Life in Lockdown

Coronavirus 2020: Kant v Bentham

Edward Cooke
PhD Candidate in Anthropology

The politics of coronavirus in 2020 is being played out under the philosophical disagreements promoted by (among others) Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative and Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness maxim.

Irrespective of the duplicity that global governments hide behind, the decisions that impact upon the management and control of coronavirus are based upon the dichotomy of logic argued by Kant and Bentham 200 years ago.

The UK government so far has based its coronavirus strategy on the philosophical arguments of Kant. No government can present to the public the face of an uncaring, uncompassionate elite that allows the old, the weak and the infirmed to be sacrificed for the greater public good. Therefore, for this first phase of the coronavirus battle, Kant and the moral reasoning that sits behind the categorical imperative wins the day. The old must be saved, they must be protected no matter what the economic costs are. No matter if hundreds of billions of pounds are involved, no matter if the lives and freedoms of whole population are subject to draconian restrictions, all the resources of the state are at the disposal of the NHS to preserve life, because morally and ethically life is precious and must be protected (well that is, unless you are talking about abortion in NI, then the sanctity of life takes on another ethical dimension)?

Fast forward a month or so and I suggest that it will be Bentham’s utilitarianism that wins the ‘final’ battle against coronavirus. Bentham’s reasoning is brutal but simple, however, it is an argument that can only be spoken when it is softened by rhetoric and after Kantian morality has been first tried. Bentham’s argument that protecting the welfare (happiness) of the greatest number of people, I suggest, will ultimately win out because we live in an era when governments and electorates subscribe to neo-liberal economic ideologies. Already the arguments are surfacing (albeit in a much softer form) that too much time, effort, resources and money has been spent to save too few economically unproductive people. Bentham’s greatest happiness theory will enable the business, industry and education sectors to open-up for business as normal. Of course politics and self-protection will dictate how quickly normalcy is resumed, but the need to bring happiness to the maximum number of people will ultimately determine the strategy of government because elections are determined by the greater number of voters who feel happiest, not by the greater number of voters who are morally and ethically driven.

The ethical underpinnings of treating all life as sacred and saving the very elderly and / or those with underlying medical problems from premature early deaths will be subsumed by the desire to maximise the wealth of the greatest number of people. Of course, no one will use these precise words, parrésia is rarely spoken by politicians, but these are the philosophical principles that will frame phase 2 of the coronavirus debate. Those who subscribe to deontological arguments such as, it is always wrong to kill, or it is always wrong to steal, will be side-lined by those who look beyond the moral intentions (that frame for example the Ten Commandments). Soon the arguments will be accepted that whilst it might be morally wrong to steal, if your four children are starving, then theft is an acceptable defence. Practical outcomes will soon trump moral reasoning in coronavirus phase 2.

In a month or so, I suggest that it will be the economic outcomes and impacts of coronavirus on the maximum number of people that are all important, not the ethical stance of protecting the sanctity of life. How long will it be before the morality that currently underpins the UK government’s (and NI Assembly’s) current fight against coronavirus is abandoned, I suggest that this will be determined by how capable the government is in manipulating the media. What some commentators are framing as a coronavirus exit strategy, will no doubt turn out to be the abandoning of one philosophical principle in exchange for another.

Life in Lockdown

Christmas Day in April?

Tom Marshall
PhD Candidate in Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast

*Tom’s research focuses on East European migrants, mental health, and help-seeking strategies

Often, my morning exercise is walking with my dog in the local park or driving to a forest or the beach. During our midweek walk, the morning traffic is angrily competing for road space. Commuters try again, in vain, to get to work as quickly as possible because the rush-hour commute is a repetitive, unbearable necessity. They will never succeed. Buses, as viral and bacterial Petri dishes, usually too full, now run empty – I feel the desire to jump on just to feel calmness and experience space on a morning commute or to travel somewhere that is not the too familiar streets near my home. This morning, like many at the moment, feels like Christmas day morning. But today is not Christmas day; it is the morning of (another) Coronavirus day. What is essential on Christmas morning, the desire to visit family, friends and lovers in person are now redundant, prohibited endeavours. The usual chill of Christmas morning is replaced with the cold shudders of approaching invisible particles.

