Everything has changed and nothing has changed

Everything has changed and nothing has changed

Hannah Bradby

The rules of engagement have been queered by Covid-19. During March and April 2020, as Europeans adjust to the restrictions of living with a pandemic, old certainties are shifting under our feet.

When restrictions were imposed in March, adaption to new routines of employment, exercise, family life under novel constraints dominated news reporting. Cheery commentary on how to make the most of lockdown by clearing out your cupboards and starting a sourdough culture, encouraged householders to discover old domestic habits anew. Enjoyment of a tidy home, perfumed with fresh bread has been undercut by a reminder that domestic confinement facilitates domestic abuse. Marking Mothers’ Day and the Easter weekend with the new norms of social distancing: teaching ageing relatives to use social media; simultaneous video-conferenced meal times; house party drinks.

Interest in the flouting of restrictions – hill walking, sitting on the beach, enjoying the park a bit too much – made the moral dimensions of the pandemic visible as they were figured out in public. The rights and wrongs of using public space under new exigences have been vigorously discussed. Previously mundane activities – food shopping, going for a run, walking the dog – have taken on new ethical dimensions that have to be navigated. The norms of when and how to be a body in public have altered and are uncertain. What used to be a minor cough could now be a criminal offence, if deployed appropriately. Opportunities for online shaming of those deemed to have behaved irresponsibly abound.

What used to be rational economic behaviour – marking up scarce and sought after goods –  has become price-gouging, toilet paper profiteering. Staying at home with a sniffle might have once been malingering, but now is a question of saving lives. Staying off work is no longer shirking, but an act of solidarity.

The pandemic has upset our understanding of the social world and social etiquettes are changing. The pandemic is also exposing and re-inscribing old divisions.

Post-colonial migrants have long staffed the UK’s NHS in significant numbers, and have been channelled into lower status specialisms. The disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 among minority ethnic doctors should not have been a surprise.

Across Europe migrant labour is employed in elder care homes. Such low paid work sustains households that have few alternative employment options. Difficulties in protecting staff and patients from Covid-19 contamination in clinical settings have been in evidence: failures to supply personal protective equipment, staff shortages due to sickness and quarantine, inadequate testing regimes. In elder care the low status of the work and the vulnerability of the recipients of care have facilitated infection, but with less publicity. Now the large number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes across Europe is being widely reported and is probably an under-count. Will our information systems pick up on an excess of deaths that may follow among elder care employees?

Employment in low paid caring work may explain the disproportionate minority ethnic and migrant deaths in Sweden and the UK, especially when low quality over-crowded housing is included in the picture.  Such explanations around labour and housing markets structured by class, race and gender are not being explored. Rather, authority figures have jumped to the conclusion that minorities are vulnerable because they are failing to follow public health guidance.

Men seem more vulnerable to Covid-19 death than women, right across the world. The male excess mortality is not explained by men’s higher levels of smoking. Men’s vulnerability is not being blamed on their failure to wash their hands. Quite the contrary, with under-use of hand-basins being a source of extra concern: “We need to make sure men don’t feel too macho to worry about germs.”

Our collective and individual sense-making of the pandemic relies on existing social and economic relations. So, is it a surprise that while minorities and migrants are blamed for their own misfortune, men are not?

The liberal commentariat has tempered the viral bad news with hopes that global economic slow-down might auger a new and more progressive world order. The abrupt reduction of travel has benefitted air quality: could this glimpse of a cleaner world inspire widespread reform for the benefit of the masses?

With the eventual lifting of travel restrictions will we see global environmental and social justice further up political and personal agendas? Or, to pose a more basic question – will pandemic preparedness planning include measure to ensure inclusive and anti-discriminatory access to health and welfare benefits?

It is easy to see how marginalised and stigmatised groups are further disadvantaged by the pandemic. It is harder to see how real social change might be wrought from the crisis. Rather than clapping public sector healthcare workers to underline their heroic status, shouldn’t we be urgently improving pay scales? The UK’s health secretary offering social care workers a ‘badge of honour’ was widely ridiculed as a poor substitute for personal protective equipment, antibody testing, let alone a better wage.

While some rules of engagement have been re-made by the pandemic, our social structures have not. All too often the pandemic’s social shift has reinforced marginalisation.  A few people may benefit from the shift in social order, as an unexpected opportunity opens up. Introverts who dislike the outdoors may welcome the wider world joining their lifestyle. Some prisoners may benefit from Covid-19 early release initiativesDeportation of refused asylum seekers has stopped. Maryam hopes that her asylum application in Germany will benefit from an extended delay in the arrival of her paperwork from the Swedish migration agency.

I hope Maryam’s papers come through. I hope the glimpse of how the rules of engagement can change allows us to reimagine society and its relationship with economic regulation. I hope that witnessing the suffering of our neighbours translates into wider compassion. I hope the sense of viral global connectedness translates into international shared responsibility for social justice. If my hope if fulfilled, everything will have changed.


Hannah Bradby teaches at the Sociology Department at Uppsala University, Sweden.


Image Credit: Pikist