To the Moon and Back: Summing up the ISR/EHU Covid-19 Blog

When we had the idea to ISR blog in the week after lockdown in late March, we could not have imagined that it would have such resonance. Since the start of April we have had nearly 50 posts, charting our immediate response as an academic community to a once in a 100-year event.

In receiving, reviewing and editing the posts each day – I have oscillated between hope and despair; and somewhere in between. Fear that we may have permanently given up our way of life to fight this disease, but then hope that perhaps we can reimagine part of it for the better in its aftermath. Moreover, some of the historical entries have prompted me to wondered if the ordinary people felt the same during the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago? Likely at times they did feel hopeless, not least the populations of Europe, the USA and the Empire had just endured 4 years of war. Yet as a species we did bounce back from Spanish flu – and made it all the way to the moon! So I have no doubt that we will do so again.

And so, in setting out to summarise what is already an historical document, the blog falls into four broad categories;

  1. The pandemic has the potential to permanently alter the way in which we organise our lives. Many of us have become more creative and learnt new skills. It has been a journey of discovery, individually, institutionally, economically, and as a society, and may even solve the EHU car parking problem, and we have all got used to working remotely.
  2. Vigilance is needed when loaning out our ‘civil liberties’ for the perceived ‘greater good’; what surveillance and other genies have we let out of the bottle during this period – and can we put them back? Relatedly, how do we do ‘politics’ in times of crisis and how to we critique constructively?
  3. In the longer term, the ‘cure’ for Covid-19 may end up being more harmful than the disease. Many posts illustrate just how hard it is in our complex and integrated world, to take difficult decisions in the absence of full or good information.
  4. History repeats – or at least rhymes. Thankfully, the red X was not put on our front doors this time, but other aspects of the accounts of pandemics passed, were eerily familiar; including the both the mythology and inequalities arising therefrom.

As the blog entered its final week, it also reflected on ‘what’s next?’. As we emerge from ‘lockdown’ will society be kinder, or will we miss the opportunity to make permanent changes as we flock back to the shops, and queue for ‘drive through’ take away? Perhaps some of the philosophical perspectives also expressed in the blog will help us we take away the good, leave behind at least some of the bad, and make it back to the moon?

In the next few weeks we will be compiling all the blog entries into a pdf document. This will be available to download from the ISR website. We also intend to host an anniversary event in March 2021 where we will ask some of the bloggers to reflect on their posts; what happened next, did they get their predictions right – and what do they think now? More information on this event will also follow.

Finally I would like to thank all the contributors and readers of the blog. You all made it a huge success; and I look forward to seeing you all on campus one day very soon!

Prof Jo Crotty,  Director: Institute for Social Responsibility, Edge Hill University


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Epidemics: A View from Italy

Italy’s first two cases of the coronavirus pandemic were confirmed on 30 January 2020 by the Istituto Spallanzani which specializes in infectious diseases, the first research centre in Europe in fact to isolate the genomic sequence of COVID-19. The patients were a couple of Chinese tourists, both of whom had recovered by 26 February. Just over a week earlier, on 18 February, the first case of secondary transmission was recorded at Codogno, a small town outside Milan, in the Plain of Lombardy. Over half of the deaths in Italy attributed to COVID-19 have occurred in that region, one of Italy’s wealthiest.

Italy was the first European country to go into lockdown, with some other western countries learning lessons from its experience; others not.

The experience of isolation may have led some Italians to reflect on the book they will all have read (at least parts of) in school, Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a sweeping historical novel which has as its backdrop an epidemic in the hinterland of Milan.

Two chapters of the novel (31 and 32 for those who want to dig deeper) are dedicated to the plague year of 1630 and indeed Manzoni expanded them into an independent work, Storia della colonna infame (History of the Monument of Shame), which tells a tale of authorities slow to appreciate the size of the problem, slow to act, and then rather swifter to deflect blame.

