‘Unprecedented’

Idil Galip

Social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, isolation, confinement. These are some words that inspire a sense of stuck-in-betweenness like no other: they signify a clear boundary between the past and the present, and provide no solace for our fantasies about the future. Some of us are well accustomed to this detached anticipation. Some of us, who have witnessed conflict from too close a distance, know this feeling of cosmic dread intimately.

Today, it’s seeing people wearing surgical masks and gloves scanning their meal-deals at isolated self-checkout machines. For us, in North Macedonia in 2001, the tension between extraordinary circumstances and mundane activity manifested itself in similarly tragicomical ways. I clearly remember my family having a barbeque in the snow in the echoes of distant gunfire exchanged between militia and armed forces. But I guess sometimes, a kebap is a kebap.

In Skopje, we were bystanders in an ethnic conflict that a very large part of the world was unaware of. It was a localised, ‘confined’ crisis that would affect the immediate surrounding area. Specific supply chains critical for the comfort of the affluent West wouldn’t be disrupted as they have been today because of the covid-19 pandemic, so there was no need for ‘international’ outcry. One to two million people felt the direct effects of the conflict, and for others it was business as usual.

The witnesses of this conflict, like many other witnesses of such violent crises, however, learned what it meant to exist between emotional extremes: to be afraid and nonchalant, accepting and defiant, hopeful and apathetic all at the same instance. This nebulous and unpredictable state of being that we now occupy is therefore not ‘unprecedented’. It is, was, and has been the living reality for many people around the world.

I am not by any means suggesting that the pain and suffering that this pandemic has brought to people isn’t real or worth discussing. It obviously is. However, thinking about the pandemic in a historical vacuum or as an isolated incident of human suffering is short-sighted. Here, removing ourselves from the past by highlighting the uniqueness of our present strengthens a sense of exceptional individualism and undermines community. This relentless focus on the singularity of individual pain (as well as individual perseverance) is emblematic of a dangerous neoliberal morality. By highlighting the distinctness of the misery that this pandemic has caused, we create untranslatable mythologies.

Ralph Fevre in his book Individualism and Inequality (2016) seperates ‘sentimental individualism’ of the 19th century, associated with authors such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, from ‘cognitive individualism’ embodied by neoliberal politics. While the sentimental individual believes that we all share a ‘common humanity’, the cognitive individual believes in self-direction, self-actualisation and self-determination. Cognitive individualism then rests on the belief that any success or failure is the responsibility of the individual. This understanding of human experience is inevitably alienating and isolating. It breaks down notions of community belonging and instead rewards or punishes the individual.

In our case, we have our ‘heroes’: nurses and doctors who have lost their lives providing essential care for the good of the many. A disproportionate amount of them were BAME. This disproportionality is not being treated as suspicious, or as a reflection of a wider pattern of inequality, or something that could have been prevented, by those in power.

Many authorities and institutions are instead portraying them as individuals who sacrificed themselves for society. But by treating each case as a show of sacrificial bravery and occupational perseverance, we lose sight of patterns that are staring us right in the face: patterns of inequality, injustice and ignorance that have affected economically and socially marginalised communities for decades. We ignore historical continuities when we label these ruptures as unique, individual, or unprecedented. This is a perilous line of logic and has dangerous consequences for marginalised workers.

So is this pandemic truly an unprecedented crisis? If the same communities, not only in the UK, but all across the globe, are bearing the brunt of it as always?

Idil Galip is writing from Southside, Edinburgh. She is a PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Edinburgh and studies memes, art and digital labour: https://twitter.com/idilgalip

The ‘stay at home’ discourse

For those who can read French, here is an article by Gil Viry and Eva Nada on the lockdown published in the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier on the 5th of May 2020. They argue that the ‘stay at home’ discourse chimes with a romanticised model of the family based on the nuclear home. Yet, many people among the most vulnerable groups cannot stay safely and healthy in their homes: essential workers in precarious jobs, homeless people, women and children experiencing domestic violence, older people living alone, post-divorce families, etc. By favouring a lifestyle over others, this discourse can therefore stigmatise other cultures and lifestyles. https://lecourrier.ch/2020/05/05/un-discours-universel-stigmatisant/

This works well in Google Translate if your French is non existent like mine.

