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When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic
This week a book was released which I both co-edited and contributed to and which has been two years in the making. When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic is a volume combining a range of accounts from artists to poets, practitioners to academics. Our initial aim of the book was borne out of a need for commemoration but we cannot begin to address this without considering inequalities throughout the pandemic.
Each of the four editors had both personal and professional reasons for starting the project. I – like many – was (and still is) deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When we first went into lockdown, we were shown the data every day, telling us the numbers of people who had the virus and of those who had died with COVID-19. Behind these numbers, I saw each and every person. I thought about their loved ones left behind, how many of them died alone without being able to say goodbye other than through a video screen. I thought about what happened to the bodies afterwards, how death rites would be impacted and how the bereaved would cope without hugs and face to face social support. Then my grandmother died. She had overcome COVID-19 in the way that she was testing negative. But I heard her lungs on the day she died. I know. And so, I became even more consumed with questions of the COVID-19 dead, with/of debates. I was angry at the narratives surrounding the disposability of people’s lives, at people telling me ‘she had a good innings’. It was personal now.
I now understood the impact of not being able to hug my grandpa at my grandmother’s funeral, and how ‘normal’ cultural practices surrounding death were disturbed. My grandmother loved singing in choirs and one of the traumatic parts of our bereavement was not being able to sing at her funeral as she would have wanted and how we wanted to remember her. Lucy Easthope, a disaster planner and one of my co-authors speaks of her frustrations in this regard:
“we’ve done something incredibly traumatising to the families that is potentially bigger than the bereavement itself. In any disaster you should still allow people to see the dead. It is a gross inhumanity of bad planning that people couldn’t’t visit the sick, view the deceased’s bodies, or attend funerals. Had we had a more liberal PPE stockpile we could have done this. PPE is about accessing your loved ones and dead ones, it is not just about medical professionals.”
The book is divided into five parts, each addressing a different theme all of which I argue are relevant to criminologists and each part including personal, professional, and artistic reflections of the themes. Part 1 considered racialised, classed, and gendered identities which impacted on inequality throughout the pandemic, asking if we really are in this together? In this section former children’s laureate Michael Rosen draws from his experience of having COVID-19 and being hospitalised in intensive care for 48 days. He writes about disposability and eugenics-style narratives of herd immunity, highlighting the contrast between such discourse and the way he was treated in the NHS: with great care and like any other patient.
The second part of the book considers how already existing inequalities have been intensified throughout the pandemic in policing, law and immigration. Our very own @paulsquaredd contributed a chapter on the policing of protests during the pandemic, drawing on race in the Black Lives Matter protests and gender in relation to Sarah Everard. As my colleagues and students might expect, I wrote about the treatment of asylum seekers during the initial lockdown periods with a focus on the shift from secure and safe self-contained housing to accommodating people seeking safety in hotels.
Part three considers what happens to the dead in a pandemic and draws heavily on the experiences of crematoria and funerary workers and how they cared for the dead in such difficult circumstances. This part of the book sheds light on some of the forgotten essential workers during the pandemic. During lockdown, we clapped for NHS workers, empathised with supermarket workers and applauded other visible workers but there were many less visible people doing valuable unseen work such as caring for the dead. When it comes to death society often thinks of those who cared for them when they were alive and the bereaved who were left to the exclusion of those who look after the body. The section provides some insight into these experiences.
Moving through the journey of life and death in a pandemic, the fourth section focusses on questions of commemoration, a process which is both personal and political. At the heart of commemorating the COVID-19 dead in the UK is the National COVID Memorial Wall, situated facing parliament and sat below St Thomas’ hospital. In a poignant and political physical space, the unofficial wall cared for by bereaved family members such as Fran Hall recognises and remembers the COVID dead. If you haven’t visited the wall yet, there will be a candlelit vigil walk next Wednesday, 29th March at 7pm and those readers who live further afield can digitally walk the wall here, listening to the stories of bereaved family members as you navigate the 150,837 painted hearts.
The final part of the book both reflects on the mistakes made and looks forward to what comes next. Can we do better in the next pandemic? Emergency planner Matt Hogan presents a critical view on the handling of the pandemic, returning to the refrain, ‘emergency planning is dead. Long live emergency planning’. Lucy Easthope is equally critical, developing what she has discussed in her book When the Dust Settles to consider how and what lessons we can learn from the management of the pandemic. Lucy calls out for activism, concluding with calls to ‘Give them hell’ and ‘to shout a little louder’.
Concluding in his afterword, Gary Younge suggests this is ‘teachable moment’, but will we learn?
When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic is published by Policy Press, an imprint of Bristol University Press. The book can be purchased directly from the publisher who offer a 25% discount when subscribing. It can also be purchased from all good book shops and Amazon.