The 1630 outbreak of bubonic plague – aka The Plague of Milan – during Lombardy’s long Spanish (Hapsburg) domination, was filtered through the religious lens of God’s punishment on the ungodly, with barefooted processions through the city streets – the antithesis of social distancing – caused the infection to spread exponentially. In all of this misery there circulated rumour and suspicion. Stories gained currency of certain ‘smearers’ (‘untori’) who, it was alleged, engaged in nocturnal smearing of deadly unguents around the city of Milan, on door handles and other surfaces to spread the contagion. The Spanish authorities, rather than displaying good sense and proper leadership, had suspects identified, rounded up, horribly tortured and publicly executed.

Manzoni’s history of the 1630 events, written over 200 years later, drew on not just on contemporary accounts and court transcripts but on a classic text of the Italian Enlightenment; Cesare Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene (Of crimes and punishments), 1764. The Monument of Shame was erected in 1630 on the site of Gian Giacomo Mora’s barber shop after he had been executed along with Guglielmo Piazza as the ‘smearers’. A symbol or imperial Spanish superstition and injustice, it was removed under Austrian rule in 1778.

Thankfully there will be no physical moments of shame erected this time – but the final analysis may lead to some figurative ones.

Prior to his appointment as Dean of Arts & Sciences, and subsequently Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Edge Hill University, George Talbot was Professor of Italian at the University of Hull


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Main image by Peter H from Pixabay; Second image: Storia della colonna infame (History of the Monument of Shame) image by Francesco Gonin for the 1840 edition, Pubblico dominio,

Pandemics, Prohibition and the Past: COVID-19 in Historical Perspective

The Coronavirus epidemic may be without precedent in living memory, but global pandemics are nothing new. In the sixth century AD the ‘Plague of Justinian’, an outbreak of bubonic plague, killed around 25 million people in Europe and Asia. The best known pandemic, the ‘Black Death’ of 1348-9, is thought to have killed up to 50 million people in Europe, or 60 per cent of the population. In 1918-19 the ‘Spanish Flu’ claimed the lives of 50-100 million worldwide, more than were killed in the First World War. By comparison circa 250,000 global deaths (at the time of writing) seems small in comparison.

Fear created by the alarming death rates of past pandemics was compounded by the fact that medical science was unable to identify the cause of contagion. In 1918 doctors attributed the source of the flu to a bacteria rather than a virus. In earlier pandemics things were even worse. Bubonic plague was seen as a form of divine punishment, or a disease spread by a poisonous miasma rather than flea infested rats.

The measures introduced by public authorities to contain infection were varied. Some restrictions sound familiar. In A Journal of the Plague Year in London, 1665-6, Daniel Defoe recalled that ‘all plays, bear-baiting, games, singing of ballads, public feasting’ and ‘tippling houses’ were prohibited. Churches remained open, but with appropriate social distancing, people going in ‘single at all times’ and ‘locking themselves into separate pews’. Public spaces became ‘so desolate’ that ‘grass grew upon the streets’.      

Self-isolation was enforced. Those infected with plague were confined to their homes with other members of the household and a red cross painted on the door. Nobody was allowed to leave until all within had either recovered or died, with a cart going around the streets after dark to collect the dead.

Albeit harsh in the extreme, such restrictions may have helped contain the spread of disease. In contrast the draconian proclamation that all dogs and cats be killed, as a potential source of infection, was, at best, misguided. The resulting destruction of some forty thousand dogs and two hundred thousand cats had one predictable outcome, ‘a prodigious multitude’ of ‘mice and rats’.

Then, as now, there was much discussion about the need for a test to determine who was infected. One suggestion was that physicians inhale the breath of suspected plague bearing persons as it had a distinctive smell. A proposition that, even if true, had at least one obvious drawback.     

If the current lockdown seems depressing there is, perhaps, some consolation in the thought that pandemics of the past were much worse. Similarly, if the thought of being unable to go to a pub or a wine bar for the foreseeable future is hard to bear, then spare a thought for American drinkers a hundred years ago. No sooner had they emerged from the horrors of the First World War and the ‘Spanish Flu’, than the introduction of Prohibition, in January 1920, banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for more than a decade. At least Prohibition is unlikely to be repeated!

