May 2020


Prof. Kath Browne, School of Geography, UCD.

Coronavirus is geographical: It moves transnationally, has national responses, and provokes local ramifications. It directly influences our everyday lives and how we move—or don’t move—through space in ways that many of took for granted. Already, geographers across Ireland are responding, to name just a few (and there are many more!): Dr. Gerard MacCarthy and Dr. Padraig MacCarron using RIP.ie to map death notices; Dr. Gerald Mills used mapping techniques to pinpoint the location and growth of cases in Ireland; Dr. Niamh Cherry-Moore and the Greening Dublin team, exposed inequities of access to green space and the relevance of green space for health and well-being; Dr. Bradley Garrett’s work on bunkers and preppers having massive resonances, Prof. Rob Kitchin and team creating the Cornovirsus dashboard and currently, Dr. Niharika Banerjea, Leela Bakshi and I are pulling together a reflection on liveability and COVID19 for a special issue of Dialogues in Human Geography. This short piece will focus on some starting points that I have been considering in linking Coronovirus and some themes in Critical geographies, linking it to further work under preparation around liveability and the ‘New Ordinaries’ of COVID19.

Making Lives Liveable

Whereas liveability in geography has been addressed primarily in terms of availability of cultural infrastructure, amenities, and economic opportunities (Florida 2004), liveability is a pressing contemporary question. Our work on the project Making Lives Liveable, interrogated what makes life liveable in ways that understand where we are as crucial to these liveabilities (see for example Banerjea and Browne, 2018; Browne et al., 2017; 2019; McGlynn et al., 2020). What makes life liveable is now a key question, as governments both under lockdown and those seeking to emerge from it, work to maintain a compliance with restrictions that save lives. Yet, whose lives matter has also been a key preoccupation of considerations of liveability. Whose life matters is an inherently political and geographic question, with thousands dying trying to get to Europe and into the USA; a lack of counting of the death tolls in some populations due to war (Butler 2016). Discussions of liveability have addressed whose lives matter, who is expendable, who is less than human, questions that relate directly to Butler’s consideration of livable lives (Butler, 2004; 2016). Reactions to COVID19 demonstrate that those with ‘underlying conditions’ and the elderly, can be spoken of in ways that make people expendable, as if their lives mattered less. Nonetheless, precarity, health wise, but also economically, socially and through our mental health, is more widespread affecting more than those whose lives have been considered less worthy of life.

Population Compliance and Self Surveillance

The boundaries of individuality are contested by a potentially deadly virus that moves between us. The relations between us are also central to the response. The strategies adopted by numerous governments, pertain to the prevention of the transmission via population compliance to physical distancing (for those whom this is possible).  Whilst this can be achieved through sanctions and policing (as I listen to the surveillance helicopter fly overhead) and the variations on this vary state to state, there is also an important connection between self-surveillance and compliance. A relative having been shouted at for going for a walk in Brazil with her family, a practice which is not officially illegal, now no longer leaves the apartment with her family. Applying Foucault, self-surveillance is created through fear of state sanction, but also produced through social norms that inform what are ‘appropriate’ and socially sanctioned behaviours, and where these are allowed and prohibited.  These behaviours are policed between ‘us’ ‘keeping an eye’ on each other. Yet, in considering adherence and compliance through policing or forced compliance, we cannot overlook the productive relations of care that are also apparent in various societal responses.  Care work is also keeping people at home, out of public spaces, away from relatives and groups.

KB post pic

Micro-Resistances

As with all norms there will be resistance, including through official routes such as the court cases taken against laws that prohibit movement, but perhaps more impactful are those resistances that take place in everyday spaces, what might be termed micro-resistances. Compliance and adherence will be spatial, there will be different levels of adherence to public health measures, in different places.  This will depend on a variety of factors, some of which cannot be predicted in advance, but in Ireland, it might be related to proximity to for example other people/shops, notions of respectability, engagement with authorities and the state, factors around housing, including overcrowding and access to green space, and safety within and outside the home. These are not uniform across the country, within different regions, or within different cities/villages/towns. In turn they will have different effects, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Geographies from the global to the home matter in understanding the implications of COVID19.

Power and social difference

There is also much to be said about how policing others in person and through social media, as well as other ways of seeking to create compliance by social disapproval creates vilification, reiterates problematic assumptions of for example young people, those who are economically marginalised, as well as other marginalised people, such as travellers. As has long been shown, these marginalisations are both spatial differentiated, and also create places often within good/bad binaries.  These hierarchies also creates an us/them, good/bad in ways that reiterate social polarisations. There are undoubtedly there are multiple and diverse power relations that will need to be unpacked both in the here and now of living with COVID19 and in the ongoing ramifications of social, political and economic upheaval. Currently, with others in the UK/Ireland, I am working on an ESRC/IRC networking bid to consider these ‘New Ordinaries’ and the potentials and inequities of COVID19- using theorisations of sexual and gender politics in the 21st century to conceptualise seismic social and cultural shifts that offer both potentials and losses.

In considering how COVID19 has altered the potentials of contemporary life there are potentials and losses. The question of what makes life liveable is pressing, both in how we make lives under lockdown liveable in equitable ways and also as an opportunity to think about how we create new models of liveability through exploring how ‘best to live’ (Butler 2016).  As isolation becomes a social norm not previously envisaged, critical geography helps us understand our ‘new normal’ and the different ways in which we live and create these normal. At its heart, critical geography is about how we can create more liveable lives by exploring the power relations that make lives less liveable, precarious and expendable. As we face hugely uncertain times and paradigm shifts that both connect and disconnect us, our social worlds are fractured and remade. These power relations become more apparent with governments creating bans on everyday activities, friends imposing shared restriction on their usual social events; and the market price-gauging immediate necessities.

Imagining New Futures

How we make sense of the current normal, and decide which elements to move forward, is interlaced with power. There have been moments where change was possible, but unachieved, in Ireland the 1916 rising promised social equalities, globally the financial crisis of 2008 provided an opportunity to realise a paradigm shift.  Yet in both cases social and capitalist norms were reinstated or even strengthened.  But there were other potential futures, and there are again new possibilities of shifts in social and economic equalities. To realise these potentials we need to identify them, value them and believe in the possibilities of fluid and unpredictable worlds. Reflections on how we navigate this time period and how we progress after Coronavirus, requires more than political, economic and media responses.  We need responses that engage with the social in ways that centralise how these are created in places and differentiated geographically, that work with communities, and that offer possibilities of restructuring lives in ways that now might be unimaginable. It is time to imagine new worlds, new futures. Critical Geographers are well placed to engage in this endeavour which requires nuanced analysis of power, society and space.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Carla Kayanan for her generous feedback and comments on this piece and all that she brings to geography in UCD and beyond. Thanks to Cari Burke for her reading and support, and for encouraging this blog to happen! Thanks to Niharika and Leela for working with me on the liveabilities research, and to all now working on the ESRC/IRC grant.

 

References

Banerjea, N. and Browne, K. (2018). Liveable lives: A transnational queer-feminist reflection on sexuality, development and governance. In Mason, C. (ed), Routledge Handbook of Queer Development Studies, (pp. 169-179). Routledge: London.

Browne, K., et al. (2017). “Towards transnational feminist queer methodologies.” Gender, Place & Culture 24(10) (pp. 1376-1397).

Browne, K., Banerjea, N., McGlynn, N., Bakshi, L., Beethi, S. and Biswas, R. (2019). The limits of legislative change: Moving beyond inclusion/exclusion to create ‘a life worth living’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654419845910

Butler, J., (2004). Undoing gender. Routledge: London

Butler, J. (2016). Rethinking vulnerability and resistance. In J. Butler, Z. Gambetti & L. Sabsay (eds.), Vulnerability in resistance, (pp. 12–27). Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Florida, R. (2004). The rise of the creative class;and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

McGlynn, N., Browne, K., Banerjea, N., Biswas, R., Banerjee, R., Sumita and Bakshi L. (2020). “More than happiness: Aliveness and struggle in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer lives.” Sexualities. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460719888436

 

 

