Safety, Risk, and Compliance in COVID Pandemic

Even though faded, the stories of epidemics ravaging continents are still present in our collective memory. Coming from a city whose XVIII century plague-infested population, was locked down within the city walls and left there to die [1], I listen with suspicion to anyone offering measures aiming to reduce the impact of the latest outbreak. I believe this skepticism to be quite widespread sentiment emerging from a realisation that neither expert’s recommendations nor state’s restrictions are being designed to keep one safe, but at best they aim to protect the population as a whole. The pandemic came and suddenly things that were not supposed to happen to us started to occur. To analyse people’s reactions to that, I would like to use three theoretical concepts: constructivism, intersectionality, and subjectivity. First, to deconstruct the idea of safety; second to analyse the importance of individual’s identities in the risk assessment process; third to explore the use of obligation and shame in subjecting people to comply.

Safety first

Would you self-quarantine yourself knowing that you are sick? What about if you were a sole income provider for your family knowing that your kids are hungry already? Would you bring a critically sick person, the person you truly love, to a hospital if she asked you not to? Why? Paraphrasing Foucault I would argue that there are no good or bad decisions here, but that all the actions mentioned above are dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad [2]. The duality of good and safe opposing bad and dangerous is a social construct as any other. Deconstructing the role it plays in propagating certain behaviours may bring a better understanding of change in people’s behaviour occurring during the Covid pandemic. We were brought up in a carefully constructed illusion of safety. Whenever there was a danger, there was a fix, norm, regulation, institution – seatbelt, red light, driving license, the police. They were all put in place for our safety, or so we were told. We got used to giving up small bits of our freedom because it made sense because it gave us safety and safety was what we were told was good. Being reckless, rebellious, putting yourself at risk were childish, egoistic, and shameful behaviours, something that needed to be educated out of us. And for most, it worked until a new potentially dangerous situation came and made us realised that safety does not mean the same thing to all and that we are not all willing to sacrifice equally for its promise.

Risk assessment

“There is no home confinement in this state of emergency but the more we stay at home, the safer we will be,” said the Spanish Prime minister while announcing a new set of anti-Covid regulations [3]. But what if your home was not safe for you to be in in the first place? Covid is just as the flu, argued the president of the US [4], but what if (even if that was true) the flu was also a potentially deadly illness for you? Despite what the media might say, we are not all in this together. We are not equally at risk. Turning a blind eye to people’s individual complex identities and social entanglements can only result in their further marginalisation and place them in an even more vulnerable position. It is crucial to acknowledge that we will not be equally treated if trying to get admitted to already full hospitals. Our passport, skin colour, language that we speak, gender, age, or clothes we will be wearing consciously or subconsciously will play a crucial part in doctor’s selection process when choosing which patient should be assisted next. Only having this in mind we may understand why some people’s risk-mitigating strategies might stand in opposition to the official recommendations.
Finally, without an intersectional approach, the very existence and struggle of vulnerable people will not be acknowledged; their voices will remain unheard, muffled by the people privileged enough to regard the Covid pandemic, not as a threat to themselves.

Compliance

“Masks are Covid ‘new normal’ and those refusing them should be shamed” says Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and head of the UK scientific academy while presenting one of the most powerful tools of social control [5] – shame; and encouraging people to actively use it to force others into submission. We cannot fully understand the complexity of the shaming mechanism without exploring the subjectivities of people engaged in the process. Suddenly it is us who need to not only to control our behaviour but also to speak up and reprimand others if they decide to go against the rules. This newly granted power is, or so we are told, given to us to protect others, which suggests that if we do not exercise it we will be also the ones culpable if the disease spreads. Governments at the same time present the people who cannot or do not want to comply with the regulations as reckless, selfish, and dangerous; preparing for themselves perfect scapegoats which will be easily blamed for the failures of their policies.

Conclusion

We have been through a lot over the last nine months. We have been scared, confused, isolated, tired, worried about family members and friends, our economic situation, angry about restrictions put in place, annoyed by people who did not respond to the situation the way we did. However, we need to acknowledge that we were not all equally affected, equally scared, or facing an equal loss. Without this acknowledgment, we will not be able to understand one another, especially the people underrepresented in our social circles and in the public debate. It is also important to keep in mind that we do not need to understand or approve of other people’s behaviours. In fact, we do not need to do anything at all. We have options and by deconstructing our ideas, taking into account our identities, and exploring our subjectivities we can discover how many of them actually there are.

MJ – student of 2020/2021 master in Political Ecology, Degrowth, and Environmental Justice at ICTA UAB [photo taken by the author]

Sources
[1] Boras, Z., Trzeciakowski, L. (1971). W dawnym Poznaniu. Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 190.
[2] Britannica. Foucault and postmodernism [online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/political philosophy/Foucault-and-postmodernism [Accessed 15 November 2020] [3] McCann, T., (2020). Curfew imposed in Spain as national state of emergency declared over soar in virus cases [online] Available from: https://inews.co.uk/news/curfew-imposed-spain-national-state-emergency-declared-soar-virus-cases 737265 [Accessed 15 November 2020] [4] Subramaniam,T., (2020). Fact check: Trump falsely tweets that Covid-19 is less lethal than the flu [online] Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/06/politics/trump-flu-covid-lethal-tweet-fact-check/index.html [Accessed 15 November 2020] [5]RT. (2020). Masks are Covid-19 ‘new normal’ and those refusing them should be SHAMED like drunk drivers, says Royal Society chief [online] Available from: https://www.rt.com/news/494098-mask-shaming-new-normal/ [Accessed 15 November 2020]

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