by Caroline Bald, lecturer and researcher in the Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, University of Essex
The sheer speed at which the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our daily lives, bringing with it a new language and daily routine, is of a scale an elderly neighbour, whom I’ve waved to many times but still don’t know by name, considers only akin to his childhood experience during the Second World War, where even then “we could hear the bombs.” The otherworldliness hit when returning to this blogpost after only a matter of days. So many have moved to online communication for the first time; workspaces hastily put together; empty streets and marked out queues at shops.
Coronavirus has in ways never before in our lifetime highlighted wellbeing and health as a political issue. One might call it the phenomenon of ‘capitalism meets coronavirus’. Many sit down each evening to hear the British Prime Minister speak in words unheard of just a few weeks ago. Some, meanwhile, are profiteering in a newly opened market. Events of the last week have helped to reinforce my view that wellbeing is indeed political and always has been (Bache and Scott, 2017). The crisis is forcing many, for the first time, to reflect on what previously was taken for granted: access to food, shelter, money and services, reinforcing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
This article is an attempt to capture and reflect on wellbeing narratives in this historically significant moment, as I venture to ask if we are seeing a collective sea change as a form of ‘social shock’ or a “paradise built in hell”, or is this neoliberal business as usual, with a new face?
Wellbeing as a public discourse
In an age of identity politics, resilience is considered a key characteristic, with the ability to bounce back forming a pervasive discourse. My research has explored wellbeing as a discourse, related to power and privilege. Never before, in my experience, has wellbeing and collectivity been quite so foremost in discussion and in the media. Our new-found shared socialism, such as the ‘volunteer army’, supporting the NHS, or the national #clapforcarers campaign, at first glance, appears encouraging. However, the new language of wellbeing is unsettling; from ‘herd immunity’ to ‘social distancing’ to ‘lockdown’. It is the language of war and science, with models and mobilisation being presented alongside talk by a Chancellor for whom party political rhetoric now seems a world away. The unseen Covid-19 virus has become a common enemy, while questions remain about where it came from, and how to ‘turn the tide’ against it.
Workers, who just a few weeks ago were labelled ‘unskilled’, are now heroes, and hotels have given the homeless shelter, with any businesses involved in pandemic profiteering being rejected and policed. The Government has pledged help for businesses and the self-employed, and following an online campaign, free parking is now being provided for NHS staff, and there are reports of the Government challenging Travelodge’s decision to evict vulnerable homeless families. Yet still, while it may appear that there is a new age of compassion, there is a need to pause and consider whether change this sudden can last.
When previously presenting on wellbeing, I was often met with attempts to ‘psychologise’ or ‘medicalise’ the subject. At one point, I advocated taking the ‘woolly out of wellbeing’ after discussions settled on problematising, if not at times even ‘weaponising’, wellbeing from what was essentially an intention that a ‘good life’ should be grounded in human rights. What constitutes a good life has been the source of debate through the ages, largely centring on individual liberty and collective responsibility, and politics too may be most commonly understood as party political with a dualism between individualism and collectivism. What we are bearing witness to now is a blurring of political lines and the spectacle of a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer using the policies of socialism alongside the language of compassion and kindness.
Reflecting on the right to a social life as fundamental to wellbeing, it is interesting to note that the terms ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’, may appear to be concepts attached to this current pandemic, but in fact are nothing new. There has been much discussion in recent years of isolation as a real danger to mental health, with evidence to suggest that loneliness, particularly among the elderly, can kill. Yet in the last fortnight we have been presented with ‘social distancing’ as a measure that will save lives. Supermarkets are trialling ‘golden hours’ where vulnerable and older adults, and now NHS staff are able to ‘shop safely’, with the intention of offering them access to products at a time when food supply has never been more challenged. This also brings with it, however, the concern that supermarkets may become ‘superspreader’ hives of infection, putting essential workers and the vulnerable at risk.
Balancing rights with emergency legislative measures
The Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force last week, bringing with it sweeping changes to liberty and collective responsibility. The necessary speed of the legislative process serves to illustrate what certainly is a time of exceptional circumstance. However, human rights experts have raised concerns about the breadth of the legislation’s impact. In addition to the Act giving police greater authority, such as being able to ‘stop and disperse’, Section 14 (1) of the Act removes the duty on Local Authorities to assess and provide care needs for adults, many of whom will be elderly and from the very groups that the current focus is on protecting. In the space of just a few months, wellbeing public policy has shifted from paternalism to patronism to preservation, all to be in place for the next two years, conceding a late challenge from opposition parties to allow for six monthly reviews.
Wellbeing and work
The nexus of wellbeing and work has been seen in the public debate about how best to manage the risk to health and wealth. The current public health narrative of ‘stay safe/stay home’ contrasts with the established ‘wealth before health’ narrative of neoliberal policy, evident in the Government’s initial response to the crisis, which resulted in criticism of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, and its implications for the vulnerable. Richard Branson’s request for government help for the airlines prompted a swell of opinion against the billionaire, whose firm announced all staff must take two month’s unpaid leave, highlighting the tension between public and privately held wealth. And while social gatherings are being dispersed by police, some workers face corporate policies forcing them to risk their health to attend work or lose their income.
As academics we have moved quickly to remote, online working without necessarily considering this as a blurring of the personal and professional. Increased working in the virtual space has also expanded and enriched opportunities for data harvesting, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal long forgotten. There are increasing concerns about the loosening of general data protection regulation (GDPR), including the apparent unquestioned move to online resources, like Zoom, a platform the Ministry of Defence now no longer uses, due to security risks. In the understandable haste to respond, firm boundaries have become fluid, including emergency registration for health and care professionals, possible relaxation of disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks for volunteers and early release from prison.
The inequality of wellbeing
Finally, it is important to reflect on the inequality of wellbeing, particularly now. From the recent ‘Imagine’ Gal Gadot-led penthouse sing-a-long to the wave of personalised emails from big business CEOs, assuring that the wellbeing of their staff is paramount. What about those on zero-hour contracts or working in sweatshops? These issues still remain and the plight of those workers is only deepened by this crisis. The U.S. has reported a sharp increase in gun sales, with queues that paradoxically respect social distancing practices. Lord Price, former CEO of Waitrose, recommended a relaxation of limits to the number of driving hours to assist with fulfilment of deliveries. Many are now collating a list of those companies who have responded economically, though not necessarily ethically.
All this has led me to consider whether wellbeing will continue to be collectively understood as political. I truly hope so, but I suspect business will need a little help to overcome this ‘shock’ into being ‘social’. After the crisis is over, will health continue to be recognised as trumping wealth? Will we remember the NHS heroes once the dust settles? We are seeing the positive impact on the natural world with CO2 emissions declining in China, the ‘Amazonian effect’ being widened as nature ‘fights’ back. Our right to wellbeing, unharmed by air pollution, policing excesses, street-level bureaucracy or enforced isolation remains paramount. I ask in the coming months we stay safe, we stay ‘virtually’ social and we reflect on how wealth before health has not served human rights well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Bald is a criminal justice social worker, post-graduate research student, lecturer and researcher in the Centre for Social Work and Social Justice and Programme Lead for the Masters in Social Work and Human Rights. Caroline is currently researching how students make sense of wellbeing in social work education with a view to informing care profession critical pedagogy. As a critical theorist, she writes about social work education and criminal justice practice. Caroline runs a ‘TwitterChat’ for social work academics and students every Thursday 7-8pm GMT for resources, collaboration and activism #SWjoinin