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Deniable racism: ‘I’m alright Jack’

‘No coloureds need apply’: a black man reads a racist sign in a UK boarding house window in 1964.
Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.

But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon.  The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’.  It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else.  In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way.  ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’.  But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas.  And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden.  The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.

I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra.  They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end.  A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly.  Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing.  This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone.  That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.

In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra?  Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something.  The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’.  If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on.  Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.

The pandemic and me – Lessons I’ve learnt from the #lockdown

This lockdown has certainly given us time to think and perhaps reflect on a variety of topics and situations. I’ve shared a few thoughts below and I wonder just how many are universal in some way.

I need to ensure I have a structure to my day and week.  I think we all need some sort of structure to our lives and that structure is often given to us by work and perhaps other sociable events such as going to the gym or going to a coffee shop.  It may be that the weekly shopping provides us with an anchor, Saturday may be a shopping day or religion might dictate a visit to a place of worship on a particular day.  At times I’ve found myself getting confused about what day it is, Groundhog Day, I think.  However, for the most part, I think I’ve got it sorted out.  My wife and I discuss our schedule every morning over a cup of coffee.  We have sorted out a routine of work, daily chores, fun bits and exercise.

My willpower is tested but I can be determined.  I have never been a heavy drinker, the occasional binge, yes but then who hasn’t?  It is however, quite easy to slip into the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evening, every evening and perhaps a gin and tonic or two.  I can’t go anywhere so thinking about having to drive the next day is not an issue. It’s not until you start totting up the consumption that you realise maybe you might have to reign this in.  ‘School nights’ are back again, no drinking in the week.  I make up for it at the weekend though.

I’m not risk adverse, I just like to think I’m logical.  I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or in fact any scientist to work out that the government (particularly a Conservative government) would not enforce the cessation of most business in the country without a very, very, very good reason.  Stay in has been the mantra and of course we all know how difficult it is and we all know that as usual, the most vulnerable in society have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Logic dictates, well at least to me, that going out to any store anywhere carries a risk.  Some risks are necessary, for instance a trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription, but a trip to a DIY store, really?  I’m sorry but given the risks, I think it’s a no brainer. Not only do I not want to catch the virus, but I would be distraught if I thought that through my own selfishness I had passed it onto someone else.

I never really thought about all those people that are truly special.  We clap every week for the carers and the NHS and all those involved who are truly remarkable. I do ask myself though, would I want to turn up to work in a supermarket? Would I want to be out delivering parcels or the post? Would I be a NHS volunteer?  Would I be happy working on public transport or emptying dust bins? There are so many people doing ordinary, even mundane jobs and volunteering roles that I now appreciate more than ever.  And I would go far as to say I am humbled by what they do and continue to do despite the risks.

I appreciate the world around me. Not being able to go out and socialise in some way, be that work, or friends or family has provided more time for other activities.  Our walks to the next village and back on roads devoid of most traffic has revealed an astonishing array of wildlife to be gazed upon and appreciated.   That is of course if you’re not gasping for breath following a walk up a steep hill (well I call it steep but in a car its barely noticeable).

Some things don’t change.  I’ve also noticed the gate to the footpath across the fields near our house has gone. A heavy wooden gate which, apparently has been stolen.  On our walks we have noticed the increased number of cyclists whizzing along the road.  Most give a wide birth, but some don’t seem to have a care for others, one nearly colliding with us as he flew around the corner. It seems with the reduction of cars; the idiotic driver has now given way to the idiotic cyclist.

What will a ‘new normal’ look like.  At some stage we will get back to normal but its difficult to contemplate when that will be and what it will look like.  Maybe getting back to the old normal is not what is needed.  I’m trying to envisage how I will make changes in consideration of what I have learnt during this lockdown.  What changes will you make? 

Ask the expert, if you can find one

It was around four years ago I discovered the title of ‘Doctor’ extended beyond medical staff. I’m not sure many people outside of the academic world fully understand or have any reason to know the order in which post nominal letters are awarded or titles are given. Gaining the title of ‘doctor’ at the very beginning of any academic journey, seems so distantly part of any future plan, its barely imaginable. Some career paths seem wildly ambitious. Wanting to be an ‘expert’ in your field for the humble student, feels much like aspiring to become an astronaut midway through a physics degree.

