COVID-19: the first 100 days

I have begun work on my new book to be published by Routledge, entitled COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis. Part of the Introduction chapter will present an overview of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic over its first one hundred days. Things moved very quickly over that time. Here is an except from this chapter outlining key events during this period.

Sign outside an Australian shop, April 2020

The time elapsing from the first reporting of a cluster of cases of a new respiratory disease that was later to be named ‘COVID-19’ to the first million confirmed cases worldwide was slightly less than one hundred days. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a timeline of how events unfolded from the very beginning of the first observation of a cluster of unusual cases of atypical pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province (World Health Organization, 2020). The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response (2021) also put together a chronological account of the events unfolding between late 2019 and the end of March 2020, by which time the virus had spread extensively around the world. The Panel concluded that these months were characterised by some evidence of early and rapid action by nations and global health authorities. However, delay, hesitation to act decisively and denial of the threat were also prevalent in their responses. The events and developments outlined below in these first one hundred days of the COVID crisis are synthesised from these two valuable chronologies.

On 30 December 2019, the first cases of ‘atypical viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ who had been admitted to hospitals in Wuhan were reported in two urgent notices to hospital networks in the city by officials from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Wuhan clinicians noted that several of these atypical pneumonia patients had visited the same ‘wet market’ in the city selling live sea creatures and other animals for human consumption, suggesting it was a key source of transmission. On 31 December, a Chinese business publication published a report about one of these notices, which in turn was picked up by several disease surveillance systems operating in the region. WHO’s Headquarters office in Geneva was alerted to the report. Later that day, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission sent out a bulletin for public notice, reporting that 27 cases of this disease had been identified. By the end of December, it seemed likely from the epidemiology of these Wuhan cases that human-to-human transmission of this as yet un-identified and unnamed pathogen was likely.

The WHO Country Office in China requested further information from the Wuhan officials on 1 January 2020, activating its Incident Management Support Team as part of its emergency response framework. By 2 January, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had sequenced almost the entire genome of the novel virus. There were 44 reported cases by 3 January. WHO released a tweet about this Wuhan pneumonia cluster (which had not yet caused any deaths) on 4 January, noting the investigations to determine the cause were underway. It released its first Disease Outbreak News report on 5 January about these cases. All countries were warned to take precautions against the spread of this new virus. On 9 January, Chinese authorities had determined that the pathogen was a novel coronavirus, similar to a previous virus (SARS-CoV) that had caused SARS disease (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in a previous outbreak between 2003 and 2007. Chinese scientists had developed a first test for the virus by 10 January.

The first death from infection with the novel coronavirus was reported by the China media on 11 January. The first case outside China was reported in Thailand on 13 January and a second case in Japan on 16 January: both cases had travelled from Wuhan. Chinese health experts publicly confirmed on 20 January that the virus was transmissible between humans and that healthcare workers had become infected. Wuhan officials had instituted a city-wide lockdown on 23 January in the attempt to control the spread. At this point in the outbreak, 830 cases and 25 deaths had been reported. The first case outside Asia was recorded in the USA on 21 January and the first European cases (a total of three) were reported by France on 24 January.

WHO’s first mission to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak took place on 20-21 January. It declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ on 30 January, its highest level of alarm. At this point in the outbreak, the novel coronavirus had begun to spread quickly around the world. A total of 98 cases had been detected in 18 countries. By 4 February, over 20 000 confirmed cases and 425 deaths had been reported in China, and 176 cases in 24 other countries. On 11 February, WHO announced that the novel coronavirus would be named SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it caused as COVID-19 (a contraction of ‘coronavirus disease 2019’). This naming followed best practice, which avoids linking titles of new microbes or diseases to specific regions, nationalities, individuals or animals because of the possibility of inaccuracy or stigma.

By 7 March, over 100 000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported globally. The outbreak was officially declared as a pandemic by WHO on 11 March 2020, when reported cases globally had reached over 118 000 across 114 countries. By 13 March, Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China. By 4 April, almost 100 days after the first Wuhan cases having been reported, WHO reported that over 1 million confirmed cases had been reported worldwide, with the pace of infection rapidly increasing.

Even at that stage, many countries’ governments worldwide had not yet taken decisive action to contain the spread of the virus. WHO’s declaration on 30 January of a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ was largely ignored. Only a minority of countries began comprehensive prevention and response strategies. Many countries did very little throughout the month of February, even while cases were rapidly spreading and climbing globally. Most governments either did not appreciate the seriousness of the threat posed by COVID-19 or wanted to take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach rather than implement significant action. Due to their previous experiences with the SARS pandemic, several eastern and south-eastern Asian countries were among the earlier responders, while African countries who had been through the Ebola threat also learned from this and put measures into place quickly. Many other countries did not spring into action until they noted the exponential rise in cases and rapid spread of the virus. Serious actions that could have contained such a huge expansion in cases and deaths were implemented too late.