Brave new world: a brief history of a recent buzz term

Liz Stanley

The viral character of how some media stories circulate – with a current story picked up by other media sources and multiply repeated with minimal changes or  by transferring it into local examples – is well known. Thus Llandudno goats coming down from the hills to roam the town streets fetches up with a media story in Brazil and sheep in one of its cities. And similarly with key terms and ideas which circulate and recirculate: for example, there has been a flood of reporting that lockdown is restriction and a liberties infringement and the suffering it engenders (all that sitting on sofas eating snacks and watching TV) is treated as on a parallel with being bombed in the Blitz. And at a point when hospital deaths might be declining though still high but those in care homes certainly aren’t, comes many journalists over the last few days reporting, promoting, encouraging, anticipating, the lifting of lockdown and the need for exit strategies.

Little else is being reported – it‘s coronavirus coronavirus coronavirus – and trying to find new angles on this to fettle up for today‘s reports. Into the mixture comes ‘the experts’, and hunt the tame expert by journalists who seize upon a statistician here, an epidemiologist there, a frontline doctor there, a cancer specialist here, a chief medical officer there. The obsession in the first 10 days of May has been with lifting the lockdown, the exit strategy, the five rules for lift up and other buzz terms currently in circulation. From the start and even before the term pandemic was used, there have been ideas about more rigorous distancing rules for groups of people characterised as particularly vulnerable. In the present rush in the world of media journalists to lift lockdown, these have been joined a few days ago by another such buzz term, ‘segmented shielding’. 

While well meant, initially at least, ideas about vulnerability and shielding have important negative consequences for independence, autonomy and agency, for personhood. On the one hand there are GP practices in the UK that have issued letters asking ‘vulnerable’ people – those over 70, and those with disabilities in specialist care homes – to sign forms agreeing to not being resuscitated, while on the other hand there is ‘extend the lockdown’ for some groups being advanced. Interestingly, the idea of ‘herd immunity’ heard much at an earlier point lies at back of the ‘segmented shielding’ idea just reported in the news media. 

On 7 May, a number of news reports appeared in the UK concerned with this idea of segmented shielding. “The Coronavirus: Is it time to free the healthy from restrictions?” item on the BBC news app by a ‘Health correspondent’, for example, gave it prominence by reporting on a piece of epidemiological modelling with quoted comments from its lead researcher. It also repeated such phrases as ‘experts have found..‘ and ‘researchers have shown’, various of which appear in a press release from the research team (which can be accessed here).

The BBC news item is structured using quotations from a number of designated experts stitched together with an ‘it is so’ kind of narrative commentary. Younger people are said to be less at risk than they think, and those who died or had severe coronavirus most likely had unrealised underlying health factors – “…we have “lost sight” of the fact the virus causes a mild to moderate illness for many, says Dr Amitava Banerjee, of University College London”. It continues, it is also important to take full account of other costs, emotively including domestic violence, mental health problems and restricted access to other healthcare, leading to the implicit weighing of these against the cost of further deaths, which from the commentary and linked graphs are largely those of the elderly and vulnerable. 

Segmented shielding enters frame here via comment about an Edinburgh-London research project, to the effect that restrictions could be lifted if the most vulnerable are shielded. This is backed by a quotation from the team leader that for most people coronavirus carries no more risk than a “nasty flu”. Researchers from Stanford University are then brought into play, in calculating the UK risks for those under 65 as equivalent to driving 185 miles a day, “with deaths in non-vulnerable groups being “remarkably uncommon”.” 

The BBC news report seems remarkably okay with the idea of dividing the population and imposing strict restrictions on everyone designated as vulnerable. It also accepts without question calculations as to the proposed minimal impact of coronavirus on the rest of the population, seeing its members as largely herd immune or only minimally affected. However, there is more to the idea of segmented shielding than appears in the news report, found in the research press release and associated full report (which can be accessed from the press release referenced above).

