Fred Cooper, Luna Dolezal, and Arthur Rose, COVID-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the UK

Fred Cooper, Luna Dolezal, and Arthur Rose, COVID-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the UK (London: Bloomsbury, 2023) 160 pp. £40.50 Hb. £13.49 Pb. ISBN: 9781350283404

Finding its origins in the AHRC-funded research project, Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19, COVID-19 and Shame offers a concise and timely study of the role of shame in the United Kingdom’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Co-authors Fred Cooper, Luna Dolezal, and Arthur Rose trace this crucial element of public and governmental epidemiological messaging through six case studies, with each chapter introducing, and then contextualising and exploring, an example of shame, shaming, or stigma which took place in relation to Covid-19 in the UK during 2020. The result is a tightly-structured and compelling examination of the ways in which shame was produced and encouraged in public health interventions during the first year of the pandemic, keeping focus throughout on the medical, social, and political ramifications of these strategies for marginalised and vulnerable communities.

The timeline which precedes the book’s introduction points to a number of key concerns addressed in the subsequent chapters, particularly the role of shame in government policy and the practices of shaming taking place on social and news media. This timeline also emphasises a temporal focus for the book on a twelve-month period from December 2019 onwards. In the introduction, Cooper, Dolezal, and Rose outline the relevance of shame as an analytical framework in relation to Covid-19, delineating shame from stigma and affirming the long history of the association between shame and public health messaging.

In the six subsequent chapters, this framework is utilised to great effect across interconnected, but distinct, themes. The first chapter, ‘Covidiots!: The language of pandemic shaming’, presents an exemplary introduction to the book’s case study structure, offering a linguistic analysis of the neologism ‘covidiot’ in relation to ideas of blame, shame, and power. Beginning with examples of the term’s usage from social media, the chapter expands this discussion to look more broadly at the social and political implications of targeted shaming. Associated primarily with an individual’s disregard for lockdown regulations, the designation of ‘covidiot’ shifted from a means by which to censure the behaviour of members of the public, to be used ‘by journalists and the media as a shorthand to report pandemic shaming or to engage in it’ (28). The chapter offers an effective primer for the book’s overall analytic strategy, utilising an instance of Covid shaming which will be familiar and accessible to readers, but which can be illuminated by deeper historical, cultural, and linguistic exploration.

Chapters Two, Three, and Four look to specific groups which became targets, in differing ways, of shaming strategies. Chapter Two, ‘Super-spreaders: shaming healthcare professionals’, looks at the numerous ways in which healthcare workers were themselves shamed, but also became tools in the governmentally-sanctioned shaming of the wider public. The authors highlight a historical, almost literary, narrative around medical professionals as ‘potential vectors for disease’ (45), arguing that the shame initially directed towards this group was related to a fear of contamination. However, as the case study at the beginning of the chapter demonstrates, this fear is also bound up in the anxieties explored in Chapter One relating to the following of Covid guidelines, referring initially to the case of Dr Chris Higgins, an Australian GP who treated patients whilst suffering with a mild cold, later discovered to be Covid-19. As Cooper, Dolezal, and Rose go on to explore, the shaming of medical professionals was thus based on both their innate vulnerability to infection, and the resulting behavioural expectations placed upon this group. The chapter concludes by discussing an interrelated component of pandemic shaming, the ‘blitz spirit’ (48) attitude constructed through government and tabloid messaging.

This emphasis on the perceived culpability of certain groups for contagion is continued in Chapter Three in an analysis of shame directed towards racialised communities for their ‘imagined role in transmission’ (16). The chapter’s title, ‘Coughing while Asian’, comes from a satirical short film posted on YouTube in February 2020, which depicts an Asian man deploying a performative cough to minor advantage within the context of Covid-19, dispersing queues in coffee shops and clearing crowded lifts. As the authors point out, the humour of the film is derived from the ‘subversion of and resistance to shame and discrimination’ during a period of increasing racist violence and hostility directed at Asian people in the US and UK, ‘contrasting innocent or unremarkable behaviour with an over-policed and marginalized identity’ (59-60). As in previous chapters, this case study is contextualised within a wider history of narratives featuring ‘Eastern contagion’ (64), an anxiety which permeated nineteenth and early-twentieth-century cultural outputs. These literary traditions are drawn forwards in time in the chapter’s analysis of the racialised media narratives associated with places like Leicester, a city with ‘concentrations of communities with long experiences of shaming and racialization’ (65), which was subject to local lockdown restrictions long after the end of national regulations. In this way, the chapter succinctly highlights the enduring relevance of these histories of stigma, drawing attention to the ways in which blame for viral transmission was directed towards racialised communities.

In Chapter Four, parallel questions over obesity and shame are analysed, with an initial focus on then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation from Covid. His explanation for his severe case of the disease gives the chapter its title – ‘I was too fat’ – and here Cooper, Dolezal, and Rose look to the wider, neoliberal discourses around bodies and control at play during the pandemic. In particular, the chapter highlights the ways in which NHS messaging highlighted obesity as a comorbidity associated with poorer outcomes in cases of infection with Covid-19, with ‘official public health policy […] underscored by an emphasis on the ‘costs’ of obesity’ (79), which could be avoided by the correct ‘choices’ of the individual. In this way, the authors allude to a problem at the heart of pandemic shaming, that preventative guidance issued by the government emphasised the importance of individual action, displacing focus on the wider, structural causes for higher infection and mortality rates among certain groups. As the book as a whole, and particularly Chapters Two, Three, and Four, successfully outline, shame in this context becomes a strategy for deflection, redirecting pandemic responsibility towards the wider public and away from legislative bodies.

Chapters Five and Six present this division of blame between public and government most acutely. The fifth chapter, ‘Good solid British common sense: shame and surveillance in everyday life’, looks to another familiar term associated with public, pandemic response – ‘common sense’. Here, the authors interrogate common sense as public health policy, again highlighting its role in the individualisation of pandemic responsibility. Highlighting the term’s central usage in policy and official guidance, the chapter begins with an extract from Boris Johnson’s address to Parliament in May 2020 concerning the government’s evolving Covid-19 strategy, in which he refers to ‘good solid British common sense’ (95). The chapter addresses the concept of ‘common sense’ from both a broader and more Covid-specific contextual standpoint, and looks to the difficulties of common sense action as public health management. Cooper, Dolezal, and Rose are careful to emphasise that ‘common sense’ is troublingly subjective, based on ‘personal judgements […] and filtered in turn through pre-existing prejudices, tendencies and feelings over personal and collective safety and responsibility’ (101).

This examination of the individualisation of pandemic prevention is placed in conversation with the final chapter of the book, ‘Operation Moonshot: notes on saving face’, which most directly of any chapter addresses the construction and employment of shame from within government. The UK’s mass testing programme, named and promoted in September 2020 as ‘Operation Moonshot’, is introduced as the chapter’s key case study, and is an appropriate final destination to the book’s exhaustive analysis of 2020. The authors here interrogate two concurrent strands of analysis relevant to the doomed testing strategy – the concept of a ‘moonshot’, and that of ‘saving face’. The chapter looks to examples of both individual face-saving, such as the discursive strategies of then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock when discussing daily targets for testing, as well as the wider face-saving enacted by the UK government during the pandemic, tying together previous chapters and relocating culpability in policies like ‘Operation Moonshot’.

COVID-19 and Shame thus offers an important and provocative examination of the role of shame in the UK’s pandemic response during 2020. Across these distinct chapters, Cooper, Dolezal, and Rose highlight the multifaceted manifestations of shame and shaming within the context of Covid-19, and the book is well-structured to point to a central contention around the utilisation of shame at the expense of vulnerable and marginalised communities. Through well-chosen case studies and thoughtful analysis, each chapter furthers this argument poignantly and accessibly, advocating for ‘public health work which takes shame seriously and sets out to avoid and reduce it’ (18). The book will be a welcome intervention in medical and health humanities, and will be of interest to scholars and general readers considering Covid-19, pandemic politics, and ‘shame sensitive’ approaches to public health.

Rosalind Crocker, University of Sheffield