References

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response. (2021). COVID-19: Make It The Last Pandemic. https://theindependentpanel.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/COVID-19-Make-it-the-Last-Pandemic_final.pdf

World Health Organization. (2020). Timeline: WHO’s COVID-19 response. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/interactive-timeline?gclid=CjwKCAiA17P9BRB2EiwAMvwNyGWSa7LCiCAgb9r1TIgGmjmcYnZzOj7_zVA80ZeeVZyUsfqM35BvrhoCofQQAvD_BwE#event-7

New book now out – The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives

This edited collection (with co-editor Karen Willis) is now published (see details on the Routledge website and on Amazon). The chapter abstracts are below. For a companion volume, see my co-authored book The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis, also now out.

Part 1: Introduction

1.  COVID society: introduction to the book 

Deborah Lupton and Karen Willis

In this introductory chapter, we make an argument for why contemporary social worlds can be now characterised as ‘COVID society’. We outline the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis and its global effects. The chapter offers an account of the macro- and micro-political dimensions of the COVID crisis and draws out and discusses the key themes emerging across the book’s chapters. We discuss the major findings and perspectives offered by the contributors and how they are employed to analyse the impacts and experiential dimensions of the crisis from a social perspective.

 2.      Contextualising COVID-19: sociocultural perspectives on contagion

Deborah Lupton

To fully understand the sociocultural implications of the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to be aware of the substantial body of research in sociology, anthropology, history, cultural geography and media studies on previous major infectious disease outbreaks. This chapter ‘sets the scene’ by providing this context with an overview of the relevant literature, with reference to emerging and new infectious diseases over the past century as Spanish influenza, HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola virus and Zika virus. The perspectives offered by social histories, political economy perspectives, social constructionism, Foucauldian theory, risk theory, postcolonial and sociomaterial approaches are explained and examples of research using these approaches are provided. 

Part II: Space, the Body and Mobilities

 3. Moving target, moving parts: the multiple mobilities of the COVID-19 pandemic

 Nicola Burns, Luca Follis, Karolina Follis and Janine Morley

This chapter considers the contributions of the mobilities paradigm to the sociological understanding the COVID-19 pandemic. Mobilities scholarship offers a multi-scalar framework that spans from movement at the molecular level to the movement of bodies and the local, national and supranational travel of humans and non-humans. Its core insight has been the recognition that mobilities are socially patterned, hierarchical and co-exist with immobilities, thereby generating and reproducing inequalities. The chapter focuses on the United Kingdom government response to the coronavirus pandemic, emphasising the multi-scalar effects of state intervention and the implications for different groups in society, which remain largely unaccounted for. We ask: who (and what) moves and does not move in this crisis? We work through the local, meso and macro level to show how the public health imperative to immobilise the disease vector (the body) disrupts ordinary patterns of mobility that have become central to globalised economies. The chapter argues that viewing the COVID-19 pandemic through the prism of mobilities illuminates not just the long-term effects of this crisis on national health systems but also highlights the vulnerability of static and bounded health systems in a world where everything else is in movement.

4. Physical activity and bodily boundaries in times of pandemic

Holly Thorpe, Julie Brice and Marianne Clark

With millions of people around the world spending weeks and months in quarantine, new questions emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic about the opportunities, benefits, and risks of physical activity. Health organizations, governments and the media alike advocated the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing. While exercise was being encouraged, options for engagement were increasingly constrained. With gyms, fitness studios, recreational centres, and parks and outdoor facilities closed, many created new fitness rhythms and routines. In this chapter we draw upon feminist new materialist theory, and particularly the work of Karen Barad, to critically explore new questions about the risks of physically active bodies and the ‘trails’ of contagion that they may disperse in and through the ebbs and flows of the natural (i.e., air, wind) and built (i.e., gym and fitness studios) environment. Drawing upon Barad’s conceptualization of bodily boundaries, we explore new ethical considerations and concerns of aerosol particles (i.e., breath) and bodily secretions (i.e., sweat). In so doing, we diffractively read media releases, scientific reports, and public commentaries through our own embodied experiences of physical activity. Ultimately this chapter offers a critical and creative commentary on the new noticings of bodily boundaries in times of pandemic where the body—any and every body—was a site of possible contagion.

