Our Covid legacy has been on my mind for a while. I have so many questions – What is it? How does it affect us? How have things changed? Recently, I came across a fascinating new book, Covid -19 & Shame; Political Emotions & Public Health in the UK[ii].
The book’s over-arching thesis is historical, namely that epidemics and pandemics call for social control of the populace. This is invariably achieved through the manipulation of our fears. Our explicit fear of contagion and death, most recently the Covid virus, is harnessed and subjugated to our implicit fear of social shame and opprobrium if we get things wrong. The public naming, blaming & shaming of people and groups is a key weapon in making people toe the line during a pandemic. The book takes us through six shaming scenarios common during the height of the covid pandemic. Using language to shame, Shaming Health Care professionals, Racialized shaming, Fat shaming, British Common Sense and Surveillance shaming, and Operation Moonshot, governmental face-saving.
The authors draw on the work of Scheff et al who describe shame as the ‘Master Emotion’[iii]. Scheff et al see shame as a generic term for a ‘family’ of emotions including embarrassment, humiliation, shyness and conscience. Shame is, of course, twinned with pride. Whilst pride enhances our sense of self-worth and our social standing, shame eats away at it and threatens our social bonding. We want to feel proud of ourselves, we want to shine in the eyes of others.
When I step into my own rememberings about all those endless months and months of enforced Covid changes I feel a disconnect. I cannot quite believe that I actually lived like that for so long with so little fuss. Who was that me? Where is she now? Was I a passive bystander?
The WHO declared Covid-19 a Pandemic on 11 March 2020 , this hastened changes in language and brought the creation of nasty new names like ‘coviidiot’. Used frequently in social media posts and WhatsApp groups as well as in the press, their purpose was to point the finger at, shame and stigmatize, those not doing the right thing. The list of not-right things grew ever bigger and evolved over time. It included stockpiling toilet tissue, dried pasta and tinned tomatoes; walking your dog with a coffee in your hand; not wearing a mask in a supermarket unless you were exempt on health grounds, although none of us knew when that was being faked. And, of course, failing to be seen to clap for the NHS at 8.00pm each Thursday evening.
The government used podium slogans and televised briefings beamed straight into our domestic digital fortresses to keep us on our toes. The first of these, ‘Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives.’ was legally enforceable. But as March 2020 was gloriously hot and sunny it felt like school had broken up early and we had been gifted an unexpected holiday. Some months later the slogan morphed into ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’. A muddled message providing vague guidance that allowed us all to have our own take on things and giving more opportunity for my- way- or- no- way thinking and behaving.
In the UK we have lived for so long with a neo liberal underpinning to the way our society operates that it has become all too easy to put onto others what it is no longer comfortable or safe to see in ourselves. We allow our fears, our vulnerabilities and our shortcomings to shape – shift. They become the gremlins who goad and mock us into a binary world of Splits and Splitting – Black and white; Right and Wrong; Good and Bad. Here there is only one way, one answer one option. We lose our capacity for reflective thought, for compromise and cooperation. Parent and Child Ego States drown out Adult. We retreat into the chemical intoxication and drama of Revenge Psychological Game Playing – Uproar, Let’s You & Them Fight & Court Room tantalise and enchant us. Without meaning to we throw out and abandon our capacity for relationship, closeness and intimacy. If we are not careful, lose each other, finding an illusory safe harbour in blaming and shaming and gaming.
Of course, the Covid-19 Pandemic is not the only factor to bring unsettling changes in recent years. Brexit was finalised on 31 January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic, after several years of viscious fighting between parliamentarians, families and with our European neighbours and cousins. And now we are all in the thumb screws of barely controllable inflation. A rollercoaster of Prime Ministers, budgets and mini-budgets can’t seem to find definitive solutions. Of course we are scared.
But as Psychotherapists and Counsellors we can do better. We are gifted with the knowledge to understand some of this. We have the tools to face our inner selves. We can stand up to our internal demons and prisoners, refuse to allow the things we fear to be weaponised against us. We have the power, the knowledge and the skill to stop our innermost fears being turned into disowned, protected shadows that stalk the corridors of our communities & neighbourhoods, trolling and terrorising. It just takes one of us to dial back on a WhatsApp thread to open a new dialogue, that has openness, caring and compassion at its heart to bring change. Even though our living imaginations carry the trauma of the pandemic we can refuse these ghosts of that past and look instead to our present and our future. We can do what we have been doing so powerfully for Forty years now – Connect our Hearts, Souls and Minds with those of our friends and families, our neighbours and colleagues and our fellow humans across the world.
[i] ‘Only Connect!’ Forster, E.M., Howards End. London: Penguin Classics.
[ii] Cooper, Fred, Dolezal, Luna Rose, Arthur (2023) Covid-19 & Shame. Political Emotions & Public Health in the UK. London: Bloomsbury Academic
[iii] Scheff, Thomsa J. and Retzinger, Suzanne M., Shame As The Master Emotion of Everyday Life’. www.academia.edu