At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.
In this article, Avi Boulki considers the ways in which social harms are proliferating during the Coronavirus pandemic. Avi Boukli is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.
Spring has struck this year. Food is really expensive. Have you noticed?
Amidst the world-sweeping pandemic, some of us find solace in exercising at home, indulging in [fill in the blank with something you/I can still afford], reading and re-reading the news, zoom-drinking with loved ones. The world has changed. Susan Sontag wrote in 1973 “… a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images…”. Then perhaps a society becomes “unmodern” when, amid lockdown, successions of joggers elbow you at the park, shouting goodbye to the recommended 2-meter distance and your spleen.
Writing in lockdown on criminalisation and zemiology is both a complex and a simple task. On the complex level, with the lens focused on the state-corporate management of the pandemic, this blog post traces some of the relations between criminalisation measures that emerged as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and zemiology. It starts by visiting some criminological insights in relation to crime and the pandemic, before it moves to offer some suggestions as to how zemiology could account for the social harms exacerbated and made visible by the pandemic. It is also simple. Zemiology still enables us to assess what is happening from a political, economic, physical, emotional, and cultural point of view. Amid rapid socio-political changes, zemiology retains its shape and hope.
But let’s trace Ariadne’s thread:
Criminology is fascinating. In his lucid podcast, Manuel Eisner, discusses crime in times of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. He takes a criminological perspective to discuss the social, legal, and political dimensions of a “crisis” but also includes criminological theories that strive to explain the current crime declines and increases, the trends’ highs and lows. The pandemic has raised some crucial fluctuations in crime, Eisner argues. For instance, in NY burglaries seem to be declining, while car thefts are on the rise. Similarly, some variations in crime rates appear in London too: knife crime and burglaries have dropped in the weeks that followed the introduction of social distancing and subsequent lockdown state response to the pandemic. This has meant both a material effect but also a shift in public and media discourse.
But what are the effects of keeping the focus solely on crime and crime control? Firstly, the narrow gaze on crime and crime control, at best, pushes back the perpetuation of social harm on the list of priorities for investigation. At worst, it further silences social harm, supplemented by surreptitious zemia. Particularly, the measures to deal with the “pandemic crisis” are not applied to a pre-existing just and equal society, but spur an authoritarian controlled capitalism that protects corporate interests while “offloading the costs onto the rest of us” . Essentially, vulnerable highly indebted workers, with limited access to benefits and public services are further crushed in the mill of casualisation, while working rights are demolished and layoffs skyrocket, “without concern for due process and as remote working destroys all limits to the working week”. As a result, a wide variety of physical, financial/economic, emotional, psychological, and cultural harms proliferate.
Secondly, a sole focus on crime and crime control threatens to conceal the harms perpetuated by criminalisation measures. In the UK, draconian countermeasures are both vague and sweeping simultaneously, allowing the police almost unlimited discretion in exercising ill-defined powers. While they are combined with ever more draconian “feel good” and stay at home “essentials” – foldable table tennis nets (no space-shaming involved), jigsaw puzzles, and flour – are now sold at eye-watering prices for the labour aristocracy, and the wider working class alike. These criminalisation measures did not come in time to curb the deaths inflicted by the pandemic but with a time delay, and with an unequal impact on those of us who live on the streets, in shared accommodation, limited spaces, total institutions, and those of us who have long-term health conditions, which are meant to be paused to avoid further strains on an already overstretched health service. Further, these criminalisation measures do not put pressure on big pharmaceutical companies to develop, let’s say, the fastest and most affordable vaccine against a highly contagious virus, but on individuals to accept responsibility for catching or spreading the virus. Again, structures disappear, and the individual is reborn, Matrix-esque, responsible (“an imminent threat”) and covered in gelatine sociability (subject to “restrictions or requirements”).
As a result of the above, the language of zemiology is helpful in reading critically the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 and the Coronavirus Act 2020, and the collapse of public health into public order. In summary the Regulations make it illegal for: i) a wide range of shops and businesses to open or to sell food or drink for consumption in their premises (Regs 4, 5); ii) a person to leave their house without a reasonable excuse (unless they are homeless) (Reg 6); a person to take part in public gatherings of more than 2 people subject to exceptions (Reg 7).
However, the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes a “reasonable excuse” or a valid “exception” may actually leave room for the usual norms around disability, class, and gender to fill in the blanks left by this “crisis” law. For instance, would a victim of trafficking escaping captivity, have a reasonable excuse on the basis of Reg 6 (m.) and what burden of proof does this involve? And a bit further, who is excluded from business bailout plans? Sex workers? Who is excluded from the category “vulnerable persons”? People with mild chronic asthma who struggle to breathe in spring, people with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s, Colitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and high blood pressure or an undiagnosed condition at the time when the measures were imposed? Lastly, who is the exception and who is the rule: is homelessness an exception, or is it a sign of vulnerability, or is the “crisis” the Pool of Siloam for political purposes… And equally, who is included? Do the business bailout plans include highly profitable wealthy businesses with large cash reserves? Uneven impacts are not abstract ideas but material realities, made up of bodies like yours and mine. Pre-pandemic we didn’t live in an equal society and it is hard to see how the restrictions imposed are going to mend the harms of these inequalities by collapsing the maintenance of public health into that of public order. As for the cultural harms, there is a concern that a decline in (street) violence in the public sphere, may go hand in hand with a rise in domestic violence. But, after having being circled by a group of fellow citizens to be coughed at, or experiencing the exacerbation of physical dominance in public spaces by certain bodies over others, I argue, women, LGBTQ people, and men locked in with their abusers experience not just the collapse of public services into public order but, most crucially, the collapse of the public sphere into the domestic sphere and vice versa. Public inequalities are now domestic ones. Drawing on a zemiological analysis seems vital at a time when governments exhorts us to “work together” and focus only on essentials. While reducing infections is clearly crucial, we must not forget to consider who is treated as collateral damage or in need of more repressive state intervention in the name of public health.