Why research lockdown?

Lucy Pickering, a principal investigator on the project, shares her reflections on why research involving the effects of Covid-19 on marginalised groups is essential, with reference to some emerging findings.

In January 2020 reports began to come out of China of a new respiratory disease, a member of the coronavirus family that includes flu, SARS, MERS and the common cold. As a new disease no-one had immunity and no-one (yet) knew its effects.

It appeared at a particular point – that of Chinese New Year, and the mass movement of people across and in and out of China, as they visited friends and family to celebrate the new year became a key vector for transmission. More recent research suggests that this strange new coronavirus may not have in fact originated in China, and we may indeed never now pinpoint exactly where it came from or how it entered the human population, but what we did see was that close social contact was a key vector for transmission. Suddenly the thing that we as social scientists had spent years, sometimes decades, studying – the thing we believe is central to being human – was a site of danger. Sociality, mixing with others, even hugging became ‘risk factors’.

On 23 March 2020, the UK entered a then-three-week period of ‘lockdown’. We weren’t allowed to touch anyone outside of our household, or to socialise with them at all. New technologies came to the fore as many moved from seeing friends and family to using a range of online platforms to keep in touch. Online quiz nights were set up and so were many mutual aid groups. Neighbours dropped notes through letterboxes, new Facebook groups appeared and new forms of sociality and solidarity emerged. March 2020 was a time of simultaneous unprecedented isolation and unprecedented solidarity.

Yet the roll-out of these forms of connection and disconnection were not even. Those in shared homes could still get a hug from their co-dwellers, those living alone had to go months without physical contact. Those living in houses with gardens were able to enjoy an uncharacteristically hot April and many new Scots took up gardening. Those living in crowded accommodation were suddenly much less able to escape close confines. Some were able to spend time they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to with family, while others suddenly found themselves trapped in an unsafe environment from which there was even more limited respite. Some were able to take advantage of being furloughed to undertake projects such as learning a new language or a new skill, while others were left a radically reduced income, or no  income at all, and many others had to continue working in high risk sectors with often limited PPE and elevated transmission risk.

It can be tempting to think of a disease like Covid-19 as a great leveler, as an opportunity for us to reflect on how we are ‘all in it together’. What the Scotland in Lockdown project is showing is that we are all in it – but we are not all in it in the same ways, and we are not always in it together.

Going into, being in, coming out of lockdown and now, five and a half months later going back into lockdown in some places has affected people in many different ways, often affecting the already at-risk, already marginalised and already vulnerable the most. As organisations had to change their ways of working to keep their staff, volunteers and clients safe, the essential services that support people in all sorts of precarious positions were changed significantly, involving much less contact.

As is now becoming apparent from our research, this is having a profound effect on staff, with a majority reporting increases in stress and anxiety as a result of being worried about clients, who, in many cases are unable to access technology to stay in contact or who have fallen off the radar entirely. Added to this is the increased financial burden that many organisations are experiencing, with smaller groups (perhaps with only one or two paid staff) using their own limited resources to support the increased demand on their services caused by Covid-19.

It is essential, that we understand how Covid-19 has affected different people across Scotland. By focusing on four already marginalised groups who have been affected by lockdown in very different ways, this project is working to better understand this range of experience, but also identify the ways in which Covid responses have exacerbated – rather than levelled – existing inequalities. One finding that emerged as soon as interviews began was the level of shared experience between these groups, with health issues in particular affecting individuals from all the interviewee populations. This in turn has led us to reassess how we understand the effects of the pandemic, requiring us to develop a much more holistic concept of how the imposition of lockdown and other restrictions have most affected those who are already experiencing inequalities.

Through the Scotland in Lockdown project, we are amplifying the voices of marginalised people across Scotland, and celebrating the ways in which they have responded creatively to challenges as well as highlighting the challenges they have faced. By bringing these voices together we are helping to show how this period of lockdown has intensified inequalities and how individuals, families and organisations have responded creatively so that if we need to lockdown again, or again, we can do so better – with more understanding, more kindness, and with a better understanding of how to do it with more equality.

Lucy Pickering is co-principal investigator of the Scotland in Lockdown study.