. 'Stay Home, Save lives, Ask Questions': On proportionality during this crisis | Ceasefire Magazine

‘Stay Home, Save lives, Ask Questions’: On proportionality during this crisis Analysis

As the UK enters its seventh week of lockdown, we must ask questions about the effects of the government's indefinite measures, particularly on marginalised groups and those who are already overpoliced, writes Ghazal Tipu.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 14:34 - 0 Comments


Manchester Police have had to apologise to a man after officers threatened him with pepper spray and arrested him as he dropped off food for vulnerable family members in isolation. (Picture: News Dog Media)

The British government’s emergency measures and mantra ‘Stay home. Save lives’ is a one-size-fits all approach to mitigating the spread of the virus. In this context, the lack of awareness about vulnerable or overpoliced groups amongst the general public is particularly concerning in light of some police forces asking people to report others suspected of flouting the rules. The sum total of the emergency legislation, police overstepping their powers and people reporting and shaming others risks creating a climate of fear and mistrust.

The British government announced a lockdown on 23 March to curb the coronavirus pandemic. People should only leave their homes to shop for essentials, exercise, medical need and to support vulnerable people, given legal force by the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. But the public-at-large may not be aware of the extent of new police powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020. Liberty reports the police now have the power to detain, test and put into quarantine those they suspect of infection without any time limit and in an unknown location.

The official public health mantra underpinning these emergency laws is simple: “Stay home. Save lives”. Administered in daily national briefings and backed up by mainstream media coverage, the British public have adapted and adhered to these rules quickly. But these lockdown measures are a one-size-fits-all approach which puts the onus on individuals to explain ‘reasonable measures’ for leaving their homes. Police enforcement of these measures and the public-shaming we are seeing risk treating unfairly vulnerable and marginalised groups and those who struggle with the lockdown due to their mental health.

With daily national briefings and repetition by mainstream media, “Stay home. Save lives” has the risk of becoming a dogma and inadvertently a weapon to publicly shame people. That mantra represents important advice but when it is turned into an absolute through repetition without context of circumstances such as privilege and vulnerability, it has the risk of becoming dangerous. As Adorno said in An Introduction to dialectics: “If any particular aspect of knowledge…is posited as absolute, it can readily enter the service of untruth and become an ideology”.

The death toll in the UK is at over 30,000 and it is crucial that saving lives is at the forefront of public health policy. Simultaneously, as we continue lockdown into the seventh week and bear the social, economic and psychological brunt of these measures, questions must be asked about the effect of indefinite lockdown measures, particularly on marginalised groups and those who are already overpoliced.

The bona fide intention to save lives through policing should not be confused with police actions that are disproportionate. Manchester police apologised after a police officer threatened to pepper spray a man who said he was running errands for his mother. It is no coincidence the targeted man was black. Earlier, Derbyshire police were widely noted for conducting aerial drones to stop people from visiting the countryside. Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick had quite rightly said at the time, “In the first instance, I want my officers to be engaged with people”.

While emergency laws were introduced to contain the spread of coronavirus, they were a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating the spread. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, admitted that an initial lockdown for London was considered. However, people may have legitimate reasons for leaving their homes. The legal system is now scrutinising the new legislation and is holding government to account, while charities and NGOs are reporting the effects of lockdown measures on different vulnerable groups.

One of these charities is Refuge which reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day. A separate helpline – the Respect phone line – for perpetrators of domestic abuse seeking help to change their behaviour received 25% more calls after the start of the lockdown. In ’Isolated in a toxic relationship’, Karineh Matevosyan speaks of her experience of surviving lockdown with her abusive partner in the US, which provides an insight into the difficulties some women under lockdown are facing. In response to this reality, Boots recently announced it would offer its premises as a safe space for women fleeing domestic abuse.

After a challenge from lawyers, the emergency legislation now takes into consideration those with learning and disabilities and autism, who can exercise more than once a day for their health. “Our legal system is there to uphold our rights and bring justice to unlawful acts. The Equality Act 2010 regards those with disabilities as a protected group and affords them full legal protection. If the government had not amended the regulations to allow disabled persons to exercise multiple times a day, it would have been found to have discriminated against them,” explains Yasmin Husain, Civil Liberties Lawyer. Husain points out that if individuals in general feel they have a reasonable excuse to leave the home and are unfairly targeted they can seek advice from a lawyer and take legal action.

Young people are also potentially disproportionately affected by lockdown measures. Civil liberties, justice and police monitoring groups NetPol, The Monitoring Group, StopWatch, LCAPSV and MAC-UK have joined together to build a coalition to scrutinise the effects of the lockdown measures. It came together to ensure that police do not abuse their powers and to offer support to young people and to help them understand their rights. The coalition is concerned about how the new emergency legislation could target young people who are already overpoliced. Their joint leaflet reads: “Please think carefully before calling the police during this lockdown, particularly on young or vulnerable people”.

When asked about how police are now approaching young people, Jake Lake, who works with marginalised young people and is part of the coalition, tells me: “It’s the coalition’s impression that it’s the same but worse. It’s been a more amped up version already. I’d like to see full and complete transparency over who they’ve arrested, the location of the arrests, and the fines administered.”   

In recent years, public debate has also sought to seek parity of mental health with physical health. We are seeing the tip of the iceberg regarding the effect of the lockdown on people’s mental health including those with existing disorders, as well those who will develop psychological disorders after living in quarantine. A study by the Lancet has revealed people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder. Doctors in Italy have stated that the pandemic has created a mental health emergency in the country.

In this context, the lack of awareness about vulnerable or overpoliced groups amongst the general public is particularly concerning in light of some police forces — including, Avon and Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester, Humberside, Somerset, and West Midlands — asking people to report others suspected of flouting the rules.

People are scared, and fear breeds irrationality and paranoia. We are seeing reports of people too scared to leave their homes for fear of being publicly shamed. Alongside the best traits of humanity, we are also seeing people making complaints to settle long-running feuds which suggests that ‘dobbing in’ others does not always have good intentions. There have been reports of thousands of complaints to the police prompting the police’s professional standards body to ask the public to curb deliberate false reporting. We are also seeing vigilante groups emerge in rural areas.

This public-shaming is the classic defence mechanism of ‘splitting’, in which others are seen as good or bad and nothing in-between. What we need now is compassion and recognition that each human being is an individual with individual circumstances. History has moreover taught us the consequences of in-groups who shame minority out-groups, as exemplified in the social experiment The Third Wave in 1960s California. It is not only fear which leads people to shame others, but also the desire to conform and the raw human desire to wield power over others.

The black feminist writer Audre Lorde argued that social institutions eliminate or hide difference. In Sister Outsider, she said: “Certainly, there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectation”. In regards to “Stay Home. Save Lives” — when a useful piece of advice claims universality, it erases the experience for those whom the advice doesn’t wholly work.

New drastic legislation, police overstepping their powers and people reporting and shaming others – the sum total of these risks creating a climate of fear and mistrust which will also have consequences after the crisis is over. Globally, governments have used this crisis as an opportunity to introduce draconian measures including extensive surveillance measures. In China GPS on phones and CCTV are being used to issue fines on anyone breaching the 2-metre distancing rule. As the lockdown continues indefinitely and the government is providing hints about an exit strategy, we need to be asking questions of our government. And if we want to keep our civil liberties and protect all groups in society, we need to be asking those questions fast.

Ghazal Tipu is a writer, activist and communications professional based in London. She is interested in social justice, race, gender, poverty and civil liberties. She has a law degree from SOAS University. Read more of her writing at OpenDemocracy.

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