary Matt Hancock’s account of the early handling of the pandemic (Martin, 2021).
Our gaslighting government are trying to rewrite history. I know everyone is over 1984 at this point, but come on!
Self-responsibilization and moralizing discourses
Those who need social contact to stay well (and alive) were made to feel guilty. The years dedicated to social prescription and a full life that gives us joy and a strong support network were annihilated. “You seen see friends on Zoom” people said.
A divide has been created between those who are socially isolated (by choice or circumstance) and those of us for whom seeing friends and family, having full lives and plans are ordinary and integral for us to be human and stay well. Disability has been presented as homogeneous, people happy to be locked indoors to “stay safe”.
Benches being cordoned off (Frodsham, 2020) and toilets remaining locked have been hostile forms of urban architecture for those of us with disabilities. They discriminate against the elderly, parents needing to change children, those breastfeeding, injured people, etc. A different Public Health policy would have encouraged us to use the outdoors and to socialise safely keeping distance. As communities we have have helped one another more and identified when people needed help.
During Lockdown 1.0 as I was taking groceries to my 79 year old widowed mother who lives alone, I was questioned by acquaintances as to whether I was “breaking the rules”. I was not, but if the rules had made it illegal, I would have broken them. It was at this point I was terrified for our country and how quickly authoritarianism seeps in under the guise of ‘keeping us safe’. If you need the state to tell you whether you are ‘allowed’ to assist your 79 year old parent, you need to engage some critical-thinking. And fast.
I engaged in some thought experiments on twitter. People had been working out 1 hour walking routes from their homes to avoid breaking ‘the rules’, and some would not return home to fetch an umbrella or gloves as they had their ‘allocation’ for the day. They said it was immoral to go to the shop more times than ‘necessary’.These are intelligent people and it demonstrates the powerful motivation of fear to abandon logic.
During that first lockdown, (and the later lockdowns to some extent) people took great glee in phoning the police to report on neighbours for going on two runs a day or having a friend round. Before ‘support bubbles’ were introduced, those living alone were isolated and alone in their fear. They watched the news channels showing people saying goodbye on their death beds to family via ipads. These were some of the cruelest parts of the pandemic, that we allowed our seniors to spend 24/7 alone fearing their lonely deaths. Shame on us.
Many elderly people were isolated before Covid, but they had the company-at-a-distance when they had a cup of tea outside a cafe or attended the shops or walked their dog. All of a sudden life was submerged behind screens that many did not have access to.
Age UK’s Director reflected on their research findings: ““According to this research, as many as a third of all older people really are struggling and given the reluctance of this age group to admit their difficulties and ask for help we suspect that in reality the numbers affected are considerably higher – running into millions without doubt” (Age UK, 2020).
As we enter the next stages of the pandemic we must welcome the discussion of a balance of harms and push back against authoritarianism.
If you wish to make contact I can be contacted my twitter @princessjack or my email.
Agamben G. (2005) State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Arendt, H. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: Penguin Classics
Boyce Kay, B. (2020). ‘Stay the fuck at home!”: Feminism, family and the private home in a time of coronavirus, Feminist Media Studies, 20 (6), pp.883-888, Doi: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1765293
Dodsworth, L. (2021) A State of Fear, Pinter and Martin
Freudenthal, R. Ahearne, G. (Forthcoming, 2021) “Flouting the rules” or exposing the health/power/criminality-nexus in the state of exception?, Journal of Contemporary Crime, Harm, Ethics
Freudenthal, R. & Campling, H. (2021). Protecting the rights of individuals who face both mental health and public health restrictions. BMJ Opinion. Available from: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/02/19/protecting-the-rights-of-individuals-who-face-both-mental-health-and-public-health-restrictions/ [accessed 12th March 2021]
Harper, D. (2008). The Politics of Paranoia: Paranoid Positioning and Conspiratorial Narratives in the Surveillance Society, Surveillance and Society, 5 (1) pp.1-32
Preston, J., Firth, R., (2020). Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom. Palgrave Macmillan. 3030577139. 9783030577131
Preston, J. Firth, R., (2021). The pandemic is the new front line in the war on the working class, The Big Issue, 2nd March 2021, Available at: https://www.bigissue.com/opinion/the-pandemic-is-the-new-front-line-in-the-war-on-the-working-class/
Walklate, S., Richardson, J., Godfrey, B. (2020). Domestic Abuse- Family Violence, Disasters and Restrictions under Covid-19: An Overview. Working Paper No. 1. Domestic Abuse: Responding to the Shadow Pandemic, Liverpool: University of Liverpool