Once you enter the world of academia, the titles people hold seem to determine an awful lot of their credibility. It’s rare to find a university lecturer who isn’t working towards doctoral qualification, most already have one. The papers, books and research journals are filled with the knowledge of individuals who once were nothing more than students. I often wonder though, at what point someone becomes an expert? At what point, (if ever) do the most academically qualified individuals refer to themselves as experts within a narrow area of their field.

The government often talks about relying on ‘expert’ evidence. Watching the experts stand beside the PM discussing the current pandemic, they appear uneasy, particularly when questions are raised about a different expert having a contradicting opinion. One thing I feel quite sure of is that experts seem to rarely agree. As Bertrand Russell (1927/42) states, “even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken” . Maybe that’s because it’s questionable if anyone can ever truly know everything on a given subject area.

The scientific committee seems to be buzzing with accusations that the experts are not quite what they seem. The ‘data scientists’ advising government and sitting on SAGE are not all from a background which comfortably implies they are qualified to discuss virology or immunology. In the background lingers the fact with such a new virus, with so little known about it, expert knowledge in a narrow sense, is undoubtedly in its infancy and will probably require some degree of hindsight later on.

In the past week one of the UK’s leading experts has resigned from his job after breaking his own guidance. Meanwhile the public watched Matt Hancock ‘snap’ at an opposition MP in parliament. A woman who despite being no more of an ‘expert’ than himself, at least has experience as a qualified A&E doctor to base her opinions and views on. It seems last week’s experts and heroes are this week’s victims in the ongoing witch-hunt for someone to blame.

I’ve started to wonder if labelling someone an ‘expert’ is something other people do to install confidence that a piece of research being relied upon is credible, rather than the experts referring to themselves that way. There’s almost an assumption of arrogance for anyone who dares to protest that their knowledge should be recognised with a title, outside of the academic world anyway. Maybe people simply don’t understand what it took to reach that level of knowledge in the first place.

I’ve looked a lot at ‘labelling’ within the criminological context and it seems to me the labels that are attached to us, almost always seem to come from someone else. In an age of self-proclaimed ‘internet experts’ the real experts, it seems are hard to find.

Reference

Russell, Bertrand (1927/1942) cited in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: A Fresh Look at Empiricism, 1927-42, edited by by John Slater and Assisted by Peter Köllner, (London: Routledge)

Things I Miss: Small Pleasures – Helen

Small pleasures mean a lot, particularly at the moment when many normal pleasures are denied to us. If I can’t meet my friends, or go to restaurants, or engage in my hobbies at least I can enjoy a gin and tonic in the bath, or a nice dinner with an indulgent dessert (it is worrying how many such small pleasures involve food and alcohol!!). The lockdown hit halfway through Lent, when I was trying to exercise some self-discipline and lose a little weight, but having been forced to give up so much I could no longer do without chocolate and snacks! I am kept sane by daily walks around the village, appreciating (until today) the glorious spring weather and the emerging wild flowers and butterflies (six different species on our last long walk). And my husband and I distract ourselves with light-hearted TV. Friday Night Dinner and Britain’s Got Talent help to define the week and we’ve been working through old-favourite box sets of Phoenix Nights and I’m Alan Partridge.

In some ways the first couple of weeks were the hardest, when the rules kept changing. After a trying morning shopping for three households in a supermarket with bare shelves, at least I could reward myself with a cappuccino on the way home (I couldn’t sit down, or use a re-usable cup, but I could get a disposable take-away). But then all the coffee shops closed. On the evening of the day the schools closed, we went for a family walk in our local forest. At least we could enjoy that. We found a pond full of frogspawn and toad spawn and took pictures, planning a science project on reproduction in amphibians. We would go back every week and check on the progress of the tadpoles. But then they closed the forest. Each new lockdown was a fresh loss.

In the “Good Lives Model” (Ward, 2002) Tony Ward and colleagues propose that all people try to achieve a set of fundamental “primary goods”. These are: life; knowledge; excellence in work; excellence in play; agency; inner peace; relatedness; community; spirituality; pleasure; and creativity. In lockdown, many of our usual means of achieving these goods are no longer accessible. However, there is evidence all around of people striving towards these goods in novel ways. The primary good “life” refers to health and fitness. We may no longer be able to go to gyms or practise team sports, but country roads are full of cyclists and walkers, solitary or in family groups, and there has been an explosion in people exercising at home, with or without the assistance of Joe Wicks! My son, who is a junior sailor, is achieving his “excellence in play” through “Virtual Regatta”, a computer game which adheres to the principles of dinghy sailing and which has provided the platform through which competitions that should have taken place can continue after a fashion.

Our local vicar is in his element providing novel ways through which his flock can achieve “spirituality”: services live-streamed from his dining room; virtual coffee mornings; resources to use at home. I’ve outlined above some of the ways in which I am achieving “pleasure” in small ways. I’m sure the current shortages in flour are caused in some part by an increase in people achieving “creativity” through baking. My son alone has clocked up two different types of pastry, two different types of scone, two fruit crumbles, shortbread and a Simnel cake since the lockdown began! We achieve “relatedness” through Zoom and Skype and Facetime: I speak to my parents much more often than I did before the crisis and my husband replaces visits to the pub with his father and brother with a weekly “virtual pint night”. And we achieve “community” through standing together on our doorsteps every Thursday at 8pm to clap for the NHS.

The Good Lives Model was developed to understand and improve the rehabilitation of offenders. It proposes that offenders are trying to achieve the same primary goods as everyone else, but lack the skills, opportunities or resources to do so in pro-social ways. They therefore pursue their goods through methods which are illegal or harmful. Traditional approaches to working with offenders have been risk-focussed, analysing their past mistakes and telling them what they mustn’t do in the future. The Good Lives Model points us towards strengths-based and future-focussed interventions, whereby offenders identify new, prosocial ways of achieving their primary goods and are equipped with the skills to do so. The focus is on building a new “good life”, with the emphasis on what they can do rather than what they can’t.

It seems trite to compare life in lockdown to life in prison (although Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday’s Guardian references ex-prisoner Erwin James who believes the parallels are strong). There are, however, some similarities to life on probation supervision or parole licence. I can’t pretend to understand how it feels to live subject to licence conditions whereby even a minor breach could result in imprisonment. But in the current situation, I have a little insight into how it feels to live according to strict rules designed to minimise risk to myself and others; rules which are frustrating but for the common good; rules which tell me what I can’t do and where I can’t go; rules which sometimes change and goalposts which sometimes move. In this climate, as described above, small pleasures are important and it is essential to find new ways of achieving and maintaining primary goods. Lockdown has given me a fresh appreciation of Good Lives and, I hope, a deeper understanding of the impact of the decisions I make and the conditions I impose.

Helen Trinder

Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Northampton and Psychologist Member of The Parole Board for England and Wales

References

Freedland, J. Adjust your clocks, lockdown is bending time completely out of shape. The Guardian, 25th April 2020.

Ward, T. (2002). The management of risk and the design of good lives. Australian Psychologist, 37, 172-179.

Please don’t clap or cheer

In an uncomfortable irony, my regular blog entry has fallen on the 8 May 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe. I say uncomfortable because I find this kind of commemoration particularly challenging to comprehend, given my pacifist tendencies. I’m therefore going to take a rather circuitous route through this entry.

On the 20 March 2020 I wrote the first Thoughts from the Criminology team blog entry (focused on Covid-19), just a few hours after the University had moved to virtual working. Since then the team has tackled the situation in a variety of different ways.  In that I detailed my feelings and observations of life, as we knew it, suddenly coming to abrupt halt. Since then we have had 7 weeks of lockdown and it is worth taking stock of where we are currently.

At present the UK has recorded over 30,000 deaths attributed to the virus. These figures are by necessity inaccurate, the situation has been moving extremely fast. Furthermore, it is incredibly challenging to attribute the case of death, particularly in cases where there is no prior diagnosis of Covid-19. There has been, and remains a passionate discourse surrounding testing (or the lack of it), the supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (or the lack of it) and the government’s response (or lack of) to the pandemic. Throughout there has been growing awareness of disparity, discrimination and disproportionality. It is clear that we are not in all this together and that some people, some groups, some communities are bearing the brunt of the current crisis.

