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Happy birthday and reflection on the (painful) art of writing

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In November 2016, I had an idea that the Criminology team should create and maintain a blog. To that end I set up this account, put out a welcome message and then life (and Christmas, 2016) got in the way…. To cut a long story short, @manosdaskalou, @5teveh and I decided we’d give it a go, and on the 3 March 2017, @manosdaskalou broke our duck with the first post. This, of course, means we are celebrating the blog’s 4th birthday and it seems timely to reflect both on the blog and the (painful) art of writing.

Since that early foray the blog has published almost 500 times and has been read by almost 23,000 people from across the globe. As you can see from the map below, we still have a few areas of the globe to reach, so if you have contacts, be sure to let them know about us 🙂

https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/

To date, our most read individual entry comes from a current student @zeechee, followed closely behind by one of @manosdaskalou‘s contributions and then one from @treventoursu. But of course, the most popular page of all is the front page where the most current entries are. That’s not to say that some entries don’t crop up again and again, for instance @manosdaskalou‘s most popular entry went live in May 2017, @zeechee‘s in January 2020 and @treventoursu‘s in February 2020. Sometimes these things take time to find their audience, but it shows you can’t hide excellent writing and content finds a way through.

Over the past 4 years we have had contributions from a wide range of people, some have contributed just one or two, others more frequently and the three founding members (once started) have never stopped blogging. During this time, bloggers have covered an enormous range of different topics, some with more frequency than others. Of course, this year much of the content, whether intended or not, has had connections to the ongoing global pandemic. The blog for both writers and readers has offered some distraction, even if only 5 minutes escape whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, from the devastation wrought by Covid-19.

All of the above gives us much to celebrate, not least our stamina and perseverance, but says nothing about the art of writing which I’d like to reflect on now. By the time it’s live on the blog, the process is forgotten, until the next entry becomes due. For some people writing comes easily, for me, it doesn’t. I find all kinds of writing painful and often like pulling teeth. I know what I want to say, I have a reasonable vocabulary, knowledge of my discipline and a keen eye on current affairs. All of this is true until I start the writing process….

Some of my reluctance relates to my individual personality, some to my social class and some to my gender. It is probably the latter two which create the highest barriers and I find myself in a spiral or internalised argument around who would want to read this, why should they, everyone knows this and on and on ad nauseum until I either write the sodding thing or very rarely, give up in disgust at my own ineptitude. I know this is irrational and I know that I have written many thousands of words in my lifetime, most largely forgotten in the fog of time, but still, every time the barriers shoot up. What makes it worse is that I can generally fulfil what ever writing brief I am confronted with, but only after a gargantuan battle of wills with myself.

Despite this a couple of things have helped considerably. The first is a talk originally give by Virginia Woolf in 1931. In this very short piece, entitled ‘Professions for Women’, Woolf details similar struggles, much more eruditely than I have, in relation to writing as a women.

The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful—and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.

Woolf, 1931

She also names the internal conflict the ‘Angel in the House’. For Woolf, this creature has to be murdered in order for the female writer to make progress. For someone, like me committed to non-violence/pacifism, killing, even of an imaginary creature, is challenging, so instead I get in a few nudges, make my ‘angel’ agree to be quiet, even if only for a short time. As Woolf alludes, some days this works well, other times not so much, acknowledging that even when dead, the angel continues to undermine. Nevertheless this short essay helped me to understand that my so-called foibles were actually shared by other women and were formed during our socialisation. Because of this, I have regularly recommended to female students that they have a read and see if it helps them too.

The other thing that has really helped is the blog. The commitment to write regularly, to a deadline, has helped considerably. Although I know that I’m part of a team equally committed to the success of the blog, makes a difference. It ensures accountability. Of course, I could call on anyone of my colleagues to cover my slot, but I would be doing that knowing that I am adding to another person’s workload. Alternatively, I could opt not to write and leave a gapping hole on the blog that day/week, but again that would be letting down everyone on the blogging team, we all have a part to play. So sometimes reluctantly, other times with anger, still more times with passion, the words eventually come. I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers but I can say with some certainty blogging has done wonders for me in terms of accountability, not to mention the pleasure of working with a group of interesting and exciting writers on a regular basis.

Why not join us?

Zombie Apocalypse

In post-war cinema, movies became part of political propaganda, especially when the creators did not want to tackle directly on a particular issue.*  The use of metaphors and euphemisms became part of the story telling especially when the creators tried to avoid strong opposition from censors and political groups. This allowed social commentary to be made under the nose of “puritan” critics! Visual semiotics in modern cinema revealed a new reality in social symbolism.   

One of those symbolisms was the living dead, later known as zombies!  Zombies appear on the screens in the late 40s and 50s but predominately appear with the name in the 70s.  The critics show in their representation of apathetic citizens who are not alert to the dangers of communism.  Originally the zombie and the alien body-snatcher became metaphors of the red danger in the US at the time of McCarthyism. The fear of communist expansion was fertile ground to play with public fears.  It became evident that a good citizen in order to avoid zombification has to take up arms and resist the menace.  Inaction is accessory to the crime of overthrowing the social order. 

As the paranoia leading to the red danger subsided, the zombie metaphor began to lose it potency and it become a cult population for those who love watching “B-movies.” In the 80s and 90s, zombie movies became aligned with the impeding doom of the millennium and technological bug that allegedly was coming to wipe out civilisation as we know it.    

In the new century, zombie became a representation of those who succumb to technology and become its blind users.  Generations Y and Z were accused of spending more time than before on game consoles, surfing the web and becoming “couch potatoes.” The gamers who binge on games for days, losing all other engagements with life until the game is completed.  The motionless body of the gamer sitting in the same spot, non-engaging in conversation, was likened to the brainless zombie who slowly moves in space with no volition and conscience. 

More recently, the zombie movie genre promoted the idea of a global medical pandemic, mostly caused by a virus that mutates people and turn them into flesh eating abominations!  The virus breakout of the zombie disease became so convincing that a concerned member of the public back in 2011 asked Leicester City Council about their preparation in case of an invasion. Of course, at the time, cultural sociologists argued how zombies are a representation of “the other” in terms of race, nationality, and of course gender.  Whilst others saw them as a representation of end of days, an eschatological message that bring an end to life as we know it. 

Therefore, in the situation of Covid-19 the contagion of the potent virus that can kill some whilst others carry it without even realising it, brings to the surface the zombie fears Hollywood warn us about.  In a recent survey a third of US believe that the virus was created in a lab, and whilst most people according to WHO acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic there are those who question its existence. With opinions divided about the causes of covid19, life in 2020 appears to be a prequel to a post-apocalyptic reality.

Back in zombie movies and we are coming out of a lockdown when cities and towns feel deserted like 28 Days Later, people came out with protective masks like in Resident Evil and became frightened of the invisible threat like in every movie in the genre.  Back in 2011, we laughed at the question “how ready are we for a zombie apocalypse?” Maybe if we asked is there a likelihood for a pandemic we could have planned and prepared for now, slightly better.  There are great lessons to be learned here and possibly we can establish that when we are looking at healthcare and services, we cannot do more with less!  Just whatever what you do, do not take lessons from Hollywood!   

Until the next time! 

*At this stage, I would like to apologise to my younger colleague and blog comrade @treventoursu who is far more knowledgeable than myself on movies!

#amplifymelanatedvoices 2020

Thanks to @treventoursu for the image

Over the past week or so, the Thoughts From the Criminology Team has taken part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices initiative started by @blackandembodied and @jessicawilson.msrd over on Instagram. During that time we have re-shared entries from our regular bloggers @treventoursu and @drkukustr8talk as well as entries from our graduates @franbitalo, @wadzanain7, @sineqd, @sallekmusa, @tgomesx, @jazzie9, @chris13418861 and @ifedamilola. In addition, we have new entries from @treventoursu, @drkukustr8talk and @svr2727. Each of these entries has offered a different perspective and each has provided the starting point for further dialogue.

We recognise that taking part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices is a tiny gesture, and that everyone can and should do better in the fight against white supremacy, racist ideology and individual and institutional violences.

Although this particular initiative has come to an end, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team retains its ethos, which is ‘to provide an inclusive space to explore a diversity of subjects, from a diverse range of standpoints’. We hope all of our bloggers continue to write for us for many years, but there is plenty of room for new voices.

Criminology 2020 AD

2020 will be a memorable year for a number of reasons.  The big news of course was people across the world going into lockdown and staying home in order to stop the transmission of a coronavirus Covid-19.  Suddenly we started counting; people infected, people in hospitals, people dead.  The social agenda changed and our priorities altered overnight.  During this time, we are trying to come to terms with a new social reality, going for walks, knitting, baking, learning something, reading or simply surviving, hoping to see the end of something so unprecedented.     

People are still observing physical distancing, and everything feels so different from the days we were discussing future developments and holiday plans. During the last days before lockdown we (myself and @paulaabowles) were invited to the local radio by April Dawn to talk about, what else, but criminology.  In that interview we revealed that the course started 20 years ago and for that reason we shall be having a big party inviting prospective, current and old students together to mark this little milestone.  Suffice to say, that did not happen but the thought of celebrating and identifying the path of the programme is very much alive.  I have written before about the need to celebrate and the contributions our graduates make to the local, regional and national market.  Many of whom have become incredibly successful professionals in the Criminal Justice System. 

On this entry I shall stand on something different; the contribution of criminology to professional conduct, social sciences and academia.  Back in the 1990s Stan Cohen, wrote the seminal Against Criminology, a vibrant collection of essays, that identified the complexity of issues that once upon a time were identified as radical.  Consider an academic in the 1960s imagining a model that addresses the issue of gender equality and exclusion; in some ways things may not have changed as much as expected, but feminism has entered the ontology of social science. 

Criminology as a discipline did not speak against the atrocities of the Nazi genocide, like many other disciplines; this is a shame which consecutive generations of colleagues since tried to address and explain.  It was in the 1960s that criminology entered adulthood and embraced one of its more fundamental principles.  As a theoretical discipline, which people outside academia, thought was about reading criminal minds or counting crime trends only.  The discipline, (if it is a discipline) evolved in a way to bring a critical dimension to law and order.  This was something more than the original understanding of crime and criminal behaviour and it is deemed significant, because for the first time we recognised that crime does not happen in a social vacuum.  The objectives evolved, to introduce scepticism in the order of how systems work and to challenge established views. 

Since then, and through a series of events nationally and internationally, criminology is forging a way of critical reflection of social realities and professional practices.  We do not have to simply expect a society with less crime, but a society with more fairness and equality for all.  The responsibilities of those in position of power and authority is not to use and abuse it in order to gain against public interest.  Consider the current pandemic, and the mass losses of human life.  If this was preventable, even in the slightest, is there negligence?  If people were left unable to defend themselves is that criminal?  Surely these are questions criminology asks and this is why regardless of the time and the circumstances there will always be time for criminology to raise these, and many more questions.    

COVID and Me: I’m Not British But…

Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash

In the worst public health crisis since The Spanish Flu (1918), it’s safe to say that a new social contract should be drawn up after COVID, like what happened after the Second World War with Labour’s Welfare State. Yet, unlike the narratives within both world wars, this time, the actions of Black and brown people, migrants, and refugees cannot be written out of the history books. Can they?

Being in lockdown for the past eight weeks, it’s allowed me to contemplate my British identity. Before this crisis, I was at odds with my identity, and at comfort. Now, I feel that there really “ain’t no Black in the union jack”, as per Paul Gilroy’s book. When I saw headlines about whitewashing the NHS, disproportionate deaths within communities of colour and Black men being stopped by police buying food for their kids, I thought am I really British?

Liverpool, 2019 [Photographer: Tré Ventour]

The last time the world went through this much disruption, fear and uncertainty was during the Second World War, and before that, during the Depression. What both these times have in common is that they wrote the actions of Black and brown people out of the narrative. Racial theories, originating from pseudoscience played significant roles in how people that looked exactly like me were treated. Black and brown soldiers, sailors and servicemen were expendable and then erased out of history. On the African continent, these people were deemed not human enough to have dignified burials like their White counterparts, they were buried in mass graves.

What if I told you that afterwards, in 1919 there were race riots across Britain ? And at Albert Docks, a Bermudan Black veteran was lynched in a racially-motivated attack? Charles Wootten, who fought for this country, a nation that wasn’t his own only to be treated like a second-class citizen and then murdered. And in the wake of the The Depression, Britain’s own civil rights struggle took root. Now, the utter arrogance that the UK will defy all the odds against existential threat all on its own without any help at all.

Photo Credit: Neil Kenlock (1974)

Which makes decolonisation such an interesting space, because frankly none of this is on school curricula. That in teaching slavery, we only really teach Wilberforce, not about slave rebellions in the colonies nor resistance from the White working-class in Britain. Emancipation came from the bottom up, not top down. The history is complex and class solidarity kicked the elites in the teeth. And even in that, why do we not teach class solidarity in schools? Not how the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street, or the striking women of Gunwick in [British] South Africa? Today, as I see the death rate in the UK compared to somewhere like New Zealand or Germany or Taiwan, it’s hard not to believe there’s been a mismanagement somewhere, to put it lightly. Or, bias is at play. Similar to how Churchill left three million Indians to die in the Bengal Famine (1943). His hate for Indians was notorious and the Government’s contempt for the working-class can be seen through austerity, Universal Credit and its reactions to events such as Grenfell and the Windrush Scandal, where Black British citezens have been deported.

Now, this textbook British Blitz spirit will not do in 2020. Not that Britain won the wars on their own. But today, jingoism, White ethno-nationalism and #PickforBritain sing strong and loud. This blitz spirit may have formed Britain as a nation for White people, but as a Black person my experience of Britishness is one of unbelonging being written out of the identity of this country. That in narratives of COVID-19, will the actions of Black bus drivers, healthcare staff, and teachers be erased from the history books?

In Coronavirus, I see echoes of Brexit. That we can go it alone. Yet, there are no whispers of resistance to this. Forty thousand bodies say hi. I don’t see public anger. That in Britain’s pride to do it alone, I think of the calls for British independence from the EU. Lest we forget the stories of Empire; independence wasn’t gifted, it was fought for. Haiti’s Revolution for example, after which Britain sent armies to invade the French Caribbean. An unsuccessful campaign to reinstall slavery. This moral abolitionist narrative, that we are freeing ourselves is so commonplace to the UK.

Photo by Michelle Bonkosky on Unsplash

So, when I see people who look like me dying in numbers, it is a reflection to how this country started calling itself great. Stepping over the bodies it feels are inferior. People of colour. Poor people. Immigrants. Refugees. United by class. That in #PickforBritain, the industry is losing not because of Coronavirus. It is losing because of Brexit, where the majority that voted for it told foreigners they were no longer welcome here. A prejudice born from pride. Meanwhile, you are asking the public, many of whom whose ancestors toiled on those plantation death camps in the Caribbean, if they want to pick potatoes. No, Boris. I won’t. And the website doesn’t even work.

In light of VE Day and under Britain’s whole campaign in response to COVID-19, there is a story of the underdog that survives all odds, backed with popularised films such has 1917, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. The truth of the matter is that people from the British Empire [of which I am descended], including Africans and Asians, were instrumental in Britain and the allied forces winning those wars. That here on this small island, we weren’t just some minor nation but a vast empire able to win because it had collected so many countries previous, pillaged for wealth and benefits.

After Coronavirus, Black and brown people should be at the centre of this story. That the diversity we boast about is why the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed and the diversity we boast about is also dying at a disproportionate rate. Good manners and freedom; these are things we label with British values, which also came from Victorian values, which are colonial values. That clapping for our carers rings of a time which would not have afforded me my Britishness. Now, we are taught distorted histories which make people question the narratives of race in situations like COVID.

Knowing all this, is it surprising that today British people of colour like me are treated like “good immigrants” having to prove their worth, when the history we learn at school is a juxtaposition to how Britain is, how it has always been?

Mourning Travel. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Mourning Travel.

One of the first casualties of Corona was travel. Nations immediately began controlling the flow of people in and out of ever-broader borders. First neighborhoods, then cities, regions, and countries all closed. As fear of the virus spreading spread, different parts of the world became associated with Corona, though bullheaded public figures even continued to call it “Chinese”

A few years ago, I got a 10 -year visa to China through work and had planned to travel there much more than time has allowed. Now, I am fearful of ever traveling there before my visa expires. I am unable to accept the many invitations to connect with my previous students who’ve returned to China and know of my interest in the region’s cultures. I have been to southern China on several study trips with students. We finally ventured to Beijing and its wonders on a later trip. Naturally, I did my happy dance when I reached a peak on the Great Wall just a few years ago. I am now on sabbatical in Hanoi, just released from lockdown.

It was a lifelong dream to visit China, I was raised on my godmother’s stories about growing up in Hong Kong, savoring the flavors of her homeland in her kitchen in Kentucky. I knew I had to see for myself. As a kid, she and I would go on shopping day-trips to Chicago’s Chinatown, a 7-hour drive each way. For those few hours in Chi-town, we’d be transported to a world where finally she was the insider. She spoke for hours in several dialects with all the people around that I didn’t understand, and we even browsed restaurants that resembled what she’d told me home was like. We’d go in and eat not from the tourist but from the Chinese menus – foods that were not nearly available in Kentucky.

Kentucky is pretty black and white, but there, in the heart of Chinatown, in the heartland of America, smack in the middle of the 80’s, I got to experience my godmother being in the majority. Growing up close to my godmother confirmed I could experience more freedom through travel. This was a key insight into the world for a gay kid growing up in the Bible Belt; I could just go away. Travel has always exposed me to new ways of being in the world.

Nehru-Park-pride

Pride, Nehru Park, New Delhi 2008

“You’ve got to go to the city/They’re going to find you there…” -Flawless, George Michael

Travel is essential for the development of a healthy self-identity as a queer person. ‘Travel’ is, in fact, inseparable from the notion of a gay community. This is exemplified by having to leave our homes and communities to commune with others queers, and certainly the richness of gay tourism. One might also consider how gay identity uniquely depends on the very idea of gayness traveling far and wide to enter the minds of gays isolated everywhere.

Knowing gay people is a primal impetus for me to travel. Rather than just seeking to know ‘different’ people, places and cultures, I crave knowing how people like me thrive in those places. We’re everywhere.

india_hug_583457a

Celebrating India’s decriminalization!

It has always struck me that as queer people of color, we too often must venture outside our ethno-cultural communities to meet gay people. I came out at 16 and by then only knew gays within my age-group. Fortunately, in that era of grand community building, a local charity had organized a gay youth group. There, in addition to comradery, the adult facilitation and guest speakers provided mentorship and what we now understand as inter-generational knowledge. They also alerted me to queer writers: Through Sister Outsider, I’d traveled around the world with Audre Lorde long before I stepped foot outside of north-America. This is a powerful glue that can sustain solidarity within any community.

By attempting to transport certain functions of the gay club scene into the virtual world, we have certainly lost a core opportunity for inter-generational bonding. The ominous gay club also functions as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience. This phenomenon is sustained by travel, particularly tourism, migration, immigration. Or, how long did it take for nations to consider asylum for queers fleeing in deadly homophobic regimes? Flawless:

Don’t you know, you’ve got to go to the city
You’ve got to reach the other side of the glass
I think you’ll make it in the city baby
I think you know that you are more than just
Some F-ed up piece of ass

Pride – both metaphorically and literally – has circulated the globe, first and foremost through travel and tourism, then through globalizing the fight against AIDS. By the mid-90’s, the attention of gay rights advocates had widened to confronting homophobia. If health was a human right, then surely freedom from stigma is, too. Mind you, this same argument fueled the successful campaign in India to decriminalize same-sex sex, which was based on colonial legislation. Rights advocates in India had successfully used case law to articulate access to healthcare as a civil right, showing how stigma impeded this for queers.

Sadly, the exact same Victoria-era law has been strengthened and extended in many African nations, legitimizing jungle justice! For many, travel is a lifeline, including asylum. For queers in the African Diaspora, this is yet another form of exile – banishment from the motherland.

Under the bridge downtown…

If there were ever a community consumed with travel, it would be LGBTQ+ folk. Our folk knowledge is transmitted in myth and music, for example, lyrics urging gays to head to the shelter of the city. Whether chants about finding a YMCA, or told to Go West to be “together” in the sanctuary, mythical San Francisco, for gays to achieve self-realization, we needed to ‘know’ urban life to counter traditional values in the homestead. “I think you’ll make it in the city, baby.” There -away- we’re promised a new beginning with freedom. I’m very proud to have seen this through.

Gay civil rights have advanced globally far faster than those of any other recognized minority group, and certainly, one factor is… (drumroll) …we’re everywhere, even where there’s no Pride! Like ether, our pride travels through the stratosphere.

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

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 utilitarian argument for human rights

https://www.flickr.com/photos/46452859@N03

I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night.  Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord.  The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland.  Both have an impact in respect of human rights.

Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement.  The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District.  The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.