Kevern Verney is Professor of History and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Edge Hill University.


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Main image: “Bring Out Your Dead” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. Image: Wellcome in Creative Commons

Constructing a ‘New Normal’: What Changes when it’s all over?

What will life be like once ‘normality’ returns?

Without needing to resort to crystal-ball gazing, it is obvious that whatever normality emerges, it will be a form of a ‘new normal’.

We will be required to negotiate radically altered public health and economic conditions, as well as new complex emotional geographies. So here, I want to briefly refer to the disaster and emergencies literature to think about some of the experiences, and challenges of, constructing a ‘new normal’.

First, the pandemic is most obviously, like disaster recovery, both a public health and a social problem. In some instances, the ‘new normal’ might involve challenging historic inequalities and outdated modes of ‘doing’ politics. Yet while Rebecca Solnit has examine the novel forms of community that emerge post-disaster, a common challenge for these emergent networks is finding ways of generating momentum and to embed those traces of positive change in post-disaster landscape. Note, there is strong evidence that they rarely persist!

In other instances, negotiating a ‘new normal’ will mean encountering the inevitable challenges that emerge from a ‘relief’ orientated system. Disasters are often characterised by an onset of immediate relief response (including mass resource mobilisation and availability of emergency funding), followed by difficulties in acknowledging and responding to its longer-term implications.

While disasters might prompt social learnings as we encounter the opportunities and challenges of constructing new normal, there is unfortunately little evidence to suggest that governments learn sufficiently from such events. Ilan Kelman, a prominent disaster risk reduction expert, notes that, despite “response being more expensive than precaution, and precaution is cheaper than cure; there is little political appetitive to invest heavily in emergency preparedness”.

Such lack of appetite, sees Lee Clarke and Thomas Birkland call evaluations of emergency response ‘fantasy documents’: documents that are not generally about the ‘real’ causes and solutions to disasters; rather, they are generated to prove that some authoritative actor has ‘done something’ about learning from an event. Unfortunately, the current examinations of Exercise Cygnus – the government pandemic simulation that led to the conclusion that a pandemic would cause the NHS to collapse – lends limited confidence to the idea that a ‘new normal’ will be more aptly or inclusively governed. 

Important questions remain as to how these evaluations can contribute to a ‘new normal’ that enables us to effectively negotiate these possible trajectories, and subsequently can be imagined as more hopeful.

Dr Simon Dickinson is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Edge Hill University.


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The Road to Nowhere? Tourism after Covid-19

We don’t have to look far to see that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourism has been both enormous and catastrophic.  All resorts, hotels, restaurants, campsites and visitor attractions are closed, and there are few flights. Tourism as we know it has totally ground to a halt.  

How will tourism recover?  This all depends on the timing of the lockdown – if it is lifted in the UK by the summer then parts of the domestic tourism industry will probably be able to recover quickly. There is likely to be a staycation boom, albeit focussed on accommodation which allows social distancing – such as holiday cottages, canal boats and caravans. Furthermore, this will be concentrated at destinations – the countryside and coast – which enable tourists to avoid large crowds.  Urban tourism – with its high densities of tourists – will take longer to recover. Visitor attractions may be able to salvage part of the season, although tourists are likely to be cautious about gathering where there are large numbers of other people. Social distancing within attractions will be the norm, at least in the medium term; some attractions will struggle to accommodate this new requirement.

On the other hand, international tourism is unlikely to recover quickly. Countries will be cautious about opening their borders to allow tourists to enter, possibly requiring visitors to provide some form of proof that they are not infected with Covid-19. At the same time, tourists themselves may be cautious about travelling abroad particularly to those countries that recorded high rates of Covid-19 infection. This, of course, has implications for inbound tourism to the UK. 

Certain sectors of tourism will be hit particularly hard.  Faced with a shrinking of international travel many airlines will struggle. Furthermore, the combination of lower demand and fewer carriers will mean higher ticket prices:  the era of cheap air travel is over, at least in the medium term.  Airlines will also have to adapt to requirements for social distancing.  Already EasyJet is talking of not using the middle seat on its planes (although Ryanair has reacted derisively to this proposal).  

Another likely casualty of the pandemic will be the cruise industry. The nightmarish stories of Covid-19 on board cruise liners will mean that tourists will hesitate before booking cruise holidays. The cruise industry may have to adapt through developing low-density cruises, taking in destinations where there are no large crowds. Similarly business tourism will look very different. Both the expected global recession and higher air fares will reduce demand for business travel, but what may be more significant is that face-to-face business meetings are less essential in a context where it has proved possible to work effectively through videoconferencing.

There may be unexpected outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis.  One of the most-publicised phenomena of the past decade has been over-tourism (excessive tourism numbers generating hostile reactions among local populations) although there is no consensus on whether over-tourism is a genuine problem or simply a media construction. Whatever the case, over-tourism is likely to be a thing of the past; destinations such as Venice and Barcelona are unlikely to return quickly to the overcrowding they experienced in 2019.  More broadly, high-density warm-weather mass tourism destinations will struggle to attract customers. The future of tourism may turn out to be slow tourism, where a tourist takes part in low-density, low-movement holidays which involve connecting more deeply with a place. The tourism industry has been talking about sustainable tourism for several decades but it has made conspicuously little progress in achieving it.  A small silver lining to what will be a beleaguered industry, maybe the realisation of a form of low-density, low-carbon, low-impact, small-scale tourism that is genuinely sustainable.

Dr Duncan Light is Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management at Bournemouth University


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Images in the Head; the Pervasiveness of Dreaming in Isolation

It’s day something of the lockdown and I’m surrounded by images that I don’t understand. There’s an image of a pizza that’s trying to kill me, it’s on the main news three times a day, as if on repeat. Nobody is quite sure where it came from or where it’s going. There are lots of statistics, infinite statistics, but they are just that, and when it comes to human action images always win out. So we have all these images, a malevolent pizza, an old hand peering out of the sheets, lots of tubes, space suits, respectful distances, but then glimpses of patients up close. Dying. We saw them. Not the lucky ones being applauded as they’re wheeled down the corridors but the other ones, the other half, the statistics tell us, from intensive care.

The only problem is that I’m not sure if I dreamt these images. They weren’t repeated, they must have been censored out, if they were ever broadcast in the first place. Like everyone else my dreams are disturbed – long, vivid, colourful dreams every night, always remembered in the morning – so odd.

Dreams (from the Bible onwards) so much a part of everyday, consequential real life. Either, the brain just shuffling through the files of the day for better storage or the repressed unconscious breaking through in great Freudian symbolic forms. Open to interpretation.

I’ve never had so many old ‘close friends’ walk back into my life, sometimes at the same time and I spend the whole dream trying to keep them apart. I’ve promised to go out for dinner with each of them at the same time (that’s last night’s dream) and I wake up sweating (surely not a night sweat?) and anxious, with the dilemma unresolved. A dream driven by repressed anxiety about loneliness and isolation, these ‘close friends’ coming back in their droves after all these years to show that I’m not alone, I’m surrounded. Images that terrify me, not about dying in a room without any psychological connection with people, but the terror of embarrassment when these ‘close friends’ finally meet. It’s good to be awake.

I go for a run in my socially-distanced bubble. The streets are full of runners. I’ve never seen so many and I run every day. But these are strange times, there’s none of that runners’ nod and smile of recognition. I’m anonymous, even without any mask. I’m not connecting, none of us are. The images of the wicked pizza and the hacking coughs have got through to us all.

Fear can work for behaviour change when it’s ladled on like this. But what’s it going to be like afterwards? How do you remove that fear? I’ve heard some pundits talk about the rise of nationalism, but one can imagine a return to stranger, even earlier times, the psychology of the small group, the comfort of the tribe, the pull of the familiar, the closeness of the family, that’s when you feel safe.