Having studied institutional violence for many years, it is evident that the current pandemic has shown a spotlight on inequality, austerity and victimisation. The role of institutions has been thrown into sharp relief, with their many failings in full view of anyone who cared to look. In 1942, Beveridge was clear that his “five giant evils” could have been addressed, prior to World War 2, yet in the twenty-first century we have been told these are insurmountable. Suddenly, in the Spring of 2020, we find that councils can house the homeless, that hungry children can be fed, that money can be found to ensure that those same children have access to educational resources. We also find that funds can be located to build emergency hospitals and pay staff to work there and across all other NHS sites.

Alongside this new-found largesse, we find NHS staff talking about the violences they face. The violence of being unable to access the equipment they need to do their jobs, the violence of being deprived of regular breaks, the violence of racism, which many staff face both internally and externally. We hear similar tales from care workers, supermarkets workers, delivery drivers, the list goes on. Yet we are told by the government that we are all in this together. This we are told, is demonstrated by gathering on doorsteps to clap the NHS and carers. It can be compared with the effort of those during World War II, or so we are told. If we just invoke that “Blitz Spirit” “We’ll Meet Again” at the “White Cliffs of Dover”.

However, such exhortations come cheap, it costs nothing in time, or money, to clap, or to sing war time songs. To do so puts a veneer of respectability and hides the violent injustices inherent in UK society and the government which leads it. It disguises and obfuscates the data that shows graphic racial and social economic disparity in the death toll. Similarly, it avoids discussion of the role that different individuals, groups and communities play in working to combat this horrible virus.  As a society we have quickly forgotten discussions around deserving/undeserving poor, the “hostile environment” and those deemed “low-skilled”. It camouflages the millions of people who are terrified of unemployment, poverty and all of the other injustices inherent within such statuses. It hides the fact that these narratives are white and male and generally horribly jingoistic by ignoring the contribution of anyone, outside of that narrow definition, to WWII and to the current pandemic. It is trite and demonstrates an indifference to human suffering across generations.

Let’s stop focusing on the cheap, the obvious and the trite and instead, once this is over, treat people (all people) with respect. Pay decent wages, enable access to good quality nutrition, education, health care, welfare and all of the other necessities for a good life. And by all means commemorate the anniversary of whatever you like, but do not celebrate war, the biggest violence of all, without which many more lives would be improved.

The day after!

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“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This quote allegedly belongs to A. Einstein who imagined a grim day in the aftermath of a world war among nations who carried nuclear arms. 

It is part of human curiosity to imagine beyond the current as to let the mind to wonder on the aftermath of this unique international lockdown!  Thoughts wonder on some prosaic elements of the lockdown and to wonder the side effects on our psyche.  Obviously as I do not have a vast epidemiological knowledge, I can only consider what I know from previous health scares.    

The previous large-scale health scare was in the 1980s.  I still remember the horrible ad with the carved headstone that read AIDS.  One word that scared so many people then.  People were told to practice safe sex and to avoid sharing needles.  People became worried and at the time an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence.  Images of people suffering Kaposi’s sarcoma began to surface in what became more than a global epidemic; it became a test in our compassion.  Early on, gay people reported discrimination, victimisation and eventual, vilification.  It took some mobilisation from the gay community and the death of some famous people to turn the tide of misconceptions, before we turned the tide of the disease.  At this stage, HIV is not a death sentence and people who are in receipt of medical attention can live full and long lives. 

It is interesting to consider how we will react to the easing of the restrictions and the ushering on a new age.  In some Asian countries, since SARS in 2003 some people wear face masks and gloves.  Will that become part of our attire and will it be part of professional wear beyond the health care professions?  If this becomes a condition, how many people will comply, and what will happen to those who will defy them. 

We currently talk about resilience and the war spirit (a very British motif) but is this the same for all?  This is not a lockdown on equal terms.  There are people in isolation in mansions, whilst some others share rooms or even beds with people, they would rather they did not.  At the same time, we talk about resilience, all domestic violence charities speak of a surge in calls that have reached crisis levels.  “Social distancing” has entered the lexicon of our everyday, but there are people who simply cannot cope.  One of the effects the day after, will be several people who will be left quite traumatised.  Some may develop an aversion to people and large crowds so it will be interesting to investigate if agoraphobia will surge in years to come. 

In one of my exercise walks. I was observing the following scene. Grandparents waving at their children and grandchildren from a distance.  The little ones have been told not to approach the others.  You could see the uneasiness of contactless interaction.  It was like a rehearsal from an Ibsen play; distant and emotionally frigid.  If this takes a few more months, will the little ones behave differently when these restrictions are lifted?  We forget that we are social animals and although we do not consciously sniff each other like dogs, we find the scent of each other quite affirming for our interactions.  Smell is one of the senses that has the longest memory and our proximity to a person is to reinforce that closeness. 