The streets look like they do on Christmas morning – deserted and lonely, symbolising forthcoming seasonal celebrations. Except yesterday, today and until who knows when, people are not driving to hug loved ones. Coronavirus morning’s deserted and lonely streets represent restrictions, unwilling but understood isolation. Christmas day is planned weeks and months in advance. Corvid day was brutally surprising. One moment I was planning where to take visiting friends from New Zealand around the wonders of Northern Ireland’s natural beauty. Within a few short minutes, the TV beamed the Prime Minister’s instructions – preparations for the days ahead floundered, disappearing because of a politician’s few short sentences of instantaneous doom.

On Christmas morning the sight of a lone dog walker is imbued with the quiet anticipation of the day ahead – a time of peace before the ritual of the welcomed lock-down before the cacophony of family and friends swells the home. For the lone dog walker, Christmas morning is an early start in preparation of the approaching hours of chopping and roasting. The lone dog walker on Christmas morning may represent the sadness of an isolated person who wants to avoid the spectacle of family and friends soon to gather. Today, on Coronavirus morning, the lone dog walker is functional and obedient. The Government has instructed the population to take one period of exercise per day then stay inside. The lone dog walker uses their daily perfunctory ‘allowance’ to exercise themselves and their loved one before they abide by the government’s control orders. The dog and their walker usually take leisurely, playful strides. Today, on a Coronavirus morning, their walk is brisk, avoiding the usual interactions with other familiar dogs and their owners – a purposeful walk and the goal is avoidance and to be at home as soon as possible. On Coronavirus days, the government doesn’t allow leisurely, playful walks, at least that is what we read. The taken for granted joy we once felt while walking outdoors has haemorrhaged into the drain of the necessary command, “avoid…isolate…stay at home”.

The joy and expectation of visiting others and taking a forest stroll is now a vilified experience. Guilt replaces joy, and freedom is consumed by paranoia. On Christmas morning we crave the proximity of others and chat with those we chose to invite into our self-imposed-lockdown. Today we crave virtual proximity as the structurally-imposed-lockdown demands distance. Internally we shriek in horror when a stranger passes too close, and we stare from our homes surveilling the streets like secret police to see if our neighbours have grasped the concept of ‘essential’ trips out of the home. On Christmas morning we survey the streets to see who is coming and going to our neighbour’s seasonal celebration. Today we are secret police, mentally noting which neighbour deserves our vilification. Will they ever be ‘our’ neighbour again?

While Christmas day involves planning, Coronavirus day does not offer that luxury. When shopping for Christmas presents, we navigate the shopping aisles and streets searching for the prey that are gifts and luxuries to eat. We make sure we are bowed down with unnecessary necessities. Now we navigate the aisles and streets because we are the prey of Coronavirus day. The in-store pre-Christmas day hustle and bustle with throngs of chatting consumers is replaced by lines of silent, hunched people queuing outside shops. The hunched and the silent display an embodied habitus of a new predicament – the imposition of the weight of what would previously have been described as draconian dictates, now realised as a necessary burden. Once inside a shop, we squeeze into voids, estimating two meters of social distance because we have become the prey – nature’s hierarchy is now, for the human, unbalanced. Humans have long thought that they are at the tip of nature’s hierarchy – in reality that was how we justified our sole claim to take resources from the earth and from those whom we deem too weak to claim their rightful ownership – the landless and the helpless. A particle preys upon us now and we enforce our self-imposed right to survive. A particle has replaced the human at the tip of nature’s hierarchy.