The Edinburgh-London press release writes of its own work in terms of expertise and in a third-person voice – “experts suggest, researchers say, academics from the Universities of Edinburgh and London, researchers say, the team proposes, the team says, the team stresses”. It is in fact recipient-designed as a press release produced with journalist-use in mind. The result is that its claims can be inserted into ‘news reports’ as though the reporter is designating the people concerned as experts, rather than this being a self-designation. The press release contains a link to the research paper reporting the piece of mathematical modelling carried out. The typescript report writes that:

“Key risk factors for vulnerability to COVID-19 are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as those over 60 years old and those with underlying medical conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer)…

We enumerated these categories using published data… For our baseline scenario we designated 20% of the total population as vulnerable. We assumed a 1:1 ratio of shielders to vulnerable. The remaining 60% of the population are not in either category and we refer to this as the 20-20-60 model…”

Problems with this are clear. The calculation of risk factors for those deemed not vulnerable have to be accepted as 100% precise, assumptions about how coronavirus infections spread have to be watertight, certainty in identifying vulnerability has to be absolute, and the one-to-one ratio of ‘shielders to vulnerable’ has to be fully accurate. The untenable character of calculations of risk, assumptions about infection spreading, and identification of underlying health factors, are sufficiently obvious as not to require elaboration here. The shielder/vulnerable ratio is also dubious, for those with the most serious health issues require significantly more assistance than from one person. But even supposing all these were not disputed claims but factual certainties, how to achieve an impermeable separation between the herd 60%, the shielder 20%, and the vulnerable 20%?

“…Measures including self-isolation of cases, quarantining of affected households, contact tracing and voluntary physical distancing will be necessary to achieve this. In all our scenarios the vulnerable segment is subject to increased protection indefinitely…

…In addition, S&S could be greatly strengthened by infrastructure and technological support for effective biosecurity, both at institutional (e.g. care homes, hospitals) and household levels in order to keep transmission rates low between and within shielders and vulnerable populations. For maximum effectiveness biosecurity requires training, high standards of hygiene, effective personal protective equipment and screening of everyone in contact with the vulnerable population…”

Segmented shielding, S&S, is being envisaged as an indefinite system involving biometrically-based surveillance of the vulnerable and shielder populations, coupled with frequent, indeed daily, medical tests to ensure compliance. The result would be a brave new world indeed, of a permanently sequestered 20% vulnerable population, a permanently routinely tested 20% shielder population, and an unrestricted 60% supposedly immune or resistant population. So much for notions of independence and autonomy, and instead a state of high surveillance, ongoing biometric and medical interventions, and indefinite sequestration for a huge proportion of the population. Agency for the vulnerable 20% would go to the wall for an indefinite period; and the shielder 20% would be under indefinite multiple surveillance and have minimal agency themselves.

In the meantime, polls suggest that the majority of the UK population are not clamouring of the lift of lockdown, are not demanding for restrictions to be lifted on a privileged supposedly largely immune group. So where have these ideas come from? Is it a case of hunt the other experts, and hunt the other journalists in search of an easy story they can sex up? The buzz terms circulating provide a route into exploring this. For instance, a PS to this discussion is that on 11 May in commentary on a speech by the UK prime minister Boris Johnson, claims about most of the population being immune or only minimally affected were repeated and associated with the Edinburgh and London research as well as the same Stanford and Cambridge comments. The strong indications are that once in circulation there is a high chance of such buzz terms and ideas being recirculated and recirculated.

The alternative to the ‘brave new world’ of the herd and the vulnerable and its appalling prospect is not to do nothing, but to look for non-discriminatory ways forward that do not have the implied eugenicist basis of this. Eugenicism has already raised its ugly head in the rash of GP practices issuing letters and forms about non-resuscitation; segmented shielding and biometric interventions are another variant. And the alternatives? Vaccines and related treatments along the lines of managing HIV/AIDS, and mass changes in expected behaviour in which everyone observes a social bubble approach, are among them.  

Sense-Making, Pretzel-Baking, and Statistics of Pandemic Proportions

Mikaela Springsteen

The list of things which I count is growing.

It has been seven days since last I went shopping. Forty-five have passed since my last close contact with someone outside the household. We have currently—among other stores—two cups of dry milk, a quarter cup of coarse salt, and two bags of flour (enough to make at least eight dozen more Bavarian pretzels). The state of New York has seen 312,977 confirmed cases of Covid-19, 7.7% of whom have died. My temperature averages 98.3ºF—within normal bounds. NY has conducted 959,071 tests. New cases are detected daily: 4,585; 4,681; 3,942; 4,663.