 5. City flows during pandemics: zooming in on windows

Olimpia Mosteanu

 In this chapter, I reflect on a series of photographs of windows taken in different cities around the world before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. I use these photographs to prompt an analysis of urban flows at a time when our cities have come to a halt. Windows are caught up in a series of dichotomies that posit what is inside against the outside, the intimate against the public, home against street, stability against unpredictability, among others. The chapter explores some of the ways in which windows not only mediate our interactions with the world around but also actively participate in our everyday lives, especially at the current moment. Given the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, windows have taken on an even more important role in supporting dwellers’ quality of life and wellbeing. Working with and against the digital archive I have compiled, the chapter considers how these photographs gesture towards the layered experiences of space and place, as well as the presence and absence of affect and memory. I conclude by discussing how this type of photographic inquiry benefits qualitative research focused on the lived experience of place at a time when in-person methods are no longer an option.  

6. The politics of touch-based help for visually impaired persons during the coronavirus pandemic: an autoethnographic account

Heidi Lourens

 In the context of disability, the provision of help carries within it the potential for troublesome psychological and relational dimensions. Through an evocative autoethnography, I, as a blind person, aim to argue that help may become even more complicated for visually impaired persons during the Coronavirus pandemic. Since visually impaired persons often rely on help in the form of physical touch (for example when a sighted person guides them), help currently contains more than psychological dimensions – it also carries within it the very real potential for contracting a potential life-threatening illness. This vulnerable position, I will demonstrate, comes with its own set of psychological ramifications such as the fear of often much-needed or unsolicited touch. I will argue that what makes these feelings of vulnerability and anxiety even more acute, is the limits to freedom of choice for both help-receiver and help-recipient. I conclude that, during this health crisis, it is important to apply the approach of the relational ethics of care. Only through mutual communication, authentic communication and active engagement will disabled and nondisabled persons be able to recognise the unique context and needs of one another.

Part III: Intimacies, Socialities and Temporalities

7.  #DatingWhileDistancing: dating apps as digital health technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic 

David Myles, Stefanie Duguay and Christopher Dietzel

The physical distancing measures implemented globally by public health authorities have challenged the operating models of dating apps, which typically rely on physical proximity to foster intimate relationships. This chapter critically examines the steps taken by 16 dating apps in response to COVID-19 through an analysis of in-app messages, new features, social media posts, and press releases. Our findings suggest that dating apps assume the role of unconventional corporate digital health technologies. They do so first through interventions in user behaviour, circulating messages about maintaining physical distance while mobilising health resources to track and discourage virus transmission. Secondly, they give meaning to the use of dating apps during a time of physical distancing by encouraging users to adopt online “virtual” dating approaches. This is accomplished by replacing negative perceptions of online dating with notions of virtual dating as romantic or sexy while also introducing features and norms to define appropriate virtual dating behaviour. Overall, our analysis illustrates how corporate actors participate in online health promotion during times of crisis and, specifically, how the matchmaking industry can affect sexual and public health by reshaping contemporary dating cultures.

8. ‘Unhome’ sweet home: the construction of new normalities in Italy during COVID-19 

Veronica Moretti and Antonio Maturo

Everyday life provides that reservoir of meanings which allows us to make sense of reality. It is the ‘taken-for-granted’ dimension of our existence. With this in mind, in this chapter we investigate the ‘new normalities’ of life in lockdown. We conducted 20 in-depth interviews with a population of childless, highly educated young adults living in Northern Italy. Interviewees report mixed feelings and experiences associated with being locked in their homes: cosiness alongside restriction; the freedom to call friends combined with forced physical isolation; the need to do work in places usually devoted to relaxing. Being forced to stay at home is also a cognitively ambiguous situation, in which people feel themselves to be ‘in-waiting’. In practical terms, the interviewees coped with this uncertainty by creating and adhering to rigid routines and new habits. We analyse the interviewees’ ‘definition of their situation’ in terms of the Freudian concept of the Unhemlich (the uncanny, but also the ‘unhomely’). The uncanny refers to the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar.  It describes situations where something familiar appears in an unsettling context. Our hope is that this analysis will inform future research on the effects of the lockdown on mental health.