I bump into some friends and acquaintances from my gym, shrinking before my very eyes, searching the grey streets of Salford for some half-finished building to do some pull-ups or push-ups. I’ve seen all the work that they’ve put in over many years in that gym to build themselves into temples. And the temples have crumbled down before us all. The businesses that they run, and the years of hard graft behind all that, are never mentioned, they don’t have to be. I just look at the physical image and see enough. It will take years to recover, to get back to what we once had. The harsh reality – not a dream.

Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University.


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Blitzed by Myths: The ‘Spirit’ of the Blitz and COVID-19

In the current climate, particularly today, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and the current Prime Minister’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric, it is perhaps inevitable that people are drawing parallels with the Second World War, the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, the ‘Britain can take it’ response to the German ‘Blitz’, and so on. Clearly, there are many inspiring stories to be found about the experiences of the British people during the Second World War, they do not, though, give a complete picture of the British experience in those years.

It is important to remember that information, of all sorts, was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information. The depiction of the bodies of those killed in bombing raids was, for example, banned, and I despite working in this area for many years I have never seen any such pictures. The Ministry also banned any mention of trekking, this was the practice whereby people in areas that were under heavy aerial bombardment moved into the adjacent countryside, often spending the night sleeping under hedges and in ditches. This happened in Liverpool where some people ‘trekked’ out to places like Maghull. Referring to this practice was regarded as bad for morale.

Clive Ponting suggests in his 1993 work 1940: Myth and Reality that one of the great iconic episodes of the war, the Dunkirk evacuations, was something of a shambles, rather than the orderly process that has given us the term: ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’. The presentation of this event was an early example of ‘spin’. Even at the time some people, like the authors of the 1940 pamphlet, Guilty Men, saw Dunkirk as the product of Government neglect and ineptitude, a disaster not a triumph.

Angus Calder, in his 1992 work, The Myth of the Blitz questions the degree to which the experience of bombing created a sense of national unity, noting, among other things that Churchill and members of the Royal family were booed when they visited some bombed areas. The issue of air-raid shelters was certainly one of contention. In working class districts the population were sometimes provided with brick-built surface shelters, which offered limited protect against explosions, in London this sparked demonstrations with East Enders occupying the basement shelters of steel-framed West End hotels.

Rationing and evacuation were also areas of dispute. The well-to-do could, for example dine in restaurants and still purchase their rations. Those with the money could send their children across the Atlantic to friends in the US. Though ultimately not her choice – Baroness Shirley Williams and former MP for Crosby, spent the war in the United States. Those evacuated in the UK were not always well-treated by their hosts, some farmers, for example, took boys as a source of free labour.

The Second World War was a multi-faceted experience; political divisions and social divisions did not disappear. Some politicians linked the war to the struggle for social reform, others linked it to the defence of the status quo, Winston Churchill, for example declared shortly after gaining the premiership that he had not become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. Some people did change their views, many historians believe more middle-class people voted Labour in 1945 than ever before. The absolute majority for Labour was, though, relatively small. Evelyn Waugh described life under Labour as like living in a country under enemy occupation. His 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited is partly a lament for the life of class privilege he and his kind had enjoyed in the inter-war years.

This is not written to rain on anyone’s parade, but to suggest that it is easy to get a false impression of ourselves if we rely on manufactured ideas about ourselves. History is complex and is only useful when that complexity is recognised. The Second World War did not make social divisions disappear, and neither will Covid-19

Dr Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.


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Photo by Unknown author – This is photograph HU 44272 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain

Temporary or Fixed? Changing Business Models in a Global Pandemic

From lack of hand sanitiser to toilet paper, cargo stuck in ports, crops unpicked in fields and a work force relocated to their homes; organisations and consumers are adopting new approaches to deal with these shortages. With amazing flexibility and agility some firms have shifted their business models, invested in people and processes, explored new markets and created new products, whilst others appear to be lost and floundering.

Some firms have found that the key components and products they might need are just not available. This might be because their suppliers are temporarily/permanently shut down, transportation issues, or there just isn’t enough stock to meet demand. How are they managing these challenges?