An alternative Christmas message
Sometime in October stores start putting out Christmas decorations, in November they slowly begin to play festive music and by December people organise office parties and exchange festive cards. For the best part of the last few decades these festive conventions seem to play a pivotal role in the lead up to Christmas. There are jumpers with messages, boxes of chocolates and sweets all designed to spread some festivity around. For those working, studying, or both, their December calendar is also a reminder of the first real break for some since summer.
The lead up to Christmas with the music, stories and wishes continues all the way to the New Year when people seem to share their goodwill around. Families have all sorts of traditions, putting up the Xmas tree on this day, ordering food from the grocers on that day, sending cards to friends and family by that day. An arrangement of dates and activities. On average every person starts in early December recounting their festive schedule. Lunch at mum’s, dinner at my brother’s, nan on Boxing Day with the doilies on the plates, New Years Eve at the Smiths where Mr Smith gets hilariously drunk and starts telling inappropriate jokes and New Year’s at the in-laws with their sour-faced neighbour.
People arrange festivities to please people around them; families reunite, friends are invited, meaningful gifts are bought for significant others and of course buy we gifts for children. Oh, the children love Christmas! The lights, the festive arrangements, the delightful activities, and the gifts! The newest trends, the must have toys, all shiny and new, wrapped up in beautiful papers with ribbons and bows. In the festive season, we must not forget the kind words we exchange, the messages send by local communities, politicians and even royalty. Words full of warmth, well-meaning, perspective and reflection. Almost magical the sights and sounds wrapped around us for over a month to make us feel festive.
It is all too beautiful, so you can be forgiven to hardly notice the lumbering shadow, at the door of an abandoned shop. Homelessness is not a lifestyle as despicably declared by a Conservative councillor/newspapers decades ago. It is the human casualty of those who have been priced out in the war of life. Even since the world went into a deep freeze due to the recession over a decade ago and the world is still in the clutches of that freeze. More people read about Christmas stories in books and in movies, because an even increasing number of people do not share the experience. Homelessness is the result of years of criminal indifference and social neglect that leads more people to live and experience poverty. A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of homelessness. There is no goodwill at the inn whilst the sins of the “father” are now returning in the continent! Centuries of colonial oppression across the world lead to a wave of refugees fleeing exploitation, persecution, and crippling poverty. Unlike the inn-keeper and his daughter, the roads are closed, and the passages are blocked. Clearly, they don’t fit with the atmosphere… nor do the homeless. Come to think of it, neither do the old people who live alone in their cold homes. None of these fit with the festive narrative.
As I walked down a street I passed a homeless guy is curled up in a shop door. A combination of cardboard, sleeping bag and newspapers all jumbled together. Next to him a dog on the cardboard and around them fairy lights. This man I do not know, his face I have not seen, his identity I ignore; but I imagine that when he was born, there was someone who congratulated his mother for having a healthy boy. Now he is alone, fortunate to have a canine companion, as so many do not have anyone. What stands out is that this person, who our festive plans had excluded, is there with his fairy lights, maybe the most festive of all people, without a burgundy coat, I hear some people like these days.
It is so difficult to say Merry Christmas this year. In a previous entry the world cup and its aftermath left a bitter taste in those who believe in making a better world. The economic gap between whose who have and those who do not, increases; the social inequalities deepen but I feel that we can be like that man with the fairy lights, fight back, rise up and end the party for those who like to wear burgundy, or those who like to speak for world events, at a price.
Merry Christmas, my dear criminologists, the world can change, when we become the agents of change.
“Quelle surprise” – another fine mess
The recent HMICFRS publication An inspection of vetting misconduct and misogyny in the police service makes difficult reading for those of us that have or have had any involvement in the police service in England and Wales. Of course, this is not the first such report and I dare say it will not be the last. There is enough evidence both academic and during the course of numerous inquiries to suggest that there is institutional corruption of all sorts in the police service, coupled with prevailing racist and misogynistic attitudes. Hardly a surprise then that public confidence is at an all-time low.
As with so many reports and associated inquiries, the finger of blame is pointed at the institution or individuals within it. The failings are organisational failings or departmental or individual. I cast my mind back to those inquiries into the failings of social services or the failings of NHS trusts or the failings of the Fire and Rescue service or any other public body, all the fault of the organisation itself or individuals within it. Too many inquiries and too many failings to count. More often than not the recommendations from these reports and inquiries involve rectifying processes and procedures and increasing training. Rarely if ever do these reports even dare to dip their toe into the murky waters relating to funding. Nobody on these inquiries would have the audacity to suggest that the funding decisions made in the dark corridors of government would later have a significant contribution to the failings of all of these organisations and the individuals within them. Perhaps that’s why those people are chosen to head the inquiries or maybe the funding decisions are long forgotten.
Twenty percent budget cuts in public services in 2010/11 meant that priorities were altered often with catastrophic consequences. But to be honest the problems go much further back than the austerity measures of 2010/11. Successive governments have squeezed public services in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness. The result, neither being achieved, just some tinder box ready to explode into disaster. And yet more hand wringing and finger pointing and costly inquiries.
The problem is not just that the organisations failed or that departments or individuals failed, the problem is that all the failings might have been prevented if there was money available to deliver the service properly in the first place. And to do that, there needs to be enough staff, enough training, and enough equipment. And who is responsible for ensuring that happens?
Now you may say that is all very well but what of the police officers that are racist and misogynistic or corrupt and what of institutional corruption? After all the HMICFRS report is not just about vetting procedures but about the attitudes and behaviours of staff. A good point but let me point you to the behaviour of government, not just this government but preceding governments as well. The expenses scandal, the bullying allegations, the improper behaviour in parliament, the complete disregard for the ethics or for that matter, common decency. And what of those successive budget cuts and lack of willingness to address very real issues faced by staff in the organisations.
Let me also point you to the behaviour of the general public from whom the police officers are recruited. A society where parents that attend children’s football matches and hurl abuse at the referee and linesmen, even threatening to see them in the car park after the match. Not a one off but from recent reports a weekly occurrence and worse. A society now where staff in shops are advised not to challenge shoplifters in fear of their own safety. A society where there is a complete disregard for the law by many on a daily basis, including those that consider themselves law abiding citizens. A society where individuals blame everyone else, always in need of some scapegoat somewhere. A society where individuals know individually and collectively how they want others to behave but don’t know or disregard how they should behave.
I’m not surprised by the recent reports into policing and other services, saddened but not surprised. I’m not naïve enough to think that society was really any better at some distant time in the past, in fact there were some periods where it was definitely worse and policing of any sort has always been problematic. My fear is we are heading back to the worst times in humanity and these reports far from highlighting just an organisational problem are shining a floodlight on a societal one. But it suits everyone to confine the focus to the failings of organisations and the individuals within them. Not my fault, not my responsibility it’s the others not me, quelle surprise.
A Christmas blog
What is Christmas? A date in the calendar in winter towards the end of the year to celebrate one of the main religious festivals of the Christian calendar. The Romans replaced a pagan festival with the birth of the head of the, then new, religion. Since then as time progresses, more customs and traditions are added, to make this festival more packed with meaning and importance. The gift of the 20th century’s big corporations was the addition to the date, the red Santa Claus who travels the planet on his sledge from the North Pole in a single day, offering gifts to all the well-behaved kids. The birth of Christ is miles away from the Poles but somehow the story’s embellishment continues.
In schools, kids across the world will re-enact the nativity scene, a romantic version of the birth of Jesus, minus their flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the infants. The nativity, is for many, their first attempt at theatre and most educators’ worst nightmare, as they will have to include all children regardless of talent or interest to this production. The play consists mostly of male characters (usually baby Jesus is someone’s doll) except for one. That of the mother of Jesus. The virgin Mary is located centre stage, sitting quietly, the envy of all other parent’s that their kid was not cast in such a reverent role. In recent years, charlatans tried to add more female roles by feminising the Angels and even giving the Inn keeper a daughter or even a wife. In most cases it was the need of introducing more characters in the play. Most productions now include barn animals (cats and dogs included), reindeers, trees, villagers, stars and even a moon. All castable parts not necessarily with a talking part.
The show usually feels that it lasts longer than it does. The actors become nervous, some forget their lines, others remember different lines, the music is off key and the parents jostle to get to prime position in order to record this show, that very few will ever watch. The costumes will be coming apart almost right after the show and the props are just about holding on with a lot of tape and superglue. The play will signal the end of the school season carrying the joyful message from the carpark to the people’s homes. This tradition carries on regardless of religious sentiments and affiliations. People to commemorate the birth of a man that billions of people consider the head of their faith.
Nativity is symbolic but its meaning changes with the times, leaving me wondering what our nativity will be in the 21st century. Imagine a baby Jesus floating face down on torrential Aegean waters, a virgin Mary hoping that this will be the last client for the day on the makeshift brothel maybe today is the day she gets her passport back; Joseph a broken man, laying by the side of the street on a cardboard; the angel a wingless woman living alone in emergency accommodation, living in fear, the villagers stunned in fear and everyone carrying on . Not as festive as the school production but after all, people living for year in austerity, and a lockdown and post-referendum decisions make it difficult to be festive. Regardless of the darkness that we live in, the nativity has a more fundamental message: life happens irrespective of circumstances and nothing can stop the birth of a new-born.
Merry Christmas to all from the Criminology Team