How do people respond to public health measures? Ordinary ethics during the COVID-19 pandemic

Clive and I wrote this on 22 December. We agreed to post it in January, when people would be back on Twitter, so that is what I’m doing. The post summarises a full-length paper we submitted for review in mid-December.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been presented as a biopolitical event that extends and transforms neoliberal modes of surveilling and governing the conditions of life and death. Consistent with such a view, debates about the efficacy of public health strategies during the pandemic – non-pharmaceutical policy interventions aimed at changing behaviours e.g. rules or guidelines on handwashing, wearing face coverings, social distancing, self-isolating – have often focused on the problem of compliance: whether people are complying, and will continue to comply, with rules and guidelines.

One starting point for this post was a concern that such framings obscure how people might navigate public issues using practical reasoning; how people might respond to the pandemic less with compliance or resistance, and more by enacting their ordinary capacities for ethical action. Our thinking, here, is informed by writing on the anthropology of ethics by people like Michael Lambek, Veena Das, and Didier Fassin, and especially the idea of ordinary ethics. In this field, the ethical refers to those dimensions of action in which dilemmas, cares, and predicaments are experienced as problems of how to exercise freedom in accountable and responsible ways. The ethical arises, therefore, not only in extraordinary, dramatic moments requiring explicit, deliberative judgement, but also in practices of everyday life, which are scenes of negotiation, riven by dilemmas, doubts, threats, and vulnerabilities.

To trace the forms of practical reasoning used by people responding to public health measures during the pandemic, we analysed a sample of biographical writing – diaries, letters, and other forms – collected by the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) from thousands of residents of the United Kingdom. Here is an example extract from the beginning of one diary, kept on 12th May 2020:

Today my husband and I are arguing about whether he can play golf or not. The government advice is that they can play in pairs but he has also been told he is still shielding […] He does not feel that going to play golf on his own and having no contact with anyone is going to increase his risk […] I want him to be able to enjoy his sport but I feel worried about the risks. It felt easier when no-one could play golf or travel or work. Now there is so much to navigate and so much to decide. My mum is already talking about me visiting them again. But it is 200 miles by train […] and that exposes me to a whole lot of risk. ‘But what is our exit plan?’ my husband asks. I am somehow expected to know, to somehow be the grown up in all of this. He seems to expect me to set the rules for him and yet he doesn’t really want that. I no longer know what to say to him about it all. ‘Yes it is unfair that you cannot go out and yes it is unfair that your asthma means you may not recover if you get the virus and yes I’d feel very guilty if I was to bring the virus home.’

In this extract, ‘compliance’ is rendered conditional on maintaining personal relationships. The diarist felt under pressure to manage both risks to herself on public transport and responsibilities to her mother (demanding a visit). She felt responsible for protecting her shielding husband and guilty for numerous things, from stopping him enjoying his sport in the present, to potentially bringing the virus home in the future. Her concerns included not only managing her own and family members’ exposure to risk from interactions in public spaces, but also how she or they might be a risk to others.

In general, we analysed sources in the MOA for grammars of responsibility: the ways that people discuss publically circulated moral codes; reason about whether and how to follow rules and recommendations; reason about what is justifiable and practicable; and give content and meaning to public discourses in ways that align with existing concerns and commitments. In doing so, we found a discourse of uncertainty. Many people were confused about government rules and guidance. This opened up space for reflection on what might count as binding for particular individuals in particular situations. We also found that prescriptions and guidance generated a series of dilemmas for many people. The right thing to do was therefore rendered subject to forms of judgement regarding the balancing of multiple demands and values.

Pandemic response, we conclude, was not simply a question of compliance or non-compliance. It was experienced ethically. Abstract regulations had to be interpreted, given content, and made meaningful in practical terms and in terms of what matters. These conclusions help to advance understandings of how people responded to public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also, more generally, how ordinary people engage with public issues.

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