I cannot see the virus itself—having somehow neglected to bring a microscope with me into lockdown, and am fortunate that no one I am quarantined with has yet been infected. What I can see—what we all can see—are all the virus metrics. These are quoted and discussed on TV, in newspapers, and in every other conversation that I have. Visualizations of these numbers have proliferated as researchers, statisticians, and anyone with a computer and rudimentary coding skills each adds their voice to the mix. I count myself in this number—in an attempt to better understand the dynamics of this pandemic I created my own series of dashboards for exploring various virus trends.

But what are these visualizations and ‘explainers’ for? Do we really need them all? Are they any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful?

There is good reason to be skeptical. This merry band of visualizations has been introduced to a public which is, as a whole, not particularly statistically-literate and in desperate search of information about the progression of this pandemic. Statistics are famously manipulable—whether deliberately or accidentally, they may be distorted with very little effort and a worried audience might not be able to distinguish the good from the garbage. These statistics, for good or ill, then go on to shape their perception of reality. Anyone creating these metrics must therefore bear responsibility for ensuring their clarity and accuracy, and in so doing should consider the level of statistical knowledge required to reliably interpret the information presented.

Despite these valid concerns, I believe that this proliferation of virus metrics should not, on balance, be considered a bad thing. Each visualization represents an impulse to understand, an urge to learn—an impulse which I see as an unalloyed good. It is an impulse with which I sympathize. Most of my own research has begun with that impulse, and I know I am not alone in finding comfort in the relative certainty of answers so derived. Of course, the danger these visualizations pose cannot be ignored, and that initial impulse must then be supported by good science. Misleading statistics and misinterpretation remain ever-present dangers, and how much comfort or understanding could someone get from a metric they don’t truly understand?

So what is to be done to bridge this divide?

In this pandemic we have all been exhorted to care for not only ourselves but, if possible, for someone else as well. That care may come in many forms—doing the shopping for a vulnerable neighbor, taking time to check in with one another, or helping others to navigate the deluge of information which surrounds this virus. In this moment when many of us have a bit more time on our hands, and a lot more information to sort through, there is an opportunity to help others to understand, to be critical and inquisitive.

And what of the chart-builders? The visualizers and coders? Those with enough statistical skill to be dangerous? Their responsibility is great, but it need not be theirs alone. This is a time in which collaboration can flourish. Charts and graphs can nearly always be improved. Especially in this time, where the ordinary timelines for scientific understanding have been somewhat broken down, mistakes may be made. Even in the absence of malice or agenda, errors may occur. Open, good-faith efforts at discussion, collaboration, communication, and improvement can be taken to improve the state of the informational eco-system for all.

There is opportunity here, in the midst of all else, to construct a post-pandemic world that may in some small way improve upon the one before. Levels of statistical literacy may be buoyed by this time, as people strive to understand the statistics which presently rule us all. Collaborations and communication could likewise increase—even if simply as a way to pass pandemic time.

Of course, all this may not come to pass. Easily, the world could slip the other way, leaving us with more confusion and greater mistrust of scientific expertise—particularly if statistics are seen to be too opaque, too partisan, and too manipulable to be trusted.

For all of us, I hope it is the former scenario which will rule the day. Until then, however, as we all remain isolated together, I will do my part to communicate and to collaborate. I talk with my grandmother daily to help her to navigate the latest reports and statistics released by the governor. I continue to develop my own graphs with updates and suggested improvements.

And I will continue to count.

It has been over a month since I last saw my sister. My family is spread across five different states. Nearly a week has passed since I baked a batch of pretzels (which makes me at least 4 days overdue). In eight days New York State will reach the end of its current ‘pause,’ the scientists and policy-makers will reassess, and the count will begin again.

This article was written by Mikaela Springsteen with the aid of 5 cups of tea and nearly 2 whole slices of cake. Mikaela is a recent graduate of Edinburgh Sociology and is currently isolating in a house in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, from where she runs the website Counting Covid-19 —a series of interactive data dashboards exploring virus trends.

