Dr Lilia Giugni is a Research Associate with the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation, and the co-founder and CEO of GenPol – Gender & Policy Insights, a think tank consultancy researching matters of gender and advocating for a more gender equal world.
Her research interests and advocacy work include the mainstreaming of gender equality concerns across multiple organisational settings, as well as the gendered side of social entrepreneurship, the prevention of gender-based violence, and the strategies of Southern Italian anti-mafia activists.
Public health crises, societal discourses, and why the ways we think of coronavirus is important
Social scientists, political theorists and philosophers of science have all concerned themselves with the sets of meanings we attribute to the word ‘crisis’, and why we have come to understand certain events as crises, but not others. Activists and pundits have also written powerfully of how political and economic gains are made out of disasters (or of what communities are led to perceive as such), and suggested that it is, invariably, the most vulnerable that pay the heaviest price.
During these weeks, as people get sick and die, health care workers put their own safety at risk daily, and the financial and existential wellbeing of so many are disrupted, one may be tempted to dismiss conversations about the epistemology of public health crises as redundant and even harmful. Why waste time arguing about the socially constructed nature of crises, when entire societies are grieving, when we are dealing with fears, anxiety and unprecedented changes, and there are human lives yet to be saved?
However, the way we collectively make sense of the challenges we face, and the narratives we are presented with by those in government (and by the media and institutions in charge of producing information and knowledge, as well as the actors that influence them) are crucial to the policy solutions that will eventually be adopted. And, yes, the pandemic is very real, and so are its socio-economic effects. That doesn’t mean it isn’t vital to critically assess the public discourses that are being framed around it, and how they inform our perceptions and behaviours.
The first of these discourses depicts the public health emergency (another term loaded with significance) as one that is mostly determined by individual behaviours. Accordingly – the argument runs – it is by policing and controlling individual citizens that cities and countries will get through this ordeal. However, just look at my native Italy, hit by the disease with particular cruelty. Medics and epidemiologists have repeatedly pointed out that the main epicentres of contagion have been hospitals (deprived of vital resources by decades of cuts and neo-liberal reforms, and now unable to equip their staff with the necessary protections) and factories (essential productive activities aside, luxury cars were still being produced in Italy until a few days ago, in spite of workers’ protests and unions’ strikes). In other words, specific public policies, political ideologies and economic choices have paved the ground for the collective trial Italians are experiencing. Similarly, in the United States, it is the lack of a universal public health system that makes the country unable to protect its population from the outbreak. As for the UK, as it has been effectively put elsewhere, we cannot sadly applaud away years of NHS cuts.
So how about we think of that the next time we briefly leave the house to go queuing at our local grocery store? That might help us stop growing furious at the neighbours who took their kids out for a breath of fresh air after days of confinement, and allocate blame where it belongs. Or to reframe what is happening to us as the very political problem that it is.
The solidarity of human fragility
The second recurrent public discourse of these weeks proposes that the virus levels out differences and privileges: when facing illness, vulnerability and death, we are all eventually reduced to the same bare bodies and bare lives. This is, of course, an argument that has merit, as any grieving person and household knows only too well. Moreover, that very sense of human fragility can foster solidarity and mutual aid efforts (indeed, it already has, in this country and beyond). ‘We are all in this together’ – is the mantra of the day. Still, the pandemic has brutally revealed, and continues to worsen, existing patterns of social inequalities. Starting from the fact that not everybody can work from home, has a safe place where to work from, or is indeed left with a job. For victims and survivors of domestic violence, for example, being forced to stay in can feel like a death sentence. Gig workers and underpaid, non-unionised freelancers (from the cultural and entertainment industry, up to the care and catering sectors) are also having it particularly bad. Riders and delivery drivers, with little or non-existent welfare benefits, have little alternative but to expose themselves to the risk of contagion, and carry on delivering meals to those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford them.
And that’s not all. Speaking of crises and emergencies and how we perceive them, the housing crisis is an enduring, collective shame, to which many start opening their eyes today, as specialised charities and local councils frantically work to provide thousands of homeless people with temporary accommodation. The overcrowding of British prisons (short of at least 9,000 beds across England and Wales) and of migrants’ detention centres are also burning social problems, and – human rights advocates warn – the virus outbreak poses a dramatic threat to these already marginalised populations.
Can we dismantle injustice?
So, to begin with, concerning ourselves with the way recent events have been constructed and communicated to us entails demystifying reductionist explanations, and pushing back attempts to de-politicise the debate. It also implies acknowledging the relationship between the present situation and the unsustainability of our systems of production and ways of organising social life, today more evident than ever (leaving aside ecological implications, better highlighted by chain food and environmental disaster experts). Ultimately, it includes infusing that statement, ‘we are all in this together’, with a more profound and accurate meaning. Yes, we are indeed in this, certainly, and together, hopefully. But this doesn’t cancel political and economic responsibilities, and does not erase existing disparities: if anything, it should push us to take action to dismantle injustice, and to obtain more compassionate policies. Because, as activist and authors Naomi Klein and Judith Butler have both recently pointed out, our interdependence is now undeniable: if those who deliver our food or take care of our sick ones don’t have decent welfare and access to good quality health care, there is no way the contagion of present and future diseases can be blocked. No gated housing estates or privatised vaccination programmes will keep us safe if the entire community is not cared for. And we cannot afford to postpone this conversation any longer.