The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness.  The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances.  There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19.  The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer.  The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life.  The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise.  The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.

Turning to the second news article.  The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right.  The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge.  The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.

The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act.  Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist.  Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature.  Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few?  Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in?  Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment.  We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.

Information overload

If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks you’ve probably found yourself fighting your way through a tsunami of information that’s coming from all directions. Notifications are going into overdrive with social media apps, news apps and browsers desperate to deliver more and more content, at ever increasing frequencies. Add to this all the stories, videos and memes friends and family are also sharing and it’s hard to know where to look first. The sheer volume of content makes it harder than ever to know what is fact, fake or opinion. In honesty, it can all be a bit overwhelming.

How do you even begin sorting the information that’s being thrown at you when you can’t keep up with how quickly your news feeds are moving

1. Sort the fact from the fiction

There’s nothing like a pandemic to send the fake news mills into overdrive. Many are easy to spot, the 2020 version of an urban myth (My neighbour’s, brother’s dog is a top civil servant and says….) others are much more sophisticated and purport to be from trusted sources. The Guardian (Mercier, 2020) reports on the danger of these stories and the tragic consequences that can occur when people believe them.

Why are we so susceptible to fake news stories though? They use “truthiness” to play on our fears and biases. If it sounds like something we think could be true, if it confirms our prejudices or worries, we’re more likely to believe it.

Fact checking is more important than ever. Take a moment to think before you share – what is the source? where are their sources? For more tips on spotting fake news check out this guide (IFLA, 2020) or use an independent reputable fact checking site such as Full Fact. This blog article from the Information Literacy Group (Bedford, 2020) pulls together a selection of reliable information sources related to Covid-19.

2. Bursting your bubble

Personalised content from news feeds can be useful, but we often don’t even realise the news stories and content we’re seeing in apps has been chosen by an algorithm. Their purpose is to feed us stories they think we will like, to keep us reading longer. This can be convenient, but it can also be misleading. We get trapped in a filter bubble that feeds us the type of content we like and usually from a perspective that agrees with our own way of thinking.

Sometimes we need to know what else is going on in the world outside our specific areas of interest though and sometimes we need to consider viewpoints we don’t necessarily agree with, so we can make an informed judgement.

These algorithms can also get things wrong. My own Google news feed weirdly seems to think I’m interested in anything vaguely related to British Airways, Coventry City Football Club and Meghan Markle (I’d like to state for the record I’m not particularly interested in any of these things). This is without considering the inherent biases they have built into them, before they even start their work (algorithm bias is a whole other blog article in itself).

It’s human nature to want to hear things that agree with our way of thinking and reinforce our own world view, we follow people we like and admire, we choose news sources that confirm our way of thinking, but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture when sat in our bubble. Rather than letting the news come to you, go direct to several news sources (maybe even some that have a different political leaning to you, if you feel like being challenged). Be active in seeking news stories, rather than passively consuming them.    

3. Step away from the news feed (when you need to)

It’s a bit of a balancing act, we need to know enough to be informed and stay safe without spending 24/7 plugged in. We’re not superhuman though and sometimes we need to accept that just because it’s on our feed, we’re not obliged to engage. Give yourself permission to skip stories, mute notifications and be selective when you need to. We all have different saturation points, mine will vary day to day, but listen to yourself and know when it’s time to switch off. If it helps, set reminders on your apps to give you a nudge when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. The Mental Health Foundation (2020) have some tips for looking after your mental health in relation to news coverage of Covid-19.

If you need help finding information or want support evaluating sources the Academic Librarian team are offering  online tutorials and an online drop-in service. You can also contact us by emailing librarians@northampton.ac.uk

Cheryl Gardner

Academic Liaison Manager, LLS

References

Bedford, D. (2020) Covid-19: Seeking reliable information in difficult times. Information Literacy Group [online]. Available from: https://infolit.org.uk/covid-19-seeking-reliable-information-in-difficult-times/ [Accessed 31/03/2020].

IFLA (2020) How to spot fake news. IFLA [online]. Available from: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174 [Accessed 31/03/2020].

Mental Health Foundation (2020) Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation [online]. Available from: https://mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak [Accessed 31/03/2020]

Mercier, H. (2020) Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat? The Guardian [online]. 30th March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/30/fake-news-coronavirus-false-information [Accessed 31/03/2020].

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