#StayAlert: The pushing back of responsibility onto the individual echoes neoliberal health and welfare policies.

Charlotte‘s #MadCovidDiaries 10.5.2020

Don’t you hate it when a partner, friend or (worse) a manager says to you, “Listen, we need to talk later. I’ll tell you what it’s about then.” Argh! Terror! What can they possibly want to say that’s so important they can’t just say now? It must be something awful! Is he breaking up with me? Is my best pal moving to the Falkland Islands? Am I about to get fired?

We’ve all had a taste of that over the past week with the Westminster Government’s bizarre “We’re going to tell you something big, but we’re NOT going to tell you what it is until Sunday” strategy. I found the level of uncertainty this generated pushed all my anxiety buttons, and when I tweeted about it a lot of people replied saying that they felt exactly the same. “It’s sending my anxiety through the roof,” an old school friend with mental health problems told me.

Then, of course, the changes to the slogan were (deliberately, one can only assume) leaked ahead of time, giving people the weekend to try and work out what on earth they meant. Rather than leading to a sense of security, the new slogan:

Stay alert – control the virus – save lives

has only lead to more uncertainty. What does it actually mean? Are we not being directly instructed to stay at home any more? How are we supposed to “control” the virus?

The most baffling bit is the advice to “stay alert”. Alert to what? Alert to the presence of the virus, which is not discernible by human senses? For people living with anxiety disorders or paranoia, being “alert” is something that comes all too easily. When you live in a state of exhausting hypervigilance being instructed to be alert is confusing and frightening. Does the new slogan mean that it is, in fact, desirable to experience constant surges of adrenaline? If you are already alert to the threat posed by viruses and bacteria, are you alert enough? Are you washing your hands too much, or not enough? If you have a tendency to feel threatened by outside forces, the personification of coronavirus as something you can sense and that you should be attempting to control before it controls you may be very scary.

At the time of writing, the big reveal of the new slogan that everyone already knows about is due in a couple of hours. There has already been endless speculation on Twitter and in the news media about what the phrase “stay alert” actually means, but the detail provided only serves to make the whole thing more nebulous and uncertain.

The Government has pursued what could at best be described as bungling communications strategy, and at worst an underhand strategy for lifting lockdown without saying it is lifting lockdown, thereby absolving itself from responsibility. The advice for being properly alert is to “stay at home if possible”, softening the blanket instruction to “stay home”, so that people can more easily claim that their sorties outdoors are needed. There is an implicit push to get people to return to work, although while businesses stay closed I’m not exactly sure what sort of work they are expected to return to. The emphasis has shifted from clear directives to a typical Tory insistence on individual decision-making. From now on you decide whether your time outside the home is legitimate, not the police. You decide if you can maintain a two-metre distance from colleagues back in the office. You keep an eye on the virus, Westminster has done its part.

“Libertarians” have been arguing that the lockdown is unnecessary, damaging and paternalistic, but nudging us towards greater participation in society will have consequences. We’ve already seen people willing to party on the 75th anniversary of VE day or enjoy the sunshine in groups in anticipation of the lockdown being lifted. I have no doubt that public mingling will increase the R rate, putting those who are very vulnerable at risk. I’m not a big fan of Governments issuing blanket instructions, but in a time of crisis I do believe it’s needed. For those drawing on the Blitz spirit analogy, I don’t think the blackout would have been very successful if it was left to each household to decide whether drawing their curtains was really necessary.

The new guidance leaves each one of us in charge of assessing the risk to ourselves and the risk we pose to others. For people constantly trying to judge whether risks are real or not, and whether their response to perceived risk is proportionate, this can feel too much. Many, like me, will simply continue to stay at home – but last week this was an edict, and now it’s a personal decision. In fact, it’s possible I will go out even less, because I fear more people will now be on the streets and in the shops and my anxiety cannot handle that.

I’m bitterly resentful about this Government’s handling of the whole business: testing, tracking and tracing, PPE, communications, quarantine for those entering the country… the list goes on. I’m furious that people in closed environments like psychiatric wards, care homes and hospitals for people with learning disabilities have been abandoned, the virus allowed to run rampant. This pushing back of responsibility onto the individual echoes neoliberal policies towards health and welfare, and while it was always nonsense that we are “all in it together”, this new strategy bodes particularly badly for the poor, the disabled and the elderly.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel like you want to start going out. Yes, I’m staying in because my anxiety levels are elevated, but risk and threat are genuinely still out there. Don’t be fobbed off by people who tell you that you are being over-anxious or paranoid about your own safety. Your safety matters. You matter. And I happen to believe that the safety of others matters, and that the best way of protecting others is by protecting myself.

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2 thoughts on “#StayAlert: The pushing back of responsibility onto the individual echoes neoliberal health and welfare policies.

  1. You’re not the only one bitterly resentful. In fact I feel beyond that – I’m furious.

    This putting the onus on the individual. If you’re one of the many people in a rubbish minimum wage job with minimum job security, it’s now your decision to stay off from work. I can imagine lots of shitty managers being real accommodating with that.

    This government are scum. And so is everyone who supports them.

    Oh and while we’re at it. I hear they’re opening garden centres soon. Glad they’ve got their priorities right. Lots of middle class people with nice gardens and job security want to do their gardens while they’re furloughed or working from home. Doesn’t matter that NHS staff still have inadequate protection, that there’s still no mental health services running, that there’s people without gardens, without homes, people suffering domestic abuse under lockdown, people forced to go to work by unscrupulous bosses (Pound shops are essential services are they?), people forced to go to work because they’ve no choice, people unable to get work because no-one’s hiring, or any other of probably many problems that are more important than going to a fecking garden centre!!!!

    …..and breathe 🙂

    Anyway. Good blog post


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