Going local? This might mean (re)localising their sourcing (either regional or national) even when the costs are higher. A key question would be what happens to the ‘new’ suppliers when the break in the supply chain is repaired? Will firms stay loyal to those that helped them out?

Ramping up production. We see flour mills and toilet paper manufacturers etc all maxing out their production lines. Investments in short term ramp up will need to be repaid, and major alternations need to be worth the investment on a long-term basis. Flour mills and loo roll manufacturers are cleaning up right now (some literally) – but what about tomorrow?

New sources of supply. Across the UK firms are reimagining their business models to meet this demand. In Scotland the Wee Farm Distillery has switched production from Gin to hand sanitiser. You can even have the refill bottle posted out – just be careful as it comes in an ex-Gin bottle! Will this become a permanent side-line, or just an opportunistic diversion?

Extending business models. Other firms are being creative in switching their delivery modes and customer base. Wholesalers like Delifresh have moved from supplying cafes and hotels to household delivery. New items get added almost daily to their inventory. Will this investment pay off in a new customer base post this crisis? Even the big supermarkets have reimagined and invested with Morrisons quickly scaling out (with some teething issues) a click-and-collect service. Can these firms use these opportunities to take this market share long term?

Investing in stockpiles. We may see firms increase their inventory. Opposite to a just-in-time approach this will include costs – for storage facilities, monitoring and the cost of these stockpiled assets. Organisations need to be able to absorb these costs and to manage those inventories which might have expiry dates -like personal protective equipment. Longer term, will shareholders agree to absorb these costs? 

Ultimately sourcing will be a balance between risk, costs and convenience. An article in the Journal of Psychology says it takes an average 66 days to form a habit – from the first day of lockdown that’s the 27th May. So I wonder how many of these changes become permanent?

Professor Diane Holt, University of Leeds, Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies and contributor to the ISR/Edge Hill Business School Research Training series.


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Wither Fake News: COVID-19 and its Impact on Journalism

The current pandemic has reproposed, this time with more acuity than ever, key questions for the media and journalism.

First, the current crisis has reconfirmed that our reality is indeed substantially shaped by media. We live in an era of deep mediatization, as researchers call it (see Andreas Hepp’s Deep Mediatization book published in 2019, among many others), with every aspect of our lives shaped by media technologies. It is likely that reality, society and interpersonal communications will forever be changed by this. As our WhatsApp and Zoom communications continue, we will definitely come out at the other end speaking and communicating differently.

Fake news is also now a staple feature of media production and consumption. It seems though that this virus is worsening the widespread infection of established functions of journalism: the promotion and defence of truth, verification and expertise.

Journalism IS defined, at its core, as a discipline of verification. Social media, citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and the speed of breaking news have already impacted on journalistic practices, our trust in news outlets and our understanding of truth and expertise. The crisis is now asking tough questions about the ways fake news, conspiracy theories and those, whoever you believe they are, behind them, have managed to relativize truth and trust, and have relaxed the rules about who is allowed to speak and with what knowledge and expertise.

However, it is not all bad news. It means we need verified and verifiable journalism more than ever. There is evidence that consumption of local news – not long ago a weakening and on-its-way-out branch of journalism – is increasing, as people are keen to understand the pandemic realities of their local areas.

We have more ‘proper’ experts invited to speak in the media, and that’s good news for scientists and academics too. More people are tuning into public service broadcasters for those old-fashioned qualities; balance and verification. The Advertising Standards Authority is also beginning to crack down on misleading web ads for COVID-19 treatments, as reported by The Drum last week. However, this last piece of news will also add to many liberals’ concerns about the long-term negative impact on democracy of increased regulation, policing and the use of emergency crisis laws to deepen dictatorial tendencies (does anyone care about Hungary?).

Finally, we know that COVID-19 is changing journalism and media production in terms of practice as well: the ways newsrooms operate, the rules of news gathering and interviewing, the screen aesthetics and on location shooting. With home schooling in full swing and likely to continue, the pandemic is also asking the creative industries, more generally, to rethink the way employees are operating. This is particularly acute in an industry where the practice of long shifts has forever disadvantaged women. Will the future of women in journalism and media be better or worse following this crisis? I will gladly leave that baton there for someone else to take up and run with. 

