“Stay at home”, the government tells us. The message is everywhere: Spotify adverts, and messages on people’s homes, businesses’ windows, and Facebook walls. Every time I read it or hear it, there is a shooting of fear down to my stomach. As Carter, Green, and Speed point out, it is a difficult, and somewhat ironic, thing for the government to be asking people to act collectively when they have been asking us to act individualistically in the UK since the Thatcher years. But the thing that scares me the most is not at all about acting collectively, and is more than the isolation, which is scary enough; it is about the kinds of collectives that are being remade. They are collectives with explicit and definitive boundaries. Of course, to contain or stall a virus, physical barriers and boundaries need to be put in place. But these barriers and boundaries are being enforced in eye-rollingly traditional and, for many, oppressive, places: they are the boundaries of the nation, and the boundaries of the household.
“Stay at home”, the government tells us. This message comes just after Brexit, and years of government-led anti-immigration campaigns, including one with the slogan “Go home” pasted on mobile vans. As Fitzgerald also points out, the provocation of “home” in the corona virus response doesn’t feel so different with all the emergency repatriations, securitising of borders, and “inviting” (but really forcing) international students to go to “homes” abroad that they don’t even have.
“Keep calm and carry on”: there have already been a plethora of responses evoking “war-time spirit”, and strangely the government keeps calling this global pandemic a “national emergency”. The queen even reinforced a nationalised personality: Britons will get through this with “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humoured resolve.” But this is beyond media and government. I have overheard explicit racism on the streets with peer-to-peer social distancing advice followed with “do you speak English?!”, and seen posters telling people to abide by the rules with backgrounds of union jacks.
Some of the nationalism is less explicit. The unified cheers for the much-loved National Health Service every Thursday night raise national spirit and bring people to tears, but do not actually bring healthcare workers what they need. Last Thursday I tried to use the time to demand adequate supply of PPE, but the atmosphere of cheer was too overwhelming for any angry demands on behalf of healthcare workers to be heard. Because the cheers are not for the healthcare workers, who get dehumanised as superheroes in posters outside people’s houses. The cheers are for the National Healthcare Service – the service healthcare workers are now more than ever socially obligated to keep allegiance to, even when the government can’t provide the ‘capes’, masks, or gowns to keep their human selves safe. The NHS has become an army, and nurses I know are feeling like cannon fodder without the PPE. A familiar story of where all this nationalistic spirit leads us.
The Corona virus has already made a mockery of our national boundaries. Nations are “imagined communities”, which are made collectively through NHS cheers, listening to governmental daily briefings, and provocations to “stay at home”. There are many regions which still have very few cases, and this virus has already moved across national borders, so why are these the boundaries that get enforced to stop its spread?
“Stay at home” the government tells us. A joke went round on social media, with a picture of the floorplans of a flat, and the caption “looking at the travel plans for the weekend”. A great joke, but it also draws attention to the possibilities for movement, shaped by space, size, indoor/outdoor, the walls which offer different surroundings in different rooms. The policy of staying within your “household” assumes a house; a blueprint of the space below, if not a bigger one with two floors, a garden, and room for a chest freezer. It also assumes that homes exist solely inside of our front doors. The kind of nuclear family set-up, where one social unit exists behind one door. The monogamous heteronormative nuclear family has so often come hand-in-hand with the nation-state, it is unsurprising that they are being played together again whilst evoking war-time spirit.
“Home” for me, has always existed outside of the four walls of my studio flat. My living room is the local pub – I do not own or rent a living room myself, and neither do I have anyone inside my front door to share that communal space with. So when the pubs closed, it was about losing a part of my home. Carter, Green, and Speed, along with many news articles, all suggested that going to the pub on the last night of opening was an individualistic act. In my experience, it was an immensely communal one. Myself and others cried as the social support and community were taken away from us. There were farewell speeches, and drinks for everybody at the bar. I came back to my flat and had a panic attack because one of my major props for the past five years, that piece that made my nearby flat “home”, was suddenly, for the foreseeable future, gone. For others, the years and significance is even greater. The pub is doing their best to maintain the community over a Whatsapp group for over fifty regulars – but it is not the same as having the physical space, the floorplan, to call home.
The pub is my own example. But I know that others have other parts of their home which have been taken away: community centres, churches, schools, chicken shops, synagogues, cafes, mosques, and sports clubs. Homes can lie across households, across countries, across physical boundaries. The nuclear family, like the nation state, is just an “imagined community” that viruses don’t care about.
To partake in the community-driven response is therefore not as simple as getting people to “stay at home” or think and act collectively. It is about asking people to tear away from one community and replace it with two others: the nation, and the household. Individualism may be something the government have been attempting to enforce since at least the 1980s, but it is an impossible project. As Natassia Brenman points out, those who need to go into complete physical isolation, can only do so with a fair bit of help from others. And even those jetting off to an island can only do so on the exploited labour of others – I didn’t say these collectives were always made up of nice social relations, but relations with others they are.
If keeping people behind their front doors is what public health officials say we need to do to stall the virus, then this needs to be justified rather than romanticised. Myself and many of the other regulars I know don’t mind giving up that living room, as long as it is recognised as such. As the title image suggests, the romanticisation of quarantine is a class privilege. So is the ability to “stay home” during a pandemic.
But simple public health messages can also be blunt instruments. Sometimes more complexity is needed, especially when viruses have such complex relations with the world themselves. We now know that the virus doesn’t only move between people; it moves between things, such as food packaging, birthday cards, and animal fur, that move across household borders. And it doesn’t seem to move between people if they’re two metres apart in an outside space.
As I said at the beginning, physical barriers and boundaries need to be put in place to stall the corona virus. But we need to decide where to place these carefully. We need to think and act with the connections the virus makes because it doesn’t care for our imagined communities. If homes are what is most important to people, then the places and relations people really call “home” need to be considered and thought about within the coronavirus response – particularly as restrictions can begin to ease. But we must all resist the continued making of the nation, nuclear-family households, and the treating of healthcare staff as canon fodder, if we are to come out of this pandemic in a reasonably okay place.