People can talk on social media, use webcams and their phones to be together.  This is an important lifeline for those fortunate to use technology, but no one can reach the level of intimacy that comes from a hug, the touch on the skin, the warmth of the body that reassures.  This was what I missed when my grandparents died, the ability to touch them, even for the last time. 

If we are to come out of social distancing, only to go into social isolation, then the disease will have managed something that previous epidemics did not; to alter the way we socialise, the way we express our humanity.  If fear of the contagion makes us withdrawn and depressed, then we will suffer a different kind of death; that of what makes us human. 

During the early stages of the austerity we saw the recurrence of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe.  This was expected and sociologically seemed to move the general discussions about migration in rather negative terms. In the days before the lockdown people from the Asian community already reported instances of abusive behaviour. It will be very interesting to see how people will react to one another once the restrictions are lifted.  Will we be prepared to accept or reject people different from ourselves? 

In the meantime, whilst doctors will be reassessing the global data the pandemic will leave behind, the rest of us will be left to wonder.  Ultimately for every country the strength of healthcare and social systems will inevitably be evaluated.  Countries will be judged, and questions will be asked and rightfully so.  Once we burry our dead, we must hold people to account.  This however should not be driven by finding a scapegoat but so we can make the most of it for the future. Only if we prepare to see the disease globally, we can make good use of knowledge and advance our understanding of the medicine.

So maybe, instead of recriminations, when we come outside from our confinement, we connect with our empathy and address the social inequalities that made so many people around us, vulnerable to this and many other diseases. 

That old familiar feeling

It would seem it’s human nature to seek out similarities in times of uncertainty. An indication that someone somewhere has experience they can share. Some sort of wisdom they can provide or at the very least a recognisable element that can somehow be interpreted to give an indication, that when it happened before everything turned out ok in the end. With the current world pandemic leaving so much free time to think and observe what is going on, one has to wonder at some point if the differences should be a more prominent focus point.

Historically world pandemics are not new. The plague, small pox, Spanish flu, all form part of a collective historical account of the global devastating impacts a new disease has on mankind. I found myself re-reading The Plague (Camus, 1947/2002) and pondering the similarities. Self-isolation and whole town isolation, the socioeconomic impacts on the poor seeking employment, despite the risk to health these roles carried and the heart-breaking accounts of families unable to say goodbye to loved ones or bury the dead in a dignified, ordinary manner.

Early on politicians and media were quick to compare the pandemic with war. Provocative language became commonplace. Talk of fighting the invisible enemy in the new ‘war’, with the ‘frontline’ NHS staff our new heroes giving the country hope we could win. It came as no surprise to wake one morning and see ‘memes’ shared on social media portraying Boris Johnson as the new Churchill.

Media quickly changed. Suddenly films which dramatised pandemics grew in popularity. These fictitious accounts of how the world would respond, the mistakes which would be made and the varying outcomes individual responses towards official advice would have on their chances of survival. Even I have to admit a scene from Contagion discussing the use of hand washing and refraining from touching your face seemed to echo government advice. Fortunately, the scenes of supermarket looting were overdramatic but the empty supermarket shelves and panic buying hysteria was all the same.

There were however, some comparisons made, which haunted me. I’m sure everyone has their own reasons for finding distaste and maybe mine were unique to me. A combination of my academic knowledge and background mixed amongst my own personal views and current situation. As a mother of three, I had suddenly become a teacher with the closure of schools. My recent master’s degree in education fortunately allowed me a basic, self-researched understanding of mainstream education and home education methods.

I watched as friends and family members concerns grew about how they as parents could provide an education. Initially most looked-for similarities once again. Similar timetables to school, similar methods of teaching, trying as a parent to morph into a similar role their children’s teacher has. I think most parents felt overwhelmed quite early on. Many most likely still do, because the thing is, home education is not comparable to mainstream education in many ways at all. That’s not to say one is superior, this is certainly not my opinion. Quite simply, they’re fundamentally different approaches.

