Whatever else the current pandemic may be, here in the UK it’s been a communications car crash. We’ve been bombarded with confusing official messages, some containing technical terms which are used variably even by experts, and are incomprehensible to much of the public (‘herd immunity’, anyone?) And some politicians’ ‘backstage’ language (though in the age of social media what’s uttered behind the scenes tends to find itself under the spotlight sooner rather than later) has been remarkably ill-judged. Boris Johnson reportedly suggested to business leaders he had approached for help manufacturing ventilators that they could call the initiative ‘Operation Last Gasp’. In the US, someone complained on Twitter that a member of the Trump administration had referred to COVID-19 as ‘Kung flu’, and Trump himself has publicly called it ‘the Chinese virus’. Sexism, which is this blog’s territory, has not been such an overt problem in public health messaging. But I do think it is there more covertly, both in what’s not being said and in the way some things are being said.
Feminists have already called attention to certain absences or silences—most obviously of women’s voices at the highest level. There are exceptions, such as Germany and Scotland, but globally it is mainly men who are the public voices of both political and scientific authority. As someone commented when the media published a photo of Mike Pence and his then all-male Coronavirus Taskforce praying, ‘it must be a mandemic’. (Pence has since appointed one woman expert, Deborah Birx.) Boris Johnson too has set up a high-level committee (‘C19’) that consists entirely of men.
When not making racist remarks or tasteless jokes, both Johnson and Donald Trump have adopted a martial rhetoric in which we are now ‘at war’ with the novel coronavirus. In Britain the tone is evidently intended to be Churchillian: rousing, patriotic, appealing to the legendary ‘Blitz spirit’ of plucky little England. At one press conference this week Rishi Sunak, the 39-year old who has very recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer, uttered a series of platitudes about doing ‘whatever it takes’ to defeat ‘the enemy’:
Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable – and we know how to beat it and we know that if as a country we follow the scientific advice that is now being given we know that we will beat it. And however tough the months ahead we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.
But though wars are traditionally men’s business, they also make demands on women. The government’s recently-published list of key workers, for instance, includes a number of predominantly female occupational groups, like nurses, care workers and supermarket staff, who will all be at heightened risk because of the personal contact their jobs involve (these are also, and will doubtless remain, among the lowest-paid jobs on the key worker list). The absence of women from pandemic ‘war cabinets’ isn’t just a symbolic issue, it’s a ‘nothing about us without us’ issue. It raises concerns that the men in charge will give little or no thought to the way their decisions affect women–differently, not always equally, and potentially in very damaging ways.
Apart from the Churchillian posturing, one way I see ‘mandemic’ thinking being subtly reflected in language is in the way politicians and official spokespeople talk about ‘home’. ‘Stay at home’ is one of the UK government’s key public health messages, along with ‘wash your hands’ (it’s said that Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings particularly favours these three-word slogans—see also ‘Take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’). But it was long ago pointed out by feminists that ‘home’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning for most women as it does for most men.
In Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s Feminist Dictionary the entry for ‘home’ defines it as ‘most women’s place of work’. In current conditions it’s temporarily become a place of work for large numbers of men as well as women whose jobs do not require their physical presence in the workplace, and also the place where 5-18 year-olds will now be doing their schoolwork. All this only adds to the unpaid care-work—domestic labour, childcare, the ‘mental load’ of planning and strategising that keeps the show on the road—which makes ‘home’ a permanent workplace for women with families (whether or not they also have a paid job). The idea of ‘home’ as a safe haven, a shelter from the dangers of the outside world, may be less than soothing when you’re the one who will be expected to do even more caring than usual, in conditions of household isolation (i.e., without a break, or any of the usual social supports), and possibly with drastically reduced economic resources.
There’s also the point that for some women ‘home’ is a place of danger rather than safety. Reported incidents of domestic violence increase significantly even during relatively brief holiday periods; it’s horrifying to think about what could happen during a lockdown lasting weeks or months. We know this was a serious problem in Wuhan, but the British government has pledged no additional funding for the organisations that provide services to women. (There’s some general advice and contact numbers here.)
In the UK people over 70 have been told they should isolate themselves completely for several months, a policy which has been referred to both in Britain and Ireland as ‘cocooning’ the ‘elderly’. Both those words set my teeth on edge. ‘Elderly’ is a euphemism which people use to avoid the plain but apparently taboo word ‘old’, and it has strong connotations of frailty and helplessness—hence the need for ‘cocooning’, wrapping the frail and helpless in cotton wool. I’m sure the term ‘cocooning’ was chosen to sound warm and caring, but for those who remain fit and active (as many people do in their 70s and even beyond), the policy might well sound more like house arrest, removing all personal freedom at a stroke. It’s true that social distancing restricts everyone’s freedom, but the degree of restriction envisaged for the over-70s is extreme—no leaving the house or seeing anyone in person for months—and I don’t think it helps to dress that up in warm and fuzzy words. (Especially if you’re leaving it to volunteers to make sure that ‘cocooned’ people who don’t have family nearby, or at all, can still access food and other necessities.)
