Them, us and COVID-19

Coronavirus. COVID-19. Virus. Pandemic. Lockdown. Isolation. Distancing. Shielding. PPE. Keyworker. Zoom. Unprecedented.

Our vocabulary has evolved over the last few months. Words have taken on a different meaning. Terms we’d rarely used before now dominate the headlines, crowd our screens, and pepper our conversations.

We’re experiencing a rapidly evolving, global event which has changed all our lives and will shape all our futures. There’s a strong sense that we’re in this together. Hashtags like #TogetherApart, #TogetherAtHome and #BetterTogether trend on Twitter. This is about ‘we’ not ‘me’. ‘Us’, not ‘them’.

Or is it?

Because it seems to me that while there is a strong sense we are all in this together, there’s also an unhealthy division in the narrative, and the reality, of COVID-19.

Winners and losers

The vocabulary of war is dominant. Early on, the Prime Minister described acting “like any wartime government” and referred to COVID-19 as a deadly enemy [1]. A “war room” was set up in the Cabinet Office [2]. In his “address to the nation” on 23 March, Boris Johnson mentioned “the invisible killer”, “beating the virus” and “fighting the disease”, claiming “in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.” [3]

This rhetoric continues to be adopted by his cabinet colleagues and echoed in the media too.

When Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital, journalists invariably described him ‘battling’ the virus. His deputy Dominic Raab asserted his confidence that “he will pull through, because if there’s one thing I know about this Prime Minister, he’s a fighter” [4]. And Donald Trump referred to the Prime Minister’s “own personal fight with the virus”, adding that he was “hopeful and sure that he is going to be fine. He’s a strong man, strong person.” [5]

On an individual level, framing COVID-19 and our response in military terms is distressing for those who personally and professionally care about and care for people who die with the disease, as it suggests that all involved didn’t fight hard enough, or weren’t strong enough, to win the battle.

On a broader level, the aggressive language of war hides the compassion involved in the care and treatment of people with the disease, not to mention the science and medicine and research involved in the response. It suggests an attack from a hidden aggressor, conveniently deflecting attention from preventative and preparatory steps not taken. And it indicates violence and retribution, when in reality people are not ‘taking up arms’ but are quietly and peacefully playing their part by staying at home and carrying on with their lives as best they can, in a universal, collaborative act of love.

Heroes and ‘the vulnerable’

In war, there are heroes. And the hero narrative is strong right now. People who have always played a vital yet barely acknowledged role in our communities have been elevated – first to ‘keyworker’, then ‘essential worker’, then ‘critical worker’ and now ‘hero’.

While this gratitude is absolutely deserved and no doubt appreciated, weekly clapping and shiny new ‘CARE’ badges hardly make up for the years in the shadows: the minimal wages, the zero hours contracts, the lack of recognition or respect, the ‘low-skilled’ label, the threat of deportation, the discrimination, the abuse.

These ‘heroes’ didn’t enlist to fight or sign up for war. The reason that health and social care workers are ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ and ‘battling’ and dying is because they don’t have the adequate protective equipment and workplace environments and working conditions to keep them safe.

In contrast to the heroes, there are ‘the vulnerable’. Not recognised as individuals, or rarely even as people – just “those who are 70 and over, have an underlying health condition or are pregnant” [6]. An anonymous, homogenous, helpless group, at greater clinical risk from the virus, who must be protected and shielded. Looked after. Cared for. Done to.

The ‘vulnerable’ label identifies a different, separate, other group of people. So much so that many people understandably don’t identify themselves in the broad and dehumanising category, and many not included believe they’re not at risk. The message is for ‘them’, not ‘us’.

And what about those of us who are economically vulnerable? Who are experiencing, or at risk of, domestic violence and abuse? Who are lonely? Who don’t have the capacity to understand and remember the new rules? Who are caring, unpaid, for family and friends? Who don’t have an internet connection or the necessary technology to keep in touch online? Who aren’t safe in our workplace? Who don’t have a home to stay safe in? Who don’t want to, or can’t, ask for help? Who just feel vulnerable – regardless of our circumstances?

The narrative divides us into the protectors and the protected. The saviours and the saved. But in reality these lines are blurred. We’re all heroes in our own ways, and we are all vulnerable. We can all care about each other. And we all need – and deserve – to be cared about. We all matter.

Healthy people and ‘those with underlying health conditions’

We all matter. But there’s a sinister implication in the unfolding story of this pandemic that some lives – and deaths – matter more.

One message was clear from early news reports about coronavirus. ‘Us’ healthy people won’t get the virus, or if we do, we’ll only have mild symptoms. The people most at risk are ‘those with underlying health conditions’. Them.