I often find myself throughout my academic journey looking for comparison with concepts and areas in which I’m familiar. My undergrad in law and criminology makes occasional appearance in most of my writing, perhaps more often than not, in fact, I used my continued interest in criminological and legal concepts to make my education MA my own. Further reinforcing the idea, familiarity provides some sort of comfort as we enter something unknown.

One comparison which deeply worried me that finds its roots in criminological concepts, is those who have compared self-isolation with prison. Having experienced a long, heated debate previously following a comment I made displaying my disgust for the re-introduction of the death penalty, it seemed futile to raise the issues with this in the only social environment I had access to currently, social media. I remain hopeful, most criminologists recognise the obvious differences between the two.

In the end when we look back at this moment in history, there will no doubt be many more comparisons made. We often look to history to learn lessons and I’m not sure we can do that without recognising some sort of parallels with the situation. Whether that be for comfort, guidance, information or to learn, entirely depends on the individual. I will leave you with a quote of something I heard a few days ago which has stuck with me and provided inspiration for this writing…

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”

With that in mind, I would suggest we take comfort in the familiarity of similar situations, that this pandemic won’t last forever, but the difference it may make on our lives will always be our personal experiences. When we look back and search for comparison of life during the pandemic and life afterwards, we may well appreciate the experiences we once took for granted.

Reference

Camus, A (2002). The Plague. London: Penguin classics

New Heroes for the Twenty-First Century? (Clue: they don’t wear khaki)

I have blogged before on the way in which society seems to choose what to remember and what to forget. Similarly, I have mused on remembrance, the poppy and the increasing militarisation inherent in paying homage to Britain’s war generation. In the current crisis, despite the despair, I sense a change in our understanding of the term heroism, which I will explore further below.

In the 20th century there was concerted focus on idolising the military man and his function within British society. This is unsurprising, it is not for nothing that Camus describes this period as ‘the century of fear’ (1946/2007: 27). This period was, and remains remarkable, for the two world wars, as well as a variety of other conflicts, within which Britain was involved (along with many other nations). The two world wars provide foundations for the way in which the twentieth-century is discussed and understood, with substantial periods of time often delineated into the short-hand of pre-war, inter-war and post-war.

Although only twenty years in, it is clear that the twenty-first century, cannot be described as peaceful. Rather it has continued with the same approach to international relations, often argued to be immoral, if not illegal, of using military violence to obtain, what Britain views as, reasonable and tangible gains. Whether we focus on Afghanistan, Iran, Iran, Libya, Sierra Leone or Syria, British military might is deemed appropriate, proportionate and necessary (as least in Britain). Certainly, a number of authors have already dubbed our current century, as being in a perpetual, ‘war without end’ (cf. McAlister, 2002, Tertrais, 2004, Schwartz, 2008).

However, in 2020 the world is facing a far more challenging enemy, one which threatens us all, Coronovirus, or as it is more scientifically known, Covid-19. More importantly this is an enemy that cannot be shot, exploded, tortured or conquered in the traditional, well-worn ways of warfare. Instead, this crisis calls for a different kind of hero, one who does not have recourse to an arsenal of increasingly, terrifying weapons.

As with the war, there are two distinctly different experiences, those on the front line and those who are not. Each group has a role to play, for some they will take their lives in their hands, on a daily basis, to tend to the sick, to deliver supplies to organisations, communities and individuals, to maintain vital services. This group will see things, again and again, that are upsetting, that will test their resolve, their empathy, their patience, good-humour and their confidence. For others, their role is to stay out of the way, to stay indoors, to ensure that the disease does not spread further. Each group will have their own tales to tell to each other, as well as to the generations which will follow.

Once this is all over, once we emerge from our enforced isolation, we will have a return to some kind of “normality”, yet this experience is unlikely to disappear from our individual and collective memories. As our forebears, had the war experience to shape their lives, and that of those who followed them (in many unexpected ways), so shall we have a similar defining moment. Whilst the hero of the twentieth century was indisputably a white, straight, able bodied, (nominally) Christian man dressed in khaki, the hero of the twenty-first century will appear in a variety of diverse guises. From the supermarket worker to the school teacher to the carer to the paramedic to the police officer to the undertakers to the cleaners to the small business owners to the scientists, to the nurses, paramedics, doctors, surgeons and all the others, each are serving on the front line of the fight against coronavirus. They are women, men, Black, Asian, white, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and atheist, they are young and old, they are experienced professionals and those just starting out on their working lives, they are well-renumerated, they are poorly paid, they have fears and anxieties, families, friends, and those that love and fear for their safety.

These people have little in common but their humanity and they are redefining heroism second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.

References

Calhoun, Laurie, (2002), ‘The Phenomenology of Paid Killing,’ The International Journal of Human Rights, 6, 1: 1-18

Camus, Albert, (1946/2007), Neither Victims Nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder, tr. from the French by Dwight Macdonald, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers)

McAlister, Melani, (2002), ‘A Cultural History of the War without End,’ The Journal of American History, 89, 2: 439-455

Tertrais, Bruno, (2004), War Without End, (New York: The New Press)

Schwartz, Michael, (2008), War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, (Chicago: Haymarket Books)

Coronavirus (Covid-19): The greatest public health crisis in my lifetime

The coronavirus has caused an ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, as early as November 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and recognized it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Whilst we all have an interest in the ongoing spread and consequence of the greatest public health crisis in generations it holds a specific interest for me given my visits to Wuhan and Hubei province whilst working for Coventry University. Wuhan is a massive city with over 11 million of a population, but little heard of until this outbreak. It is believed that its origins are most likely linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan which also sold live animals, and one theory is that the virus came from one of these kinds of animals. The virus spread quickly through the population of Wuhan City which led to comprehensive lockdown to contain the virus. However, the virus spread beyond the city across China and into other countries. The scale of the spread has been significant and by the time the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a full pandemic in March 2020 there were cases recorded in hundreds of countries.

Cases in the UK emerged on January 31st 2020, which prompted a government response to manage the outbreak. In the early stages there was some discussion about “taking it on the chin” and allowing the virus to spread through the population in order to gain “herd immunity”. However, the public health, medical and scientific experts at Imperial College London suggested that the death toll through their modelling exercises, if this strategy played out, could be in excess of 500,000. This was a situation that would be socially and politically unpalatable, and a change of thinking emerged with a combination of social distancing, public health advice on washing hands and a strategy to protect the capacity of the NHS to cope with escalating cases. A new lexicon emerged that we are now all familiar with: flattening the curve, delaying the spread, the peak of the infection and latterly the language of the health professionals in the frontline supporting and caring for people acutely ill with Covid-19; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), ventilation and oxygen saturation and therapy. This is because the virus can attack the respiratory system leading to pneumonia and in several cases an immune response that leads to multi-organ shutdown. The media presentation of this crisis is all very frightening.

At the time of writing the pandemic has progressed relentlessly in the UK with currently over 65,000 people have tested positive and of those hospitalised nearly 8,000 patients have died. Some commentators have suggested that the UK was slow to recognise the seriousness of the virus and was slow to initiate the “lockdown” measures required to halt the spread. In addition, the UK’s position on testing for the virus has been criticised as slow, lacking preparation despite the global warnings from WHO and a shortage of the essential materials required. Whether these criticisms are valid only time will tell but the UK’s data on cases, hospitalisation, need for critical care and deaths is on a trajectory like other countries which could be described as liberal democracies. Here is the first clue to the timing of the response. The measures required to halt the spread of the virus have massive economic consequences. Balancing these two issues is incredibly difficult and has led to some commentators suggesting all liberal democracies will struggle to respond quickly enough.

What is now abundantly clear is that this is going to take some time for us to get through as a society and the consequences for large sections of our society are going to be devastating. However, what I’d like to discuss in the remainder of this blog are a number of early lessons and personal observations in terms of what we are seeing play out.

First, the data emerging indicates that the narrative about the “virus does not discriminate” is a false one. It is clear that health professionals are much more greatly exposed and that the data on cases and deaths indicate higher numbers of the socially deprived and BAME community. This should not be a surprise as the virus will be keenest felt in communities negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since we recognised this in the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980). The Report showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of Britain and suggested that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately from socially deprived communities.

Second, the coronavirus will force the return of big government. The response already supports this. In times of real crisis, the “State” always takes over. Will this lead to more state intervention going forward? If so then we will witness the greatest interventionist Conservative government in my lifetime.

Third, the coronavirus provides one more demonstration of the mystique of borders and will help reassert the role of the nation state. Therefore, the coronavirus is likely to strengthen nationalism, albeit not ethnic nationalism. To survive, the government will ask citizens to erect walls not simply between states but between individuals, as the danger of being infected comes from the people we meet most often. It is not the stranger but those closest to you who present the greatest risk.