On Corona day, just as on Christmas morning, the vulnerable worry…they worry because they don’t know if there will be enough essentials for tomorrow or if an elderly care home resident’s quietly imposed ‘do not resuscitate’ form and media reports of potential health care rationing will mean they may not have a tomorrow. The well-off worry if they have enough luxuries or if they should have bought that extra just in case gift, or if they should have bought just a little bit more, just in case. Christmas means buying clothes, perfumery, books we think a recipient will like, or a presenting someone with a ‘here’s something that I know you’ll never wear but it reassures me that I’ve bought you something’ gift. Coronavirus means buying toilet roll, soap, pasta and flour, just in case. At Christmas we boast that we’ve bought THAT present, during Coronavirus day we boast that we’ve found toilet roll.

At Christmas, in anticipation, we sign our cards with the insincere mantra, ‘let’s meet up in the New Year’. During Coronavirus days, in anticipation, we sign our social media with promises to keep the mind and body healthy, to embrace the sounds and sights of nature that spills into the quietness and repeat the similar but trodden ‘we’ll meet when this is all over’ mantra. We want what we cannot have. Are our post- Coronavirus day anticipated desires reality our post-Christmas wish lists? Will our new social media mantras be just as insincere?

The once invisible NHS staff work as usual on Christmas day. Rarely were the people who are the NHS so visible and designated as heroes as they are on Coronavirus days. Nothing has changed – before Coronavirus day our NHS staff were, as today, skillful, brave, selfless and dedicated, just not appreciated as much as they are now in public and private discourses. As Coronavirus mornings rise, the NHS staff are applauded by a sincere pubic and (in?)sincere politicians. The dawning of Coronavirus morning has exposed the invisible NHS worker, for now?

After Christmas day, it is life and business as usual as our intentions to revitalise ignored aspects of our life are subsumed by familiar routines which have no room for new anticipations. And after Coronavirus…?

For now, it is Coronavirus day, all day, for many days. When Coronavirus day dissipates, how will we have survived, will we have changed?

Life in Lockdown

Let’s clap for artists during The Great Lockdown. And then let’s pay them.

Ioannis Tsioulakis
Lecturer in Anthropology

Every crisis, an opportunity. Isn’t that what they tell us? And you don’t have to look too hard these days. While some of us – admittedly the most privileged – are in ‘lockdown’, our online world has been enriched with free opportunities. For learning. For entertainment. For ‘culture’. For exercise. For mental health. For religiosity. For social connectivity.

(Only for those who can afford the time, of course, and not all of us can. I had to wait a week to find a chance to write these lines, and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll finish them within the short window of my son’s naptime.)

But if all this content is ‘free’, who is producing it and why? At what cost? How do we thank and compensate them? Should we do some rounds of balcony/front-door applause for the anonymous musicians, writers, painters, animators, meme-creators, actors, directors, screen-writers – the list is endless – who are keeping us sane and entertained?

What has now been termed ‘The Great Lockdown’, is going to have unprecedented effects on the global economy, the IMF tells us. But not everyone will be affected equally, at least in the short term. I have spent the past 15 years doing research among Greek professional musicians, focusing on their strategies of economic survival and how divisions between work and play define their social lives and self-understanding. In those years, I interviewed and played music with them, during ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times. We saw the full clubs and peak record sales of the last years of ‘prosperity’ (2005-2009), and talked about the impact of recession and austerity since 2010. But, now they tell us, nothing will compare to what’s ahead of us.

Performing artists – as all precarious workers – will need support in the years to come, as we need theirs to get through every single day of this lockdown. This can only be achieved through Universal Basic Income (at least in the short term) and a radical redefinition of working and funding conditions for art and culture in the long term.

For a detailed review of these issues, and some proposals, see our co-written piece with Dr Ali FitzGibbon:

Life in Lockdown

Encounters in lockdown

Maruška Svašek
Reader in Anthropology
Bangor, 09/04/2020

Since the lockdown two weeks ago, I have made a few new friends. I meet them on my early morning walks, or late in the afternoon, when the sun hangs low in the sky. They live within a two-mile radius of my house, but it is only now, at this time of enforced isolation, that they have managed to draw my attention.

