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 COVID-19 tanglegram

It’s Social Sciences Week, and one way to emphasise the complex and nuanced insights offered by social research is to present this COVID-19 tanglegram that I have just drawn. I have built on my own and others’ research into the COVID crisis and its many dimensions in making this tanglegram.

The concept of the ‘tanglegram’ comes from the work of the archeologist Ian Hodder. It’s a similar idea to a mind map or concept map, but it focuses on relationships between people and material things rather than on ideas or concepts. In his 2012 book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things, Hodder explains his sociomaterial perspective. He argues for an approach that can demonstrate how a thing brings other things and people together. It is not a matter of identifying what things ‘do’ for people in a certain cultural and historical context but instead focusing on understanding the thing itself and its multiple connections to other things as well as to people.

Hodder argues that how humans give meaning to things is related to the ways in which they use them and to their links with other things. People use things in often very different ways in different contexts. Hodder discusses how things demand attention and care from people, sometimes facilitating, sometimes hindering human purposes and agency. Things, he says, ‘have lives that follow their own paths’ (Hodder, 2012, p. 13). Hodder notes that all things, whether they are designated as ‘living’ or ‘inert’ are in a state of change.  He further notes that things make people, just as people make things.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 crisis – a combined health and socioeconomic crisis – is a powerful entity that is changing human lives in unprecedented ways. We are still trying to understand how the coronavirus spreads and can be treated and contained. Just when we thought we may have controlled it, it re-emerges again, again creating chaos. But this is not to say that the coronavirus is a thing unto itself – a malevolent enemy that is outside us, trying to break in and destroy us. Rather, the virus and the COVID crisis are entities that are part of complex networks and relationships with people and do not exist outside these networks and relationships. The coronavirus has agency and force, but only with and through humans and other things.

One way in which Hodder documents and explains these relationships and dependencies in his archaeological research is to make what he calls ‘tanglegrams’ or maps in which he traces the connections between a thing and the other things and people to which it is connected. My COVID-19 tanglegram took inspiration from this idea. I started with the broad concept of the ‘COVID assemblage’, which shows how major elements come together: the coronavirus, humans, other animals, place/space/time, affects, things and discourse/culture. This is shown as a simple Venn diagram below.

In drawing the tanglegram I wanted to map in more detail the multiple, constantly changing things and people that come together and come apart as part of the COVID assemblage. I have not been able to include every element or relationship of this assemblage in the tanglegram (that’s simply impossible), but I have included many of the major things, places/spaces, people and organisations that I could think of. Unlike Hodder, I also include affects, as these are crucial to my theorising of how people engage with and form relationships with things.

For me, as a social researcher, this tanglegram helps me understand the power and multi-layered, overwhelming complications of the COVID assemblage in a way that has gone well beyond my initial Venn diagram.

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

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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.