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu, Reader in Communication and ISR Fellow at Edge Hill University.


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COVID-19: Lockdown when you are Locked Up

The onset of COVID-19 has made an impact on every aspect of our society. But one group in particular is facing real difficulties in coping with the crisis, a group so often ignored by society, and that is people in prison. It is shocking that reportedly up to 60% of prisoners could become infected with COVID-19. A custodial sentence punishes an offender by taking away his or her liberty. But can justice be served if restrictions on a person’s liberty places that individual in mortal danger? 

Overcrowding, run-down prison buildings and the close-knit nature of prison itself means that the pandemic has been, and will continue to be, exacerbated for prisoners, prison workers and families connected to these groups.  To counter this, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has also announced its intention to temporarily release pregnant prisoners, but, at the time of writing, very few pregnant women have actually been released. The MoJ has also said that to assist with social distancing, around 4000 prisoners will be released early on licence – yet by mid-April only a small number of prisoners had been released; highlighting a lack of urgency in providing care, safety and protection for prisoners.

The pandemic is also likely to exacerbate the mental health problems of prisoners. The uncertainty of this situation will leave many prisoners more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, triggering incidents of self-harm and paranoia, with isolation intensifying the symptoms of trauma. With experienced officers leaving the prison service in large numbers, those that remain are struggling to curtail social interaction – particularly as many prisons officers themselves have had to self-isolate – it has become incredibly challenging for prison officers to identify and respond appropriately to the individual needs of inmates; particularly those with underlying health problems.

Despite the above, there are still some positives. In these challenging times a group of young people from social justice charity Peer Power Youth in London, working in partnership with NHS England, have produced something extraordinary. In an act of collective compassion, they have created an educational video for young people in custody. The young people from the charity explained what the COVID-19 pandemic is and provided support and guidance on how to stay safe in prison. These young people – with experience of care and/or criminal justice – know what it feels like to be in distressing situations, how to offer empathy and overcome types of adversity. All of this is demonstrated in the video they have produced.

Dr Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, and a member of the Institute for Social Responsibility.

Dr Michael Richards is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care, and Deputy Director: Centre for Arts and Wellbeing at Edge Hill University

John Marsden is a Senior Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy at Edge Hill University .


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Who Needs Society? Authoritarianism and COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that ‘western democracies’ should look to Eastern Europe to how it contained the COVID-19 pandemic. With some Eastern European countries first ignoring or diminishing the COVID-19 threat (Russia) or asserting the benefits of ‘alternative’ therapies such as the encouragement of steam baths, eating garlic, and drinking Vodka – the Eastern European approach needs to be understood with more nuance. Of course a key assertion here is not that these ‘alternative’ approaches have merit, but more that is that people in Eastern Europe, because of the legacies of their communist past, are much more accepting of restriction on their individual freedoms. At the core of this assertion is the nature of state-society relations.

State-society relations are a core part of governance arrangements in all sort of political regimes. In western democracies, be they of a liberal-capitalist or social-democratic persuasion, they tend to be open and transparent involving the ability for frequent interaction and open critique. This enables individuals, groups and organisations, often in the form of non-profit organisations to engage in a range of activities to ensure the accountability of government.

In non-democratic regimes, state-society relations tend to be used to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. The current pandemic has thus provided an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to further shape state-society relations to ensure their continued existence.

The academic literature highlights that authoritarian regimes ensure their resilience and survival by adapting their governance arrangements. COVID-19 has already been a godsend for them in terms of their ability to curb individual freedoms (such as freedom of movement or assembly) and a way to justifiably increasing ‘big brother’ tendencies and to further centralise power. Likely they will find it difficult to walk these back when the pandemic is over. Conversely, such regimes may now be more reliant on non-profit organisations to ‘manage’ the response to the pandemic – both in terms of protecting the vulnerable, but also identifying who the vulnerable are in the first place.