My best new pal is round and colourful – a splash of orange contrasts with a layer of green algae. I first spotted her about ten days ago as I slowly walked past the Marina. It was getting dark and her bright skin flashed against the blue-grey background.

I stared. She floated quietly, her shadow a silent companion.

The next morning, I returned and sought her out. The surface of the water was now eerily still. She looked at me, mocking. ‘I know’, I said, I can’t get to you, the water is too deep’. She waited in silence.

‘But you have your limitations too’, I added, ‘there is a world down there that you cannot reach’.

Two days later, I checked up on her once again. She was waiting impatiently, close to the shore, moving up-down-up-down on tiny waves. ‘You’re right, she said, and briefly paused. ‘But overcoming distance has been your problem, not mine’.


The short story reflects my interest in the affective dynamics of people and things, a topic that I have explored in various writings (see for example, Komarova and Svašek 2018; Svašek 2012, 2016 2019, forthcoming; Svašek and Meyer 2016). Its perspective builds on the framework of transit, transition and transformation that I developed in Moving Subjects, Moving Objects. Transnationalism, Cultural Production and Emotions (Svašek 2012). The book investigated how mobile human beings experience and project notions of self and sociality as they produce and use specific material objects, and analyses how the meanings, values and efficacy of the objects change. In other work, I have argued that human and non-human phenomena exist as dynamic affective relations, as forces with impact in multiple modes and directions. Artefacts, in other words, can forcefully enter the life worlds of individuals, for example when a person falls over a chair, or a bright colour catches the eye of a passer-by. The impact is often related to culturally specific expectations. Different consumer groups can feel bedazzled by expensive jewellery, the latest I-phone, or a work by a famous artist. A statue of Ganesh or Mary can evoke strong feelings of devotion and hope.

Material objects, however, are not human beings. While it is useful to consider the workings of physical and material intensities within a single analytical framework, a distinction between human and non-human actants must be maintained. After all, things have a quality that mortal bodies lack: they can survive their makers. In addition, the creation, alteration, removal, and destruction of artefacts relies on human activity.

The story blurs this boundary between human and object agency. I did not choose to animate the buoy because I heard it speak, or because I imagined a voice when taking the photographs. Its female appearance and her spoken words emerged as I was writing.

The narrative twist, evoking human-like presence, intended to express a sense of longing for company at the time of the pandemic. It also explored the ways in which I am newly attuning to a familiar landscape, as the lockdown situation has forced me to walk the same walk, day in, day out, without a chance to meet up face-to-face, with friends and colleagues.

The writing process seems to be a third partner in the emerging affective field. 


Komarova, M. and M. Svašek (eds) 2018 Ethnographies of Movement, Sociality and Space. Place-making in the New Northern Ireland Oxford: Berghahn.

— 2012 Affective Moves: Transit, Transition and Transformation. In: Moving Subjects, Moving Objects. Transnationalism, Cultural Production and Emotions. (ed.M. Svašek). Oxford: Berghahn. Pp 1-40.

— 2018 ‘Ageing Kin, Proximity and Distance. Translocal Relatedness as Affective Practice and Movement’, in: Röttger-Rössler, Birgitt and Jan Slaby (eds) Affect in Relation. Families, Places, Technologies. Essays on Affectivity and Subject Formation in the 21th Century. London. Routledge.

— 2019 ‘Affective Arrangements: Managing Czech Art, Marginality and Cultural Difference,’ in Durrer, Victoria and Henze, Raphaela Managing Culture: Reflecting on Exchange in Global Times. Palgrave Macmillan.

— forthcoming ‘(Memories of) Monuments in the Czech Landscape: Creation, Destruction, and the Affective Stirrings of People and Things’ in Negotiating Memories from the Romans to the Twenty-first Century: Damnatio Memoriae, edited by Ø. Fuglerud, K. Larsen and M. Prusac-Lindhagen. New York: Routledge.

Svašek, M. and B. Meyer 2016 Creativity in Transition. Politics and Aesthetics of Cultural Production across the Globe. Oxford: Berghahn.


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