Anniversaries are dangerous moments. A year after the start of the first UK lockdown on March 23rd , many have noted an escalation of anxiety, as we reflect on the impact of individual griefs and ruptures to the social body.
Starting a new job on the 1st March 2020, several scoffed at my proffered elbow to bump in lieu of a handshake. That trivial disruption to the smooth flow of social etiquette prefigured a year where everything would become uncertain: even, as Shadreck Mwale noted, our everyday health competence. Our first Cost of Living blog on COVID-19 and gallery on the pandemic flagged some early tensions – between the cautious and the sceptics; between public health and the economy; between an atomised neoliberal citizenry and new collectivities that were emerging. We called for sociological reflection on the unfolding crisis whilst cautioning that considered critique might have to wait. So much was so uncertain, as a tiny virus –SARS-CoV-2 is only 120nm in diameter – brought many countries of the world to a sudden quiet. Reflections on learning to live with COVID have – unsurprisingly – dominated the Cost of Living over the last 12 months. Early posts reflected the Garfinkel-style breaching experiment we found ourselves in. As Chris Yuill put it, we were rethinking “the performativities and mundane rituals of everyday life”, those the micro-level performances that choreograph our every interaction. Would there be, post-pandemic, a new normal of more distant interaction?
If early posts focused on micro-level disruption, by April and May it had become clear that we might be all in this together, but we were also deeply divided, and the focus moved to structural causes and consequences. In April, Hannah Bradby suggested 2020 had no need for All Fools Day to remind us of the world’s instability. In upending certainty, the pandemic had opened the space for reflection on some truths that are ordinarily ignorable: that we are in a global world, in which uncertain threats of disease are, for many, normal.
Inequalities in the burdens of illness, death and care became more visible. As professional workers retreated to work at home, others continued to work on the front line. Paul Bissell and colleagues unpacked why the poor and marginalised were at higher risk, as historical inequalities become not only embodied, but internalised as shame in systems that have no place for illness, suffering and dependency. This was a theme taken up by Alice Butler-Warke and Caroline Hood who, drawing on Goffman, discussed the ways in which some bodies (such as those with underlying health conditions) were framed as ‘disposable’ and of lesser value in public discourse.
Others drew attention to other fault lines within the UK, such as Adrian Mercer on the marginalisation of rural communities in terms of support, and PJ Annand, on the impacts for those without safe homes. ‘Stay at home’ means little to those without shelter; and for some (such as those at risk of domestic violence) a house is not necessarily a shelter. In the wake of compulsory mask-wearing, Sasha Scambler and Elliot Reeves drew attention to the impact on deaf people of limiting access to lip reading.
Irina Kuznetsova and colleagues focused on the global structures that shape experiences of pandemics, drawing attention to the particular vulnerabilities of internally displaced persons around the world; and Buse Ozum Dagdele pointed to the cruelties of reliance on migrant key workers whilst shoring up exclusionary immigration policies within the UK.
By June, racial injustice was fore-grounded, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the USA, which triggered a series of protests around Black Lives Matter including attempts to remove Cecil Rhodes statue from Oxford. S Vittal Katikreddi and Claire Niedzwiedz unpacked the role of racism and discrimination in the unequal burden of the pandemic – including barriers to migrants accessing health care. In the light of stark inequalities in the impact of COVID on minoritised people in the UK, and on indigenous peoples elsewhere, Colin Samson drew attention to the links between colonialism and COVID, and “the possibility that patterns of suffering from COVID-19 might reveal the racial privilege incarnated in Western state institutions is part of the present moment. It is already becoming unveiled by the emerging social movements against the official racial violence that the pandemic is in some way a part”. Bringing together structural injustice and micro-level interaction, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor‘s blog in July drew on personal experience to remind us the interruptions to ontological security wrought by the pandemic were already a familiar experience for people of colour: “To live smoothly, without interruptions, is a mark of privilege.”
A theme throughout the year was the need for a more sociologically attuned account of public understanding and behaviour. As concern about the role of fake news, rumour and faith in expertise escalated, a number of posts called for more critique, particularly critical reflection on what Kirsten Bell called ‘magical’ as well as rational reason. In April, drawing on Mary Douglas, she took some apparently irrational responses (elaborate PPE; panic buying) and noted that we might expect particular danger to attach to boundaries – and their passing places, such as national borders and body orifices. It is no wonder protective attire was more spectacular at airports than supermarkets, or that toilet paper, in particular, became stockpiled. Charlie Davison’s reminder of the value of lay epidemiology suggested that the increasingly credibility of ‘folk tales’ of pre-March infections highlighted the need to include experiential knowledge in the mix of expertise, rather than simply to dismiss it as rumour.
The pandemic has dragged issues of governance into the spotlight. In the UK, in the wake of Dido Harding being awarded the test and trace contract in May and a series of instances of cronyism that were hard to distinguish from corruption, comments from David Rowland on the lack of public accountability, and from Carl Walker on the corrosive effect of the lack of trust, drew attention to the stark shortcomings of UK governance. Different national responses to mitigation provided a stark set of case studies on how relations between the state, institutions and their publics play out differently. Chris Yuill undermined any assumptions that the Swedish approach was based on pure individualism. Instead, he argued, what looked like less authoritarian responses were possible because of the closer bond between state and its citizens than in the UK. In January, a blog from Johanna Gondouin and colleagues unpacked the colonialism of current UK reductions in aid budgets and noted the poorer outcomes of countries with more individualistic approaches.
As Kathleen Kendall and colleagues noted, in relation to the increasing salience of sociology and political activism for their medical students, this year has been an incitement to critical reflection. The Cost of Living bloggers have responded in real-time, drawing largely on the traditional canon of social theorists (Goffman, Foucault, Douglas) to understand politics and social life in the here and now. Should the new normal be a radical departure, rather than a temporary disruption, we may need radical new theory to help us make sense of a world upended. We have had sociologically-informed reflection, but considered critique may have to wait.