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Louis Strange: Covid-19 and Public Responsibility: Blaming the Public during the UK’s Third Wave

"Neoliberalism is often framed as the withdrawal of the state (e.g. cuts to state-run services), but the state still actively works to shift responsibility onto the public, as this publicity campaign makes clear."

January 2021 saw the rollout of a British government/NHS publicity campaign which aimed to “sensitize” the public to the dangers of Covid-19. Ads appeared on road-side billboards, bus stops and social media platforms like Twitter, where they first caught my attention (of course, completely unrelated to the fact I was spending too much time on Twitter during lockdown). This campaign placed the onus on individual members of the public to adhere to lockdown rules, with no reference to the national collective or the government’s responsibilities (or failures).

Just a few months earlier, a very different story was being told. The government had actively encouraged the public to return to restaurants and bars in the summer of 2020, offering subsidies to diners as part of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. In August 2020, the government were even briefing national newspapers that people should “go back to work or risk losing their job”. And yet, despite overseeing the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, when January 2021 rolled around the government seemed much more concerned with the public’s apparently reckless behaviour.

The January 2021 publicity campaign was designed to construct a discourse of public responsibility. Firstly, this hinges on apportioning blame: in an attempt to absolve the government of responsibility, the public’s reckless behaviour is identified as the cause of the ongoing pandemic. This goes hand in hand with an emphasis on individual responsibility: the public responsibility discourse atomises the public sphere, with people encouraged to blame one another’s personal failings for rising case numbers, rather than any higher-level, collective cause (such as the government’s handling of the crisis).

We can think about this in terms of neoliberalism and responsibilisation. Neoliberalism emphasises individualism over the collective in an effort to fragment the public sphere. This in turn facilitates the hegemony of a particular group by weakening collective resistance to the dominant order. Neoliberalism is often framed as the withdrawal of the state (e.g. cuts to state-run services), but the state still actively works to shift responsibility onto the public, as this publicity campaign makes clear.

Let’s look at a few examples to see how this discourse works. Probably the most salient texts – those which received the most commentary on social media, for example – were a series of ads which asked the reader to look into the eyes of a Covid-19 patient and justify their own behaviour, whether this was “keeping a safe distance”, “treating the risk as real” or “bending the rules”. The use of block capitals and individuals staring directly at the reader reinforce the already confrontational stance of the text itself, which uses imperatives (“LOOK HIM/HER IN THE EYES”) to demand the reader’s undivided attention. The inclusion of HM Government and NHS logos in the top-left and top-right corners, respectively, lend these texts institutional authority: speaking to the public from the position of “those in charge”. But they also frame these messages as important reminders for a public who are not taking them onboard. Like an exasperated parent wagging a finger at a disobedient child, the very fact of taking up this role makes the government seem like they have done everything in their power to stop the spread of the virus, but have been let down by the public. (“We would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!”)

Other ads tapped into this blaming of “pesky kids” in a more direct way, though. In keeping with the Conservative Party’s recent strategy of stoking a culture war against young people (amongst others), another text which circulated on social media implored the public: “DON’T LET A COFFEE COST LIVES”. Again, the large, block capitals and use of the imperative (“DON’T LET”) constitute an order to the public, who would do well to heed this sage advice. In the text below, the repeated use of the second-person (“you’re”, “your”), referring directly to the reader, make it clear that it is you – the reader – who needs to take individual responsibility for stopping the pandemic through the personal choices you make. But this message also taps into a larger narrative around frivolous young people – like those shown queuing for coffee in the ad’s imagery. First, it was the under-30s frittering away money on avocados and sourdough which made getting on the housing ladder little more than a pipe-dream; now it’s their apparent obsession with lattes which is fuelling the increase in Covid-19 case numbers.

These texts from January prompted backlash on social media, which possibly led to a softening of the publicity campaign’s approach by mid-March, when I photographed the next set of images in various locations in London. Although these bus stop ads lack the confrontational stance of earlier texts, they still frame the pandemic as an issue of individual responsibility. Each shows a solitary figure – washing their hands, staying at home or shopping alone – and reinforces this visual individuality through their text. The use of “Every” here breaks down a collective pandemic response into the cumulative effect of individual actions. Stepping back from the texts’ content, though, allows us to think about who exactly these texts are targeting. In March 2021, only “key workers” – those working in hospitals, supermarkets, etc. – were meant to be out and about, while everyone else worked from home or received furlough payments while out of work. As buses are the most common transport type for those on lower household incomes in London, these ads actually targeted key workers taking the bus to work, keeping everything running while often being paid low wages.

These texts focus on responsibilising individual members of the public, with the implication that individual carelessness is the main cause for the spread of Covid-19. They are crafted multimodally: in other words, we must pay attention to language (e.g. pronoun use), but also to other ways of creating meaning, such as the gaze of those depicted, colour and where the texts are located. The national frame is almost entirely absent from this publicity campaign. Compare this to the way Boris Johnson and other members of the government have talked about the British vaccine rollout as a great national achievement. This shows that there are always alternative possibilities for “spinning” a message. Shifting responsibility onto the public is not inevitable, but a choice: cherry-picking whether to frame the pandemic in collective terms or to fragment the public sphere, according to whether such a discursive framing favours the government’s image and downplays its responsibility for the crisis.

To learn more about Louis's research, you can watch his workshop presentation here:

To cite this essay, please follow the examples here.

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