9.  Queer and crip temporalities during COVID-19: sexual practices, risk and responsibility

Ryan Thorneycroft and Lucy Nicholas

This chapter interrogates sexual practices occurring during COVID-19 to imagine alternative (crip and queer) futures. Recognising that many people continue to engage in (casual) sex, we consider what the politics of responsibility are during this pandemic. We suggest that queer sex sits at the intersections of crip/queer practice, and we move to contextualise our current moment through the lens of crip/queer times. Understanding our moment through crip/queer times provides the opportunity to open up new sexual cultures and to diversify the range of practices and pleasures to all people. In the place of queer casual sex, we introduce forms of (crip/queer) isolation sex as an efficacious and ethical alternative, and in so doing, work to identify new forms of cultures and possibilities available during and after the COVID pandemic. To engage in ethical forms of queer isolation sex at this historical juncture is to protect crip and older bodies from COVID, and this means the actors are engaging in efficacious crip/queer sexual practices. Broadening rather than narrowing what we understand to be sexual practices opens up new forms of cultures and possibilities available during and after COVID. In turn this moment allows for an imagining of broader, alternative, and responsible socialites informed by crip and queer positionalities that do not collapse back into an individualistic normativity once the crisis is over.

10.  Isol-AID, Art and Wellbeing: Posthuman Community Amidst COVID-19

Marissa Willcox, Anna Hickey-Moody and Anne Harris

In the isolating times of COVID-19, digital live streaming has been a key means through which artists connect with their audiences/community and audience members access live art and music. With performances mediated through digital live stream, artists and audience members alike are experimenting with strategies for connection, and indeed, for survival. This reconfiguration of sociality, of the liveness of community, threatens to endure beyond the pandemic. The Instagram Live music festival ‘Isol-AID’, which we examine as a case study in this chapter, prompts a discussion around arts accessibility as a measure of public health and wellbeing. Building on literature about social prescribing, we suggest that Instagram Live engages therapeutic forms of arts practice, and as such, could be offered as a new digital health resource. Using a critical posthumanist perspective, we think-through Instagram Live and streamed performance as posthuman assemblages to highlight the importance of non-human actants (such as phones, wifi, colours, sounds) in the production of the feeling of community, which is a social determinant of health. These creative methods of expression and connection encourage discussion around the importance of the arts in community health and wellbeing, a conversation that could not be more relevant than in the socially isolated world that is, this global pandemic.

Part IV: Healthcare Practices and Systems

11. Strange times in Ireland: death and the meaning of loss under COVID-19

Jo Murphy-Lawless

David Harvey writes of ‘time-space compression’ to describe the globalised world of untrammelled flows of goods and services. Contemporary Ireland has relied on these capital flows in the shape of massive foreign direct investment and has in turn been reshaped by contemporary modes of global consumer capitalism. Large-scale emigration characterising Irish society since the mid-nineteenth century has been matched in recent decades by a second kind of international travel whereby Irish people savour life as global consumers.  COVID-19, a potent disrupter, is also a beneficiary of our globalised economy. It swiftly rendered everyday life unrecognisable. Among the profoundly stressful consequences of COVID-19 for Ireland is how we were forced to do death differently. COVID-19 has made painfully visible the social and economic contradictions of contemporary Ireland and may yet spur us to reconsider how we participate in the global game.

12. Between an ethics of care and scientific uncertainty: dilemmas of general practitioners in Marseille

Romain Lutaud, Jeremy Ward, Gaëtan Gentile and Pierre Verger

While COVID-19 continues to progress worldwide, the French situation is particularly affected by a lack of masks, tests and, as everywhere else, by the lack of clinically validated therapeutic options. The French government has made the choice of confinement and remote monitoring of patients, with recourse to the healthcare system only when signs of worsening appear (hospitalisation). But in Marseille, a hospital-research centre (IHU, led by Pr. Raoult) decided to apply the doctrine of ‘test and treat’ using chloroquine. This chapter explores the effects of this decision on local doctors’ practices relative to covid-19. We will show the dilemmas faced by doctors: how they navigate the controversy over chloroquine as well as negotiate with their patients’ demand for testing and treatment with chloroquine. This chapter constitutes a first attempt at bringing together the results of a wider research project involving analysis several surveys and interviews conducted among GPs in Marseille and 1200 GPs in France, an analysis of the coverage of the hydroxychloroquine debate in the French national press and surveys conducted among representative samples of the French population. It will also draw on one of the authors’ experience of being a general practitioner in Marseille.

13.  Post-pandemic routes in the context of Latin countries: the impact of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain

Anna Sendra, Jordi Farré , Alessandro Lovari and Linda Lombi

This chapter examines the reasons behind the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Despite adopting strict measures of lockdown, both countries endured two of the highest infection and mortality rates of COVID in Europe. In this context, in addition to considering political, technological and economic factors, this critical reflection explores how the particularities of the Latin lifestyle may have influenced the management of the crisis in Italy and Spain. Although the public agenda in both countries has focused on discussing the unequal distribution of resources, especially in terms of health reforms and digital competencies, this chapter concludes suggesting that the design of future interventions should also contemplate the effect of sociocultural factors in the perception and evaluation of risks.

