This article is part of the following series: Dispatches from the pandemic
On April 5th, NHS Million, an unofficial campaign for people who “love and cherish” the UK’s National Health Service, tweeted a video of a distressed nurse recording a message in her car. The tweet was aimed, NHS Million said, at those who were “ignoring the rules,” so that they would understand “the reality of the situation.” The rules being ignored were – presumably – those set out in “The Heath Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020,” a piece of legislation enacted in the United Kingdom on March 26th, that restricted people’s right to leave their home without a reasonable excuse, such as (this is from the College of Policing’s guidance) shopping for necessities, taking exercise, or seeking medical assistance. In the video, an exhausted nurse describes how she and her colleague are placing themselves in danger for the sake of others, and how they now feel as if they are fighting a losing battle: people need to stay at home, she insists, through tears, to help protect the NHS. Though the request was expressed in calm and reasonable terms, several Twitter users retweeted the video to illustrate a much more forceful injunction of their own: “stay the fuck at home.”
The following day, April 6th, the Daily Mirror reported on the social media post of another NHS nurse, who had posted a picture of himself exhausted, sweaty, and red-faced after his shift on an intensive care unit. According to the report, the nurse was told, minutes after coming off shift, that his own grandfather had died of coronavirus: “just stay the f*** inside please,” he wrote under the image. On April 11th, the Daily Express splashed another picture of a post-shift nurse, on its front page, foregrounding the now familiar exhausted expression and facial marks: Desperate nurse’s plea to Easter Britain, goes the headline: Heartbreaking message for Britons to stay home this weekend.
I have found myself haunted by these images – and these are only three among many – which have emerged over the last week or so as a distinctive pictorial genre of the pandemic. The images have a common style – they are generally individual selfies, usually taken under harsh institutional light, marked by red faces, sweat, grime, distress lines, and always with that same urgent message, either appended or implied – stay home, stay the fuck at home, fucking stay inside.
The images make me uneasy – as I suppose they are intended to. This is partly an unease at being starkly confronted by the life-threatening labour that other people are undertaking, I presume not always very willingly, on my behalf. It’s also an unease at the intensity of making such personal moments of exhaustion and grief into public acts, which are then quickly recycled and deployed by the right-wing news media, by political campaigns, by writers and other social media users, for cultural or sentimental ends that are not always clear.
But my unease also has to do with the attachment of these images (again, not always willingly) to what has become the central logic of Britain’s response to the pandemic – a spatial and domestic strategy, centred on staying in the home. How should we think about this imperative, including the aesthetic and textual force that surrounds it, as it becomes the central political object of a state in crisis? How, in particular, should we think about home as a clinical and epidemiological trope, when we are still in the midst of a deeply toxic debate precisely about questions of place, belonging, movement, and home, as these concepts continue to take shape in pre- and post-Brexit Britain?
After several months of often torrential rain, the seven days of April 5th to April 11th 2020 were bookended by two unseasonably warm and long weekends across Britain. This heat quickly became the focus of a growing moral panic about people ignoring “the rules,” and leaving their homes to take use of open public space, such as parks, lakesides, and beaches. In the most notorious case, Lambeth Council, a municipal authority in south London, complained that “over 3000 people” had unacceptably made use of the borough’s Brockwell Park over the weekend, “many of them sunbathing.” People in wealthier Primrose Hill were said by the Guardian, to have been found with “full picnics,” even leading to the picnickers being told by the Police – so the Telegraph reported– not to participate in the now-weekly public clap for NHS workers.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, suggested on the BBC that a tightening of the rules might be necessary if such incidents continued. The journalist and TV presenter Piers Morgan, who has replaced his online avatar (previously an image of his own face) with the NHS logo, wrote on Twitter: “If people ignore Govt. advice & go out unnecessarily this weekend because ‘the weather’s nice’, then they are traitors to every nurse & doctor who has died this week & to all NHS workers continuing to risk their lives for us. STAY HOME.”
This moral panic about picnics and sunbathing intersected, more or less simultaneously, with another controversy centred on the moral status of leisure and public space – a growing popular outcry about people from urban areas being seen in rural locations, again in spite of “the rules,” whether selfishly taking a holiday, or, worse, planning to see out the pandemic in their second home. Longstanding anger about rural-urban inequalities, and well-founded fears about sparse rural health infrastructure becoming overwhelmed by wealthy second-home-owners, became the focus of sharp popular anger.
In rural West Cork, Ireland, not far from where I grew up, new arrivals from Dublin were said to have been spotted by a cashier in a local shop. The editor of Cork’s best-known radio phone-in show responded to the controversy in a tweet on April 7th, with the now familiar message: “stay the fuck at home.” The same anger erupted in rural North Wales – not far from where I live now – as locals took to social media, imploring second home owners, many said to be from English cities, not to come to the area during the period of lockdown. “Wales is closed” said a hand drawn sign on the front of the local newspaper, the Western Mail: “stay at home.”
