Dr Maria Rovisco debates the forms of communal solidarity and informal policing that have emerged during the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis that has challenged our way of life and has laid bare the deep social inequalities[i] of contemporary societies. But the crisis has also revealed the immense power of social solidarity. In the UK, the rapid proliferation of networks of mutual aid and the hundreds of thousands of people who joined the NHS coronavirus volunteer scheme are sowing the seeds for a more caring and self-organized society. Following the deep social divisions opened by Brexit, there could not be a better time to imagine the pandemic as a portal which, as the writer Arundhati Roy[ii] reminds us, enables humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. As a sociologist, I am compelled to ask what kind of solidarity the common citizen is willing to extend to others and how are these others imagined and constructed as vulnerable and worthy of care. I have been particularly moved by how swiftly the local community in the village where I live has mobilised a network of about one hundred volunteers to support vulnerable people who are self-isolating. This support comes in many different shapes and forms: making phone calls to keep company with people who live alone, doing errands, and delivering food and medicines.
The village’s Facebook group offers a way of understanding how competing cultures of risk and solidarity are refracted in individual and collective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. While, on the one hand, the group is a public arena for staging citizenship through expressions of civic solidarity, on the other, the group is also a site where private anxieties and risks are channelled through the public shaming of individuals who flout social distancing rules. One week into the lockdown, one of the administrators reported that the group experienced a 200% increase in activity. The group is a microcosm of the quarantined village – a space where a hyperlocal solidarity[iii] is made publicly visible and celebrated. Group members learn how teachers in the local secondary school have been working with people in the community to design and make PPE (visors and scrubs) for GP surgeries and the local pharmacy. Posts appealing for donations of materials to make visors, or to assist vulnerable people in the village, are promptly answered and matters rapidly resolved. A photo of smiling staff at the local pharmacy wearing their protective visors attracts many likes and words of encouragement and celebration.
On Thursdays, there are always one or two congratulatory posts highlighting the weekly clap for NHS carers. This is a kind of civic solidarity[iv] that seeks to protect individuals against vulnerabilities and ensures that citizens’ basic needs are met. But this solidarity is also working as a replacement for a shrinking and debilitated welfare state. I was surprised that these local initiatives did not go in tandem with attempts to hold the UK government responsible for failing to protect health professionals and other key workers. The shortage of PPE is a national scandal[v] , but it has hardly been mooted in the village’s Facebook group. This might be, in part, because such acts of solidarity are mostly directed to those who are like “us” (that is, vulnerable people and NHS staff in the local community), rather than others beyond the confines of the local community of belonging. What is less apparent is a commitment to a more fully-fledged political solidarity that seeks positive social change and is not content with piecemeal responses to the epidemic emergency. It might well be that the deep uncertainty that is fostered by the media leads the state to seek to close down certain areas of debate and give citizens false feelings of certitude[vi]. The ‘stay home, stay safe, save lives’ campaign has clearly succeeded[vii] in mobilising mass compliance with social distancing measures. Yet, it has arguably also succeeded in preventing the public from engaging in meaningful contestation and debate of the government’s response to the pandemic. This is painfully evident in the way the village’s Facebook group plays out private fears and anxieties around Covid-19.
I noticed that two weeks into the lockdown there was a rise in posts where people complained about others posing a risk to the local community by mixing in with people from other families, sitting in at the local park, exercising outside the home, and gathering in groups. These posts attracted numerous comments where locals joined in shaming the rule-breakers in a language that was at times disrespectful and abusive. I found these online exchanges very disturbing because although the culprits were never identified by their names, the posts echoed an Orwellian micro-state where citizens engage in active surveillance of their neighbours; people are literally spying on their neighbours and reporting them to the police. This kind of vigilante behaviour is not, as I found out, unusual. A sharp rise in the reporting of lockdown breaches has been also observed, for example, in Germany[viii], Italy and Spain[ix] as quarantined populations grow tired of confinement. But private anxieties and risks are being converted into public issues (on Facebook) not as part of a critical public dialogue where citizens win back the competence to make their own judgements about risk[x], but through a fundamentalist belief in the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ motto that embellishes the pulpits of government officials in the televised daily briefings. It is vital that we interrogate whether the curtailing of civil liberties is shutting down public debate about the epidemic emergency and its social and economic ramifications. Gone are the Brexit days when scientific expertise was dismissed in British public life. “Led by science[xi]” is the government’s mantra to flatten the curve of viral transmission.
If the onus is on citizens to show that they are flattening the curve by complying with the lockdown, then the government should also engage citizens in decision-making about what public health interventions might be appropriate to fight Covid-19. The message ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ should not be seen as an invitation to engage on vigilantism, stay silent or uncritically embrace scientific rationality. “Following the science” is not politically or morally neutral[xii]. It is crucial that more democratic conversations between state and citizens take place with regards to risks about infection, threats to privacy, and the health needs of vulnerable groups. We need a “public politics” where we all have a voice and the opportunity to scrutinize scientific advice and the government’s plans for relaxing social distancing measures. For example, decisions regarding the use of masks and face coverings in public spaces should involve consultation with the general public, key workers, and civil society groups. As citizens, we must also resist the allure of British national exceptionalism[xiii] and learn from others[xiv] fighting Covid-19 in other parts of the world. This is particularly pressing as the UK government appears to be retreating from international cooperation[xv] to fight a virus that is oblivious of borders.
Dr Maria Rovisco is Associate Professor at School of Sociology and Policy, University of Leeds