As details of the first people to die in the UK emerged, the “with an underlying health condition” tag was inevitably attached. However, as more and more people have died with the disease, the headlines have focused with horror on people dying ‘with no underlying conditions’.

There’s a dark message here – that people with health conditions are more dispensable. ‘They’ would have died anyway. The death of a ‘healthy’ person is therefore more shocking, and more tragic.

Today we paused to remember the ‘keyworkers’ who have died during this pandemic. Journalists concentrate their attention on ‘the healthy’ who are dying, particularly the “healthcare heroes”. And the government continues to focus its daily updates on “those hospitalised in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus” who have “sadly died” [7].

But there’s a glaring omission here. A shocking lack of acknowledgement of the number of people who are dying in care homes – especially as talk increasingly turns to peaks and plateaus and easing restrictions and relaxing the rules.

The World Health Organisation estimates people who have died in care homes represent half of all deaths across Europe, but in the UK they’re being written out of the story of this pandemic. Our Chief Medical Officer has suggested deaths in care homes are inevitable “because this is a very vulnerable group” [8]. A stark contrast to the message from Dr Hans Kluge, Regional Director of WHO Europe, who suggested last week that “Even among very old people who are frail and live with multiple chronic conditions – many have a good chance of recovery if they are well-cared for.” [9]

The rulers and the ruled

We’ve been told to stay at home, not to meet family and friends, and only go out for limited time and for essential reasons. We’ve been told to keep 2 metres apart from other people if we go out, not to touch our faces and to wash our hands when we get home. We’ve been told we can’t get married, or baptised. We’ve been told not to use public transport, and ideally not to travel at all. We’ve been told to close our pubs and restaurants, our shops, our gyms, our libraries, our playgrounds.

We’ve been locked down.

And we’ve obeyed.

The government has made the rules and threatened us with the consequences of breaking them. We’ve been told how to behave, and how we’ll be protected. We’re the passive recipients of messages from the top.

The ethics and consequences of these rules are too complex and far-reaching to explore here. But as we start to look ahead to the next stage of this pandemic, we need to close the distance between those making the rules and those following them. Our ‘new normal’ can’t be dictated from above by ‘them’, but must be developed at a small scale, community level, by us. As the NHS volunteer scheme has illustrated, large scale, centralised, one-size fits all solutions are far less effective than the small, local, collaborative responses.

It’s time for the government to stop telling and start listening.

Us, not them and us

Increasingly the narrative of this pandemic is about numbers, not people. Cases. Deaths. Trends. Curves. Grim statistics that highlight but also hide the human cost of this disease. The individual lives lost, and the lives changed forever.

The metaphors and labels employed in the last few months suggest an inevitability about this virus and its consequences – conveniently deflecting attention from the truth about the government’s response. It’s becoming clear that we are not all in this together, and some of us are at significantly greater risk either directly or indirectly from COVID-19 – whether due to our age, gender, ethnicity, health, financial circumstances or place of residence (notably care homes).

This gives some insight into the virus but says much more about attitudes and values and politics and power.

Language matters. It frames our thinking and shapes our response. So far in this pandemic, the language of the government, echoed by the largely submissive media, has shaped our beliefs and our behaviours. It’s time to flip the narrative, and make the future about all of us, not them and us.


References

[1] PM statement on coronavirus: 17 March 2020, Speech, Prime Minister’s Office, 17 March 2020

[2] PM to set out Government’s action plan on the coronavirus outbreak, Press release, Prime Minister’s Office, 2 March 2020

[3] PM address to the nation on coronavirus: 23 March 2020, Speech, Prime Minister’s Office, 23 March 2020

[4] Boris Johnson ‘is a fighter’ and will be back at the helm to lead us through coronavirus crisis, Dominic Raab says Lizzie Roberts et al, The Telegraph, 8 April 2020

[5] Video clip, The Daily Wire, Twitter, 6 April 2020

[6] Coronavirus: Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives leaflet, UK government

[7] Standard text for daily Department of Health and Social Care announcement, for example Update on #COVID-19 testing…, Department of Health and Social Care, Twitter, 27 April 2020

[8] Coronavirus: Hard to prevent care home deaths, says Chris Whitty, BBC News, 22 April 2020

[9] Statement – Invest in the overlooked and unsung: build sustainable people-centred long-term care in the wake of COVID-19, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, World Health Organisation Europe, 23 April 2020

2 thoughts on “Them, us and COVID-19

  1. Hi Bryony, I think this is a great piece. All too often I hear these narrative dichotomies regurgitated, often with the best intentions, in the medical settings that I’ve worked in. Vulnerability is not intrinsic nor static, but this is what we are often strategically led to believe by simplified ‘us and them’ political narratives. Looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

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