14. Risky work: providing healthcare in the age of COVID-19

Karen Willis and Natasha Smallwood

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis has been profound across all dimensions of social life; and has been profoundly evident in the rapid changes to work. Alongside people losing jobs in service and related industries as countries imposed restrictions on movement and activity, workers in many industries have faced change in the way work is undertaken, and in their exposure to risks. Healthcare work is a case example of rapid occupational change with concerns that such changes have negative psychosocial effects on the workforce, as they grapple with rapid organisational change, increased anxiety and stress, and concern for patient care. In this chapter, we describe healthcare workers’ experiences of the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on their work. We draw on preliminary findings from free text data from a survey of over 9,000 health care workers in Australia to illustrate issues related to workplace disruption, healthcare delivery challenges, and concerns of being simultaneously at risk and risky which necessitate the development of new strategies to manage work, home and family.

Part V: Marginalisation and Discrimination

15. The plight of the parent-citizen? Examples of resisting (self-)responsibilisation and stigmatisation by Dutch Muslim parents and organisations during the COVID-19 crisis

Alex Schenkels, Sakina Loukili and Paul Mutsaers

On 15 March 2020, the Dutch government announced the temporary closure of schools, kindergartens and houses of prayer in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which de facto further responsibilised parents in areas such as home-schooling and home-working. This decision exposed an ideology of intensive parenting (IP) that has mostly remained hidden and undisputed. At the same time, the outbreak exacerbated racism and stigma, intensifying the (parental) challenges for Muslim families. This chapter explores if the boundaries of this ideology have been reached due to the COVID crisis. The first part focuses on education and ways in which Muslim parents display and (eventually) resist ‘self-responsibilising reflexes’. Part two addresses the stigmatisation of Muslims and the (re)actions by Islam-inspired political organisation NIDA. Our findings suggest that while parenting seemed to hyper intensify during the first months of the pandemic, precisely this process led to parents’ resistance. Muslim organisations strengthened resistance by serving as an ‘extended family’, which took form in spiritual and pedagogical guidance as well as in mitigating the effects of racism against Muslim families. Such mitigation undermines IP’s ideal of the ‘parent-citizen’ who is to solve societal problems in the private sphere.

 16.  Anti-Asian racism, xenophobia and Asian American health during COVID-19

Aggie J. Yellow Horse

 As COVID-19 crisis emerged in the USA, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia rhetoric as well as reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans began to rise. Understanding how such a rapid increase in racist and xenophobic incidences may affect Asian Americans’ physical, mental and social health is important, as racism and xenophobia are fundamental causes of inequalities in health in general and for Asian Americans in particular. Furthermore, this understanding is critical for reducing and eliminating the barriers for Asian Americans seeking medical help during the coronavirus pandemic, which is important not only for Asian Americans’ health, but for the total US population. Thus far, research on the health implications of the social, cultural and political dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic on Asian Americans are limited, due to the conceptual and methodological challenges in studying health and health disparities among Asian Americans. Drawing from histories of structural racism against Asian Americans through exclusionary immigration policies, and post-1965 racial policies that contributed to the emergence of Asian American stereotypes as the Model Minority and perpetual foreigners, this chapter discusses the sociohistorical contexts in which Asian Americans have been invisible in sociology of health research. It discusses the importance of examining the roles of racism and xenophobia on Asian American’s health in a broader contexts of the parallel pandemics of COVID-19 and racism; and provides suggestions for future research and policy advocacy.

17. Ageism, risk, health and the body in COVID-19 times

Peta S. Cook, Cassie Curryer, Susan Banks, Barbara Barbosa Neves, Maho Omori, Annetta H. Mallon and Jack Lam

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare societal discourses regarding age differences and stereotypes. Using sociological approaches to risk and drawing on some examples from the Australian online news media, we illustrate how risk management approaches and risk uncertainties in response to the coronavirus, have homogenised younger and older peoples and widely positioned them in a binary generational conflict of ‘risky’ and ‘at risk’. Younger people are frequently framed as healthy, active agents: they are engaging in risky behaviours that endanger their health and that of others. In contrast, older people have been typically cast as passive and at risk: ‘the elderly’ and ‘the vulnerable elderly’. In extreme cases, older people have also been framed as burdensome and worthless. In this chapter, we examine how age was framed or ‘staged’ during COVID-19 to illustrate how ageist language and dichotomous pandemic framings — grounded on blame and shame — add to social divisions and ‘othering’, shape risk management strategies, and cloud public health messaging on risk, viral spread, and physical distancing measures.