As someone who’s not far from being ‘elderly’ myself, I’m not surprised that some people over 70 are resisting the official advice (which is not (yet) being stringently enforced). I doubt that’s because they’re unaware that rates of serious illness and death from COVID-19 rise steeply after the age of 60, but they might think there are other factors to consider (like the effects of such prolonged isolation/immobility on mental health) when deciding if extreme measures are necessary or desirable for them personally. What the world seems to think, however, is that any ‘elderly’ person who resists being ‘cocooned’ is simply proving that old people in general are muddle-headed and irresponsible, in denial about the risks they face and incapable of making rational decisions. They must be nagged, patronised and held up as Bad Examples on social media by people who know better, not uncommonly their own children.
A lot of this discourse is covertly sexist as well as ageist. Because ‘elderly’ (does anyone, of any age, actually ‘identify as’ ‘elderly’?) connotes ‘frail and helpless, in need of protection’, we tend to imagine the prototypical ‘elderly’ person as a woman. I’ve noticed it’s most often the behaviour of their mothers that prompts people in their 30s and 40s to take to Facebook or Twitter to recount examples of ‘reckless’ behaviour and solicit advice on how to stop it. Of course this anxiety is fuelled by love, and the fear that comes with love; and of course there are old people (of both sexes) who really are extremely frail and at very high risk. But where people are still healthy and independent, neither the government nor their younger family members will get through to them by patronising and infantilising them.
Meanwhile, the populist (and in some cases, ‘elderly’) male political leaders who have cast themselves as latter-day Churchills make a public spectacle of their recklessness. They’re no longer suggesting, as Donald Trump initially did, that the pandemic is either a hoax or ‘just the flu’, but they go on ostentatiously shaking hands: not long ago Boris Johnson boasted that he had shaken hands with people who had COVID-19, while Trump said he would continue to shake hands with anyone who might ‘want to say hello’, adding that if they ‘want to hug you and kiss you, I don’t care’. When he and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro were found to have had close contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus, both said initially that they saw no need to get tested themselves. (Trump later announced he had tested negative.)
These are performances of masculinity (of which the firm handshake, in particular, has long been a powerful symbol), and of imagined alpha-male invincibility. They say ‘I’m not afraid, I’m not a wimp, I’m hard enough to take the risks I’m telling others to avoid’. Which is bullshit at the best of times, and even more so when the risks they’re taking are potentially harmful to others too. And it isn’t just ageing politicians who think there’s something emasculating about following advice to act responsibly. According to one report on the introduction of stricter social distancing measures in Britain, ‘millennial men have been the worst offenders at failing to reduce their contact with other people, continuing to visit pubs, travel widely and take part in other social events’.
Finally in this round-up of ‘mandemic’ rhetoric, let’s not overlook the early signs that anti-feminism may be replicating alongside the novel coronavirus. National crises tend to turn people’s minds to what kind of world they’d like to build when it’s all over, and these visions of a better future are often marked by nostalgia for the past—especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. During World War II, comparisons with which have already become a cliché of pandemic-talk, women like the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were drafted in to help the war effort by filling the roles male combatants had vacated; but afterwards they faced intense pressure to become the dependent housewives whose profound dissatisfactions Betty Friedan would later write about in The Feminine Mystique.
If you’re thinking, ‘OK, but we’ve moved on since 1945’, consider the fact that the closure of schools across Britain yesterday prompted this ruminative tweet from a man whose profile identifies him as a trades unionist and ‘Blue Labour’ supporter (i.e. economically on the left but socially conservative):
One of the downsides of the shift towards an economic structure & culture in which both parents are expected to work is that domestic chaos ensues when a crisis hits. We need to build an economy which allows families to enjoy a good standard of living on the wages of one earner.
This does illustrate one way in which we have, perhaps, moved on: it is written in impeccably gender-neutral or ‘inclusive’ language. But as I’ve pointed out before, that formal inclusiveness often masks a clearly gendered meaning. I’m willing to bet that when you read the tweet you drew a non-random conclusion about which parent he was imagining as the ‘earner’, and which would be assigned responsibility for staving off ‘domestic chaos’. (And don’t bother asking about single parents: though they’ve always existed, nostalgia generally renders them invisible.)
Watch out for the bullshit, and whenever you come into contact with it, wash your hands.