Unintended consequences and troubles: what do we fear about COVID-19?

Contribution by: Zhipeng Sun, PhD student at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Science

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A contribution by Zhipeng Sun for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis.

Undoubtedly, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is changing our most habitual normal hence we have to adapt to the so-called “new normal” immediately. For some countries, one of the “new normal” is added to a compulsory “quarantine” or “medical observation (varies from 10-14 days)” for anyone who enters the country. This is thought to be crucial to prevent the virus from entering into the country when the domestic situation seems to be controllable than elsewhere. As a PhD student who is majoring in health and illness sociology and a Chinese citizen who is entitled to “go home,” the COVID-19 pandemic and the way China responds to it provided me an opportunity to experience a two-week quarantine thus further reflected on what exactly makes us feel fearful when facing this unexpected concern.

Two-week quarantine

When my flight arrived at one of China’s busiest airport, I had to complete a series of registrations, epidemiological surveys, and of course, the essential procedure, the first round COVID-19 tests before the other passengers and I were randomly sent to the designated hotel where the two-week centralized quarantine takes place. Within the fourteen days, we were under the medical gaze because we had to wait for the second round of the test to prove that we were healthy in terms of COVID-19 before the medical gaze/surveillance could be released.

COVID-19 related identity

“What if the local medical staff inform me that I am positive?” “What might other people and I have something in common to be fearful about?” These two questions always inadvertently appeared so as triggered by my sociological imagination. Getting infected from COVID-19 might not be the most troublesome and dreadful thing because I am entitled to get treatment. However, unintended consequences might become troubles. For example, I might be excluded from my familiar communities just because of discrimination by other people. The people might blame me for not having protected myself well enough hence result in escalating the risks to the people, particularly those who were identified as my “close contacts.” Although I have chances to be physically recovered