Living with COVID-19 in Australia: the first year in photos

COVID novelty socks for sale, Inner South Canberra (December 2020)

As a social researcher who has specialised in writing about medicine and health for decades, I have engaged in many COVID-19-related projects this year. These include writing an initial agenda for social research on COVID and some commentary on this blog (here and here), recording some talks (here), coordinating a registry of Australian social research on COVID, putting together a topical map of COVID social research, publishing two articles in The Conversation (here and here) and developing the open access resource Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic document.

I’ve also edited a special section of Health Sociology Review and a co-edited a book on the social aspects of COVID as well as co-authoring a book on face masks in the time of COVID, a report on marginalised communities’ trust in digital health data (including COVID-related data) and an article on people’s use of digital technologies for sociality and intimacy in a Media International Australia special COVID issue.

Another initiative I undertook as a form of documentation of life during COVID in 2020 was using my smartphone to photograph everyday experiences from my own perspective and in the areas in which I live and work (in Sydney and Canberra). I’ve taken 100 photographs and have now uploaded them to Flickr as an open access resource, available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike (CC-BY-SA) license. Here’s just a small selection.

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Sign in public toilet at UTS Sydney campus (December 2020)
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Front page of The Canberra Times warning of ‘Christmas chaos’ due to outbreak of COVID on Sydney’s Northern Beaches (December 2020)
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Sign on Sydney City train (December 2020)
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Supermarket signs in Sydney City (July 2020)
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Petrol station signs in Inner South Canberra (April 2020)
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An empty Sydney Opera House forecourt during the first national lockdown (July 2020)
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Toilet paper shortages in Coles, Inner South Canberra (April 2020)

A very COVID Christmas

With less than four weeks to go before Christmas, decorations are going up in shopping centres, public spaces and private homes. This year, excitement and anticipation are mixed with fear and uncertainty. Christmas 2019 was the last ‘pre-COVID’ celebration of that festival. We are now in the ‘post-COVID’ world: the term I give to the era after the world first heard about the unusual pneumonia-like illness affecting people in Wuhan at the very end of 2019.

In this first post-COVID Christmas, uncertainty reigns about how best to celebrate the festival. A range of COVID-themed Christmas decorations are readily found online. These include baubles featuring images of Christmas icons such as Santa Claus or cute reindeer wearing masks. The novel coronavirus itself can be found rendered in Christmas-themed decorations (dubbed ‘pandemic ornaments’) for trees: in bright green and red hues, gold and glittery or grouped with other COVID iconic objects such as toilet rolls and masks. Other COVID customised decorations declare 2020 as ‘The year we stayed home‘ or display the words ‘Merry Christmas’ together with a coronavirus symbol wearing a jolly Santa hat. A less merry tree ornament features the dread image of the mediaeval plague doctor’s mask.

Face masks themselves can be obtained for wear at gatherings with Christmassy-themed patterns. Even Christmas stockings designed for holding Santa gifts for young children can be purchased with COVID themes emblazoned on them (‘Purple Viral Particle Large Christmas Stocking‘, anyone?).

At first glance, given the devastation that the COVID crisis has wrought globally, these ways of commemorating the ‘COVID year of 2020’ may seem jarring, a tasteless example of commercial entrepreneurialism and disrespectful to the dead or those who have been cast into poverty because of losing employment. In many countries, such as the USA Brazil and India, coronavirus infections and COVID deaths are increasing daily, with little sign of abating. The world has recorded the grim total of nearly 1.5 million deaths from COVID (and this figure is likely a gross underreporting).

In many countries in which Christmas is traditionally a significant festival, such as the UK, people are being urged to form ‘bubbles’ with a small number of other households – or even to reconsider celebrating Christmas at all with gatherings. Fears are rightly held by health authorities in the USA for the possibility of Christmas-related surges of infections, due to people dropping their guard when meeting loved ones and not engaging in physical distancing, wearing masks or opening enough windows (in what will be very cold conditions for many people celebrating in the Northern Hemisphere).

In Australia, where the coronavirus at the moment is well-contained, federal and state governments have made pronouncements about the importance of opening state borders to allow travel across the country for Christmas. Yet the recent example of an unexpected outbreak in the city of Adelaide, followed by the sudden re-closure of some state borders, gives pause for those who may be considering interstate travel for the festivities. Once over the border, they may find themselves stuck in quarantine or unable to travel back home if there is an outbreak.