The Masks are on, the Mask is off

Martin Booker

While more and more people are wearing literal face masks, metaphorically it is quite a different picture: For many of the things widely considered normal, routine, and unchangeable, the mask is truly off! Our taken-for-granted reality has been exposed as what it always was, a social construction, not set in stone, but something that can be changed. This includes everyday activities of how we relate to other people, how we do our shopping, how we move through public spaces, how we work in offices and teach in classrooms. But it also applies to bigger issues. There is a growing awareness of the importance of ‘key workers’ that keep our economy going, an almost Marxian awakening that it is not the bosses but the workers that create the value. There has been a shift from a slightly naive version of ‘we’re all in this together’ – often heard in the early stages of the lockdown – to a growing awareness that the pandemic affects people differently and very unequally, and this has a lot to do with class, race and gender. Inequalities and socio-economic conflct lines, hidden as they were behind the thin veneer of ‘normality’, are now more visible than ever.

Call me an optimist, but in all this malaise, there seem to me the beginnings of something that could turn out to be very positive. There is common thread running through all these debates and discourses, a shift in perception, a re-thinking of – and this is what makes me optimistic – the relationship between individual and society. Whether this is about social distancing measures (in which we are all asked individually to contribute to a greater good), our shopping habits (only buying what we need, so there is more left for others), an increased concern for local businesses, a revival of political interest (with citizens eagerly comparing their leaders’ covid responses to those of others), the clap-for-the-carers events, or the surge in volunteering – what all these have in common is that individuals here don’t see themselves as isolated, but within a wider social context. By stealth, there has been a shift in perception, an ontological realignment if you like.

To the sociologist, this brings to mind what C. Wright Mills famously called the Sociological Imagination – as he argued, we should think of our private problems not just as private problems, but also be aware of how they form part of a bigger whole, of public issues. In the times of pandemic this could mean an awareness of how being stuck in my flat all day (my private problem) is important for the wider (public) issue of containing the virus, or, say, you are young and healthy and don’t really have too much to fear from the virus personally, but still feel the need to socially distance, out of solidarity with those more at risk. A growing interest in statistics and data, too, shows an increased attention to the bigger picture beyond one’s personal experience. And while we are all sitting in our living rooms twiddling thumbs, learning new hobbies, struggling to be productive, writing blogs, or dealing with writing block, we know exactly that so many others are doing the same, for the same reasons, an army of stay-at-homers, a collective fate of sorts.

This, of course, is not just a shift in perception. It is also an increase in understanding. Our lives have always been, and will always be, shaped by our social contexts. As sociologists, we’re in the business of pointing this out. And, of course, we can only shape these contexts in positive ways if we are aware of them, and of how they work. The mask is off for now. Things will go back to some kind of normal at some point. Here is hoping, however, that this shift in awareness is real, and will last.

Martin Booker is Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh University. He is writing from Abbeyhill, Edinburgh, and has found a new appreciation for the wild beauty of Holyrood Park, for his socially-distanced daily exercise.

Buzz terms

Keywords and buzz terms circulate and recirculate in the media, from health care agencies, journalists, politicians and more, with their meanings largely assumed. Some have become truisms, but without necessarily being true. They help construct what coronavirus, Covid-19, the pandemic et cetera are taken to mean.

Coronavirus / Covid-19 / we’re all in this together / pandemic / herd immunity / the virus doesn’t discriminate / strange times / lockdown / furlough / war / stay home, protect the NHS, save lives / NHS heroes / the frontline / PPE / ICU / testing / new infections / today’s deaths / the numbers show / he’s a fighter / social distancing / the new normal / exit strategy / key workers / flattening the curve / unprecedented / social bubble approach / true frontline / parallel health epidemic / hidden health cost / R-0 and Rt / now is not the time / contact tracing apps / citizen surveillance / test, track and trace / lifting the lockdown / protecting the vulnerable / the 80% of us not vulnerable / segmented shielding / care homes / experts say / following the science / driven by the science / the science says / stay alert / steps to lifting lockdown / mixed messages / R increasing, a second epidemic wave / return to work / schools opening / flock to beaches / arrivals quarantine / air bridge / “It’s one law for them and another for the rest of us.” / finishing the job / return to school / schools closed / masks on public transport / 2 metre social distancing rule / possible local lockdowns / save the summer / pubs and restaurants / primary school opening dropped / lost generation / silent spreaders / it’s not over / travel bubble / community transmission / support bubbles / household symptomless transmission / life after lockdown / 1 metre social distancing / quarantine free holidays / doubling the classroom bubble / experts warn government / lockdown lift / back to school / masks / local lockdown / whack a mole / pop-up test centre / masks and visors / droplets / super spreaders /

and the collection grows.