Challenging Lockdown Narratives in Leicester: 'Leaning in' to complexity with compassion when our community is shamed and divided
By PSC Leicester
Communities in Leicester are facing an extended lockdown following a ‘spike’ in cases of COVID-19. Public Health England are yet to find obvious reasons for this and emerging data from ‘backward contact tracing’ trials in Leicester indicate most were following stay at home guidance. The absence of a clear narrative, however, has resulted in widespread stories which ‘other’ and blame. We live in an age where unchecked soundbites or fragments of information spread quickly and carry immense power, often resulting in divisive rhetoric that damages community cohesion and obscures the bigger picture. It’s easy to fall into these traps. We must therefore continue to be curious about wider factors that are likely to have contributed.
Psychologists for Social Change have previously warned that the COVID-19 crisis has increased the visibility of existing social inequalities in our society and could further compound divisions in our communities. Tragically, we are experiencing this in Leicester today. Many of the speculative narratives focus on personal responsibility with even the Prime Minister bemoaning problems “getting people to understand what was necessary to do” in Leicester. This caricatures residents as either unintelligent or unable to speak English; the latter pointing unfairly to our Eastern European, Somali and Asian communities. There is no evidence that social distancing was understood any less here than in other parts of the country, and the reality is far more complex than that narrative implies. Blaming individuals in this way is unhelpful, shaming, feeds into nationalist rhetoric, and takes the focus away from a government who have been slow to act not just in Leicester but from the outset of the pandemic. It also obscures the more powerful and intersected systemic influences at play that people cannot change.
The influence of racism
We know that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities racialised as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), which itself is a label steeped with racism and power imbalances. Leicester’s rich history as one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the UK has been drawn on by social media reports emphasising biological ideas to explain what might have happened. This has no scientific basis and ignores the sustained disinvestment in places that BAME communities live. Judgments have also taken aim at cultural norms about intergenerational households. These racist narratives not only detract from the longstanding issues of housing shortages and overcrowding in the city, but are vastly different to houses of multiple occupation where exploitative landlords - who often also provide employment - rent properties to several workers from different households, moving them around to meet business needs. Incorrectly attributing ethnicity and culture as the cause of increased cases is therefore dangerous as it masks the specific socio-political and economic factors at the heart of the issues in Leicester.
The influence of poverty and labour exploitation
Residents in affected geographical areas for instance tend to be key workers and those in manufacturing jobs. These communities are more likely than average to be disproportionately exposed to job losses and pay cuts caused by the pandemic. The diversity in Leicester - though rightly celebrated - sadly means that many families live in poverty. This cannot be divorced from the findings of the Marmot Review, which documents the adverse impact that sustained austerity and related social policies, such as Universal Credit, continue to have on working class, vulnerable, and marginalised groups.
The need to find paid employment to escape poverty has exposed labour exploitation in Leicester and made visible a population previously ignored. Recent investigations suggest there may be a significant unregulated ‘cash economy’ in Leicester, with informal working arrangements affecting the same communities. In these circumstances, the option of furlough may not be available and the denial of recourse to public funds places individuals at increased exposure to risk. Some have been pressured by unscrupulous businesses to continue working while furloughed or sick. Many cannot afford not to work as they face the impossible dilemma of contracting COVID-19 or being unable to feed or house themselves, with local foodshare schemes reporting increased access by those on zero hour contracts or who work in the ‘gig’ economy.
On choice and responsibility
In these circumstances, the reality is that people simply have no choice. Already disadvantaged communities bear the costs of the circumstances they have been put in and are now also shouldering the blame. The narrative that residents are wholly responsible for being at risk of infection or not understanding the rules is neither credible nor helpful. Rather it forms a poisonous smoke screen that serves those with structural power (be it central Government or local employers), not the citizens of Leicester.
Recovery in Leicester and looking to the future
With mounting speculation and fear about whether other parts of the UK might also see localised lockdowns, we are extremely concerned that individualist narratives will continue to cause more suspicion, blame, distrust and division to fuel widespread marginalisation and discrimination. We therefore welcome comments from local MPs, such as Claudia Webbe, who have already recognised the intersection of poverty and racism. Our local councils must continue to push central Government to resist making sweeping statements about their residents. Instead, multiple perspectives and local nuances need to be considered to deliver solutions that address the social, political and material contexts laid bare by the pandemic. This must include engaging and collaborating with marginalised communities to amplify their voices.
Though interventions such as fairer working practices, supporting the living wage and extending PPE access to those most at risk are necessary, they are not enough. Truly world leading recovery requires ambitious and radical systemic interventions to address long standing inequalities. This includes consideration of inclusive alternatives to state welfare that mean people are not forced to choose between their health or basic survival (e.g. universal basic income), expansion of social housing provision, improved access to public services, and additional green spaces to support wellbeing. Such ideas are already being considered by the Build Back Better campaign, which Psychologists for Social Change are supporting.
In the meantime, we must move away from 'calling out' false choices and instead 'lean in' to the complexities of the situation. Recognising factors which are outside of individual control enables us to show compassion towards each other and stand in solidarity with affected communities. This is key if we are to learn from Leicester should localised lockdowns become a wider trend.
Additional message of support:
We support 'Leicester Stand Up to Racism' with their call for unity as our community faces a time of crisis. Their open letter can be signed here: