COVID feelings and movement: Fear and lockdown in Sydney

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

As Sydney spends its first week in lockdown, perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve been thinking a lot about movement. Not just about getting out of my apartment (though that would be lovely), but about the relationship between feelings and movement during Australia’s most recent coronavirus outbreak. 

In her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed considers the role of fear in the conservation of power, and argues that ‘emotions work to align bodily space with social space’ (p. 69). In this sense, emotions are structural rather than personal. Fear, she explains, ‘works to restrict some bodies through the movement or expansion of others’ (p. 69). 

Taking up idea to think about the pandemic in Australia, we can see the way fear has worked to reinforce existing social inequalities, reflected in whose movement is restricted and in what ways. Australian border control measures, which have cut millions of Australians off from family overseas and left thousands stranded overseas with no way to return home, reveal fear in action. Earlier this year, when asked about his continued refusal to open the borders, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison deflected by making reference to the 910 Australians who had died from COVID-19 — ‘every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy’.  It’s very clear that stoking fear of death and risk of COVID here serves to reassure us that the harsh measures are unavoidable.

Despite a fear of COVID spread, this has not restricted the inflow of affluent people into Australia, with reports that the wealthy are routinely prioritised on limited flights or fly into Australia on private jets. News outlets have also reported on the number of international celebrities in Australia enjoying ‘relief’ from the pandemic.

Here in Sydney, at the NSW government press conference on Thursday, the Premier Gladys Berejiklian discouraged unnecessary movement by emphasising practices such as ordering groceries online and ordering takeaway food to be delivered, rather than collecting it yourself — all in order to restrict our movements. Similarly, as outbreaks dominate the headlines it’s common to see complaints on social media documenting public spaces that were ‘busy’ when we should be staying home or calling out people for failing to adhere to public health advice. 

A tweet from ABC Radio presenter Margaret Throsby

Comparing the sentiments in this tweet from ABC radio presenter Margaret Throsby with the language used to describe arrivals of wealthy celebrities on private jets (see this article for example), we can see a stark difference in emotional tone. Affluent overseas travellers entering Australia may be seen as queue-jumping, noted in the article as ‘given preferential entry’ but hardly seen as a threat to public safety, in the same way as people in busy areas in Sydney are framed above. Frustration, even anger may be directed at them, but rarely fear.

Now we might think that those who stay at home have their mobility restricted by fear. But it is not that simple. Who does not have the choice to reduce their movement? Who cannot work from home, for example? Hospitality workers, cleaners, tradespeople, for example, must continue to travel to and from work during a lockdown. In the course of this travel to and from work they will inevitably increase their points of contact and their risk — not by intention but by necessity.

Who packs and delivers the online grocery order? Who prepares and delivers the takeaway food? Who delivers the parcel with the online shopping order? There are people who must be mobile and at greater risk in order to sustain the safety of the privileged who stay home. 

Ahmed argues that fear works to restrict the capacities for movement for some bodies and increase the capacity for others. In this new COVID context, even as some appear to be more mobile their movement is restricted — in the service of those who have the privilege to stay safely at home. We can see the way the mobility of frontline workers is restricted and controlled as the movements of hotel quarantine cleaners are scrutinised in the press if they test positive for COVID, even if they did not realise they had the virus at the time and they broke no public health guidelines.

Returning to Ahmed’s work, we can think about the ways that fear works here to reinforce existing social hierarchies. She poses an important question that we should ask here:

‘which bodies become read as the origin of fear and as threatening “our” freedom?’

Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (p. 70-71)

 When we talk about COVID ‘rule breakers’ and people who pose a risk to the community, we’re often ignoring the ways that the risk is inevitably higher for some people because of the ways they are impacted by social inequalities. In addition to this increased risk, current COVID protocols routinely scrutinise the movements and practices of less privileged people — while the wealthy are afforded ways to bypass these measures or trusted to undertake these protocols without being watched. 

Photo by eggbank on Unsplash

This ‘Bondi cluster’, has, for many, shifted how much COVID risk we feel in our everyday lives. And in turn, that feeling of being more at risk shapes our everyday behaviour. We think more about washing our hands, we remind ourselves to bring a mask when we leave the house (especially after masks were mandated in many indoor settings in NSW), and we may be more conscious of socially distancing when we are out and about. While public health directives such as ‘stay at home’ orders are more rigid and enforced (e.g. do not leave your home unless it is for an essential reason), the feeling of fear and risk operates more like a soft and subtle circulating sense that inclines the community towards COVID-safer practices.

It’s hardly surprising that at times when we don’t feel that the virus is an imminent threat, safety protocols such as QR code check-ins may fall to the wayside. When the threat feels more present again we see these practices become more strictly enforced through public health directives but also more strictly adhered to by the public. In Canberra, for example, after many months of no COVID cases, a positive case visited some venues in the region. In the space of a week check-ins using the ACT Government’s ‘Check Inn CBR app’ doubled, in response to increased public health messaging and increased attention to the potential threat of the virus. 

It is important to remember, however, that even if these feelings of risk and fear may circulate at a collective level, they are experienced differently by different groups. Who gets to feel safe by moving less? Whose movements are most restricted? Who is afforded the privilege of movement without fear?


Published by Clare Southerton

​​Dr Clare Southerton is a Lecturer in Digital Technology and Pedagogy in the School of Education at La Trobe University. Her research explores how social media platforms and other digital technologies are used for learning and sharing knowledge.

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