The insistence on continuing to celebrate Christmas ‘as usual’ and even to commemorate the first year of COVID with customised decorations is understandable. Prolonged uncertainty and fear are hard to live with. People are desperate to return to ‘normal’ and to engage in the usual celebrations with family members and close friends. Purchasing and displaying COVID-themed decorations is a way of acknowledging that we have all gone through a very difficult year, with losses of many kinds: not just in terms of deaths of loved ones or going through severe illness that for some has caused continuing debilitation, but also the usual rites of passage, celebrations and regular gatherings that give people joy and hope. The Christmas festival, after all, began from European pagan rituals centred around warmth, light, feasting and hope conducted in the dead of winter, when darkness and cold reigned and few signs of life were evident in the natural world.

Pandemic decorations may be the only way some people can celebrate Christmas safely, while also celebrating surviving this first ‘annus horribilis’ of the post-COVID world. As one Christmas bauble has it: ‘2020 sucked – yay Christmas!‘.

Image credit: Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0. Available from Flickr

Recordings of talks I’ve given this year

While we all have our bugbears with giving talks on Zoom (or equivalent), one benefit is that they are often recorded so that people who are interested but can’t make the live event can view the presentations later.

Here are links to recordings of presentations I’ve done recently.

Australians’ Experiences of the COVID-19 Crisis: Emerging Findings from a Social Research Project (UNSW Sydney, 19 August 2020)

COVID Life Narratives: A Sociomaterial Approach (University of Sorbonne, Paris, 4 September 2020)

More-Than-Human Data Intimacies (University of Turku, Helsinki, 23 October 2020)

Registry of Australian social research on COVID-19

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Photo credit: D Lupton

 

I am doing lots of COVID-related projects and so are many other Australian social researchers.

Here’s a registry of these projects I have compiled – please add yours if it is missing. Registry of Australian Social Research on COVID-19

 

 

Topical map of COVID-19 social research literature

I have been busy checking out the explosion of peer-reviewed articles published recently in social science journals on the COVID crisis. I located over 120 such articles, and have conducted a rapid topic mapping process to support my own COVID-related research.

In case anyone else might find this document useful, it can be accessed here: Lupton – Map of Social Research on COVID 19 July 2020 (updated version 20 July 2020).

COVID society – some resources I have put together for social researchers

 

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Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.

Links are below:

Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic (Google Doc crowd-sourced resource)

Social Research for a COVID and post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda (blog post)

Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19 (PowerPoint slides) (Webinar presentation with voice and slides)

 

Photo credit: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

 

Call for abstracts – special section on ‘Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic’

For those people who feel they might like to contribute their expertise and insights, please see this call for papers for a special section of Health Sociology Review I am editing on sociology and the coronavirus. This is a fast-tracked process designed to get important insights out as quickly as possible.

Health Sociology Review Special Section – Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Call for abstracts

The current pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. In view of this, Health Sociology Review (HSR) (Q1 journal) has asked Professor Deborah Lupton to guest edit a special section of a forthcoming issue of the journal on Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. The emergence of this new virus and its rapid transformation from an epidemic localised to the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019 to a pandemic affecting the rest of the world by March 2020 has caused massive disruptions affecting everyday lives, freedom of movement, workplaces, educational institutions, leisure activities and other aspects of social relations across the globe. Many societies have been suddenly faced with the challenge of limiting the spread of the virus to prevent over-load on the healthcare system, often involving significant societal changes such as social isolation measures and travel bans.

In response to these widespread and dramatic changes, HSR will provide a forum for sociological commentary, with a rapid paper submission and review process to ensure that papers are available as quickly as possible. Submissions to this special section are invited. All intending contributors will need to submit an abstract to Professor Lupton to be considered. If they are given the go-ahead, contributors will need to meet the timeline for submission. All full submissions will be peer-reviewed via the usual reviewing processes of the journal and submission does not guarantee publication.

Length and style of submissions and timeframes for this special section have been designed to facilitate rapid review and publication. All accepted pieces will be published online first as soon as they are finalised for publication and then collected in the special section in an issue of HSR, accompanied by a short introduction authored by Lupton.

Pieces need not be standard sociological articles reporting on empirical findings. They can take a range of formats, including commentaries, theoretical/conceptual analyses, media or policy document analysis and autoethnographies.

All submissions must fit the following guidelines:

  • Must be no longer than 4,500 words in length (including abstract, references, tables, figures and endnotes).
  • Must address the social, cultural or political dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic, extending conceptual understanding of this crisis in health sociology.
  • Must make a clear contribution to sociological inquiry relevant to health, but may be informed by conceptual and empirical debates from a broader range of health and social sciences. All submissions must demonstrate methodological rigour, adherence to ethical research principles, and potential for contribution to knowledge in health, health care and wellbeing.
  • Must use the HSR citation style (TF-Standard APA).

To be considered for submission and review for this special section, please email an abstract of 250-300 words to Professor Lupton (d.lupton@unsw.edu.au) by 9 April.

Abstracts will be reviewed and by 17 April, a limited number will be selected to go forward for peer review for the special section. If selected to go forward, contributors must undertake to submit their piece for peer review by 15 May.

 

Digitised quarantine: a new form of health dataveillance

isolation

Most social analyses of the use of personal health data for dataveillance (watching and monitoring people using information gathered about them) have largely focused on people who engage in voluntary self-tracking to promote or manage their health and fitness. With the outbreak of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), a new form of health dataveillance has emerged. I call it ‘digitised quarantine’.

Traditional quarantine measures, involving the physical isolation of people deemed to be infected with a contagious illness or those who have had close contact with infected people, have been employed for centuries as a disease control measure. Histories of medicine and public health outline that quarantine (from the Italian for ’40 days’ – often the length of the isolation period) was practised as early as the 14th century as a way of protecting people living in European coastal cities from the plague brought by visiting ships.

With the advent of COVID-19, quarantine has been actively used in many of the locations that have experienced large numbers of cases. Millions of people have already been placed in isolation. Quarantine measures have included self-isolation, involving people keeping themselves at home for the required 14-day period, as well as imposed isolation, such as requiring people to stay in dedicated quarantine stations, and large-scale travel bans and lock-downs of whole large cities. Quarantine began with lock-downs of Wuhan and nearby cities in the Chinese province of Hubei. At the time of writing, cases have been discovered in many other countries, often with identified hot-spots of contagion around identifiable places and regions, including a South Korean church, a north Italian region and a cruise ship docked in Japan.

Side-by-side with these centuries-old measures, in some locations, digital technologies and digital data analytics have been taken up as ways of monitoring people, identifying those who are infected and tracking their movements to ensure that they adhere to self-isolation restrictions for the length of the quarantine period. In China, people were prevented from leaving their homes if they had been identified as infected with COVID-19 by a digitised rating system on a phone app that coded them ‘red’. Chinese government agencies also released a ‘close contact detector’ app that alerted people if they had been in close proximity to someone infected with the virus. In some Chinese cities, local government authorities have brought in monitoring measures using facial recognition data and smartphone data tracking combined with information derived by requesting people to enter details about their health and travel history into online forms when visiting public places.

It is not only Chinese authorities who are experimenting with digitised forms of identifying infection risk and enforcing isolation. In the Australian city of Adelaide, two people identified as having COVID-19 were placed under voluntary home isolation, their movements monitored by the police using their smartphone metadata. It is notable that the police emphasised that this is the same dataveillance system used for tracking offenders in criminal investigations. As is the case with traditional quarantine measures, the freedoms and autonomy of those deemed to be infected or at risk of infection are in tension with public health goals to control epidemics.  The types of digitised monitoring of people’s movements using their smartphones or enforced notifications to complete online questionnaires are redolent of the measures that are used in the criminal justice system, where employing electronic monitoring technologies such as digital tracking bands has been a feature of controlling offenders’ movements once released from a custodial sentence.

These resonances with law enforcement should perhaps not be surprising, given that public health acts in many countries allow for the enforced isolation or even imposing significant fines or incarceration of people deemed to pose a risk to others because they are infectious or identified as being in a high-risk category of transmitting disease. There is a recent history of countries such as Singapore using technologies such as surveillance cameras and electronic tags for controlling the spread of SARS in 2003. These practices have been called into question by scholars interested in investigating the implications for human rights.

Since then, the opportunities to conduct close monitoring of people using their smartphones and online interactions have vastly expanded. The use of detailed data sets generated from diverse sources in these novel digitised quarantine measures leads to a range of new human rights challenges. Such monitoring may be viewed as a ‘soft’ form of policing infection, in which physical isolation measures are combined with dataveillance. However, underlying the apparent convenience offered by digitised quarantine are significant failures. One difficulty is the potential for the data sets and algorithmic processing used to calculate COVID-19 infection risk to be inaccurate, unfairly confining people to isolation and allowing them no opportunity to challenge the decision made by the app. Examples of such inaccuracies have already been reported by Chinese citizens subjected to these measures.  As one man claimed: “I felt I was at the mercy of big data,” … “I couldn’t go anywhere. There’s no one I could turn to for help, except answer bots.”

At a broader level, another problem raised by digitised quarantine measures is the ever-expanding reach into people’s private lives and movements by health authorities and other government agencies that they portend. This function creep requires sustained examination for its implications for human rights. The data-utopian visions promoted by those seeking to impose digitised quarantine may well lead to data hubris when their inaccuracies, biases and injustices are exposed.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Trent Yarby for alerting me to two of the news stories upon which I drew for this post.