Fourth, we see the return of the “expert”. Most people are very open to trusting experts and heeding the science when their own lives are at stake. One can already see the growing legitimacy that this has lent to the professionals who lead the fight against the virus. Professionalism is back in fashion, including recognition of the vital role of the NHS.

Fifth, the coronavirus could increase the appeal of the big data authoritarianism employed by some like the Chinese government. One can blame Chinese leaders for the lack of transparency that made them react slowly to the spread of the virus, but the efficiency of their response and the Chinese state’s capacity to control the movement and behaviour of people has been impressive.

Sixth, changing views on crisis management. What governments learned in dealing with economic crises, the refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks was that panic was their worst enemy. However, to contain the pandemic, people should panic – and they should drastically change their way of living.

Seventh, this will have an impact on intergenerational dynamics. In the context of debates about climate change and the risk it presents, younger generations have been very critical of their elders for being selfish and not thinking about the future seriously. Ironically the coronavirus reverses these dynamics.

Finally, I return to a point made earlier, governments will be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy. In conclusion, I have heard many say that this crisis is different to others we may have faced in the past 30 years and that as a result we can see society changing. Whilst I’m sure a number of the issues raised in this blog could potentially lead to society change it is also a truism that our memories are short, and we may return to life as it looked before this crisis quite quickly. Only time will tell.

Reference
“The Black Report” (1980): Inequalities in Health: Report of a Research Working Group. Department of Health and Social Security, London, 1980.

A moment of volition and free will

On Good Friday, Christians will remember one of the most important covenants in their faith. The arrest, trial and execution of the head of their church. Jesus, an inspiring figure across centuries, will be in the garden of Gethsemane asking his father “to take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), but finally accepting his fate. The significance of this self-sacrifice is the glue that connects the faith to its followers, because it is a selfless act, despite knowing in advance all that is to follow. The betrayal, the rejection, the torture, the humiliation and the eventual death. Even the resurrection, appears distant and therefore he will momentarily wish to abstain. Then, comes the thought; if not me, who? This act is conditional to all that will follow and so his free will ultimately condemn him.

These are steps that inspired many of his followers to take his word further across the world and subject themselves to whatever fate they were to suffer. The message rests in pure religious motives and motivations and over the years has eroded the implicit humanity that it contains. People have been able to demonstrate their destructive nature in wars, crime and continued injustices. Against them some people have taken exception and in acts of altruism willingly, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People of, or without, faith, but with a firm conviction on the sacrament of humanity.

People stood up against oppression and faced the judgement of the apartheid regime that murdered them, like Steve Biko.  People who spoke out against social injustice like Oscar Romero, who was shot during mass.  Those who resisted fascism like Ilektra Apostolou, a woman tortured and executed by the Nazis, and countless others throughout time.  These people maybe knew the “risks” of speaking out, of making a stand, but did it anyway.  A free will that led them to their damnation, but for millions of others, they became an inspiration.  At the worst of times, they shine and take their place in history, not for conquering and victories, but for reminding us all of the nobility in being principled. 

Selflessness offers a signal to all, of how important it is, for all of us to be part of our society.  It is when we dig deep on those qualities, that some may not even know that they have.  I remember reading the interview of a person tortured during a dictatorship, being described as a hero; their response was incredibly disarming. “I am not a hero; I was just there”.  I am quite aware that I write this blog at a time of self-isolation, lockdowns and the daily body count of the dead.  Over a period of weeks, our lives have radically changed, and we live in self-imposed confinement.  We are spectators in a medical drama with serious social implications.  Those we do not quite know, but it looks very likely that these reverberations will last for at least a while. 

It is interesting to see a renewed appreciation for professionals, namely health care and for those professions that we did not hold in high regard previously. Hero as a term seems to be rebranding itself and this may be one of those long-term effects afterwards. Just to remind us all that on this Good Friday, numerous professionals in the health care system, carers, teachers, public transport, logistics, council and retail workers will be going to work with their free will, knowing some of the risks for them and their families. This is their testament, this is their covenant and that forms part of our collective civilisation. Whilst people remind us to wash our hands, I kiss their hands for their altruism

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