A good example is the Russian Federation. Over the years it has used political, legislative, financial and cultural means to limit the ability and reach of NPOs (albeit keeping a few organisations going to maintain a veneer of democracy). At the same time, the state has worked directly with some non-profit organisations to help address key social problems. These have become an important part in maintaining social order, particularly at a local and regional level. In the event of this health crisis, it is likley that state is now reliant on such NPOs to access ‘hard to reach’ vulnerable groups including drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Might NPOs be able to take advantage of this opportunity to reshape their relationship with the state? Will the Russian states new abilities to surveille the individual mean that there is less of a need to control what NPOs do? But also maybe less of a need to engage with them? One thing is for sure, state-society relations in Russia and elsewhere are unlikely to be the same again.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School and an expert scholar in Russian civil society development.


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Pandemic, Press Conference and Performance: What future for the politician’s ‘Direct Address’?

27/04/2020. London, United Kingdom. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street, as he returns to work following recovering from Coronavirus at Chequers. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street. © Crown copyright


I decided not to watch the coronavirus press conference the other day.  I heard the names of the speakers and decided they weren’t the performers I wanted.  Never mind the news, I wanted a different leading man.  And that tells me something about what has quickly become a tradition.  These events, intended to convey news, have become a bizarre form of entertainment. That’s partly because they are not what we expect from politicians in the UK.  In this country, televised government press conferences and direct media addresses by politicians to the public are rare.  The question is whether these will remain post coronavirus and whether they are a good idea.

There is a very different tradition in the US. It was JFK who realised the theatrical possibilities of the press conference. The practice existed before his Presidency but he gave it stardust.   Since then US Presidents have shown a range of approaches.  But whether the President appears or not , the press secretary’s televised briefings are a regular staple of US politics.  That means viewers can get familiar with the journalists and the press team.  And of course it is all on the record.

The US also has  much more of a tradition of the President speaking directly to citizens.  FDR’s fireside chats became famous.  They became the weekly radio address (put on hold by Trump).  US viewers are also used to direct TV statements and to the State of the Union speech (which despite being an address to Congress is actually aimed elsewhere).

Of course a US President is directly elected while a UK Prime Minister is not.  This in part explains the relative lack of direct address here.  Apart from at times of war, these are  rare.  Theresa May’s deliberate TV address to voters, ahead of a 2019 European meeting on Brexit, shocked many, partly because of the content but also because of the mechanism.  Speaking directly to camera and flanked by union jacks she said this:

“You’re tired of the infighting, you’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”

Criticism flooded in.  Many felt that May was talking to the wrong audience.

Outside diplomatic events, televised press conferences are equally rare in the UK.  Governments have at times used this as sort of Review of the Year events, or to mark something beginning, but for the most part interactions between the government and the press are done behind closed doors.  The lobby – the group of journalists with special access – even have a briefing referred to as “the huddle”.  Every now and then there is a campaign for briefings to be recorded and published.  And for a while some basic text did appear. Live tweeting was also allowed after a row earlier this year. But as a general rule this self-policing group prefer the shadows.  And it suits the government to keep briefings out of the public gaze.

Once the immediate crisis is over, and there is no felt need for a daily update, will things go back to normal media-wise?  And should they?

There is no doubt that allowing the government to directly address the population on a regular basis creates difficulties.  There are very real problems of balance and democracy.  There is a reason why broadcasters have to be politically neutral. There is a reason why Party Political Broadcasts are allocated according to a formula.  Would there have to be equal time given to the opposition?  And if so what about smaller parties? Outside a crisis it seems clear that allowing too much government advantage poses a problem.

But what about press briefings? If these were more visible, argue some, the more harmful off- the -record spinning would be restricted.  Citizens would be able to see what was said and what was asked, and draw their own conclusions.  They would also be able to see whether some press spokespeople really were bullies as has been reported.

Of course televised press briefings don’t stop off-the-record conversations or more private information.  They simply mean the interactions take place somewhere else.

So after this period of unusual apparent openness I  suspect the media environment will return to its old ways.  And the government may find that our willingness to hear more direct messages is rather limited.

Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.


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