But what exactly is held together in this now routine and routinized injunction? It’s certainly the case that “stay at home” contains large assumptions about both the availably and desirability of domestic space, as Sophie Lewis has pointed out: first it assumes that everyone actually “has access to a private dwelling” and second, even where such access is available, it assumes that the home, well documented as “an abuser’s dream,” is necessarily a good or a safe place to be. Here, the reproductive legacy of epidemiology, a discipline centred on the health and viability of a certain idea of population, reaches a kind of logical endpoint through the deployment of heteronormative and middle-class homemaking. In the same move, a distinctive pandemic architecture also becomes visible here – the central intervention, after all, is an organisation of domestic space, one that mandates a private garden, a home office, a playroom, a kitchen with storage, a garage with flatbed freezer, and a separate bedroom for each child. The reproductive family unit, perhaps not overtly violent or abusive, hygienically separated in its new-build home, with easy road access to a large supermarket – this is the infrastructural vision of a newly suburbanized epidemiology.
And all of this despite the fact, as Dawn Foster has also argued, “many people in the United Kingdom live in substandard housing” – a situation that is only made bearable by the capacity to get out. During the pandemic, Foster points out, public space has become a site of intense surveillance and policing, a development that seems inseparable from how reliance on public space is historically structured by class and race in the UK. The same process, Foster goes on, is today driven by “absolute contempt for families who can’t afford homes with big gardens; flatmates driven mad by being trapped in small flats without living rooms; disabled and older people who need to rest amidst walks; people who are in abusive relationships who just want a break and to spend some time alone outside.”
But what is at stake here is not only a question of place. It is also a question of movement or the absence of movement – it is a question of the demand to stay at home. Indeed, it is striking that this injunction has emerged without any public reflection on the kinds of people who are generally held to have troubled relationships to being or staying in their (correct) home. Such trouble seems, in turn, inseparable from the fact that Britain’s cultural absorption of the coronavirus has come right at the climax of the Brexit crisis, including the toxic discourse of belonging and mobility that defined that crisis (indeed, it is arguable that the slowness of Britain’s official response to the crisis is at least partly explained by a governmental machine that was absolutely fixed on processing its hard-wrought official Brexit date of January 31st2020).
It seems then imperative to understand this period of “lockdown”, including the degree to which many people find it bearable or unbearable, the aura of biological threat that has come to justify it, the genre of sentimental domestic video that has come to define it aesthetically, the sometimes baroquely and even comically authoritarian policing that has worked to hold it together – it seems imperative to understand all of this as the continuity of five years of profoundly racist public discussion about who is at home in Britain, of who must return to their imagined homes elsewhere, of who is entitled to stay and who must go, of who is allowed to be be mobile and who is fixed in place.
It is worth recalling here that Brexit was presaged, inter alia, by an especially grim anti-migrant campaign operated by the UK Home Office, ostensibly aimed at “illegal” migrants, in which vans emblazoned with the message “go home” – long a staple of far-right rhetoric in the UK – were driven through a range of urban neighbourhoods. This campaign marked “a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling,” as Hannah Jones, Yasmin Gunaratnam and their colleagues put it, “to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech and rhetoric as far-right racists” (2017: 3).
Of course the phrases “stay home” and “go home” are not identical. The point here is not that the public health message “stay home” is a kind of covert racism. The point is that the defining message of the UK’s pandemic response, not least as it has often been most vehemently directed at young people of colour and disabled people, not least as it comes freighted with the threat of authoritarian correction, not least as it has been erected against a renewed fantasy of urban invasion – the point is that this message continues the trade in a set of sentimental and cultural goods (belonging, identity, inheritance, embodiment, threat) that have long defined racist political strategy in the UK.
This is the sense, finally in which, forms of enunciation comes to matter: in particular, the move from “stay home” (the official government advice) to “stay the fuck at home” (the more typical social media injunction) marks an important transition to a more forceful phrase, to a phrase that conveys a certain strength of feeling, to a demand rather than a request. And this demand is especially worthy of scrutiny when it is appended to figures of medical authority. Such enunciations, whether uttered by medical figures themselves or (more typically) attached to their images by third parties, should certainly be understood as expressions of grief, of fear and stress – even of solidarity and communal feeling.
But is it too much to read into these expressions something of the authoritarian pleasure of sanctimony too? Is it too much to sense, sometimes, in these frank demands to stay at home, to protect the NHS, to follow the rules – is it too much to sense also here the unmistakeable tingle of a moral authority properly exercised? This is neither an easy nor a comfortable thought, when health workers are still being exposed, often fatally, to the crisis – with particularly dire consequences for people of colour in the health system. And yet uncritical veneration of that health system and of health workers, which is an increasingly distinctive feature of the conformist political culture of the United Kingdom, makes a critique of medical feeling necessary – not least as we learn about some doctors’ surgeries asking patients with life-limiting illnesses to complete a “Do Not Resuscitate” form so that resources might be “targeted to the young and fit.” We need to find ways, even mid-crisis, perhaps especially mid-crisis, to remind ourselves how dangerous the entanglement of governmental and medical authority can be for many people. And we need to find ways to talk about how the most violent and authoritarian instincts of the state have so often ridden on the back of an epidemiological imperative – not simply as a misuse, or a usurpation, but as the proper exercise of hygienic procedure.
None of this is easy or straightforward. But in a country like Britain, where so many of the state’s most toxic instincts have become elaborated in a highly racialized spatial immobilization, we may yet come to regret enabling a blurred medical and juridical authority to tell people, sometimes with force, often with the vocal backing of the crowd, always without out fear of reproach, even as people gather, weeping, to clap for NHS workers in the streets, to obey the rules, to keep inside, to stay the fuck at home.
Des Fitzgerald is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, and at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, at the University of Exeter. firstname.lastname@example.org