2KM from home

This is an image of my main cycling route that I have been using to try and keep my distance up during the lockdown since mid-March. It is about 15km all in all and I have varied it little over the weeks. (I find myself dreaming a lot about cycling much further and linear distances lately.) When I am out cycling, I am as careful as I can be in terms of distance from other road users, others on bikes and pedestrians. In the first three weeks of the lockdown, people seemed happy to walk on the road, taking wide arcs to avoid other pedestrians. We were getting used to these new metrics of public life: 2 metres, 2 kilometres. We walked languidly across main roads once filled with fast-moving cars and vans. More people feeling like they can walk at a human pace on Finglas and Glasnevin roads is a good thing. What was also noticeable was how few vehicle drivers minded this. There was an accommodation based on the frequent reminders that ‘we were all in this together’ and how we are all working to ‘flatten the curve’.

In the last fortnight though, things have changed. As some workplaces are adjusting and opening up and with the weather became more tolerable outdoors, we can note an increased weekday volume of car and van traffic. It means that the interaction between this motor traffic and other road users has reverted to what it was before mid-March. Pedestrians are back running across poorly designed vehicle entrances into rows of neighbourhood shops. Pedestrian lights are again being used and the kerb parking is back; we are conceding to motorised traffic again. When we talk about ‘a return to normal’ and ‘flicking a switch’ we have to remember that pedestrian and bike users will go back to normal first. Not because we are complacent or lacking in awareness but because we intuitively know two tonnes of metal, plastic and glass is being driven incautiously near us again. But this post is not about bikes versus cars.

In the last week or so we have seen the city council in Dublin making some concessions to pedestrians and commuting cyclists. A contraflow on a single street is an easy win, even if it took three decades to get done. The council is asking residents to make suggestions for alterations in public spaces to allow for physical distancing across the city. They are going to have a lot of work to do. Dublin’s footpaths are crowded and poorly bordered with road space. At every crossing in this city, pedestrians are hemmed in by barriers and bollards, a reminder that the city streets do not belong to us. Beg buttons dominate. Some are celebrating a bucolic urban age dawning: lower emissions, better quality air, the return of this thing called nature to our cities. All the other nice things we seek cannot be far behind: greenways for all, last mile supply chains springing up. As welcome as these concessions are, we cannot forget that power concedes nothing without a struggle. Car park owners are threatening legal action over the most minimal of plans to allow people to use more active travel modes. Their fear is that the car and their supposed wealthy owners will stop buying things they don’t need from shop workers increasingly threatened by a virus we still know very little about. Our food landscape is dominated by multiples, not craft butchers. We still do not have enough primary health care centres in this city but we have lots of empty hotel rooms.

Occupy May Day 2015 (17150201729)

We should be clear though that widening footpaths and making more temporary bike lanes does not mean that a deep well of communitarian values lying dormant is now being drawn from. These changes impact different groups in very different ways. Like the car users of suburban Dublin, normal daily life is being re-asserted in small places and in minor ways. We have seen how the CIF is pushing for building sites to be opened again supposedly to ‘complete the housing which we all need’. Their sudden appreciation for the housing that is not being built arises from a shrinking bottom line. They spent the last few years building hotels, student accommodation and luxury flats that cannot now be sold. If the first few days meant the appearance of a ‘new normal’, the last few days have seen significant changes to bring about the return of the old order. That this is being driven by the city’s most powerful actors (building developers, employers’ representatives) should not a surprise under the current way we go about creating things in this city. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by suburban customer rage and a growing sense that Nature is Healing (response: “we are the virus”). Our urban activity cannot be that passive that we watch things unfold before us. It is not wrong to want a cleaner city with more active modes of mobility but they are not adequate substitutes for an examination of what drives city development. To me and others, these are the very things that made a pandemic like this arise in the first instance. The old order conceded something called Sustainability and made us feel bad about not recycling correctly. The way we travel, eat and work is shortening our lives and killing others. Any new dispensation has to be thought up using the democratic tools and social and economic power at our disposal. This includes making more, not fewer, and radical demands of our elected local governments, officials and elected representatives. It means challenging extremely powerful actors in how the city changes. It cannot be done within the existing ways.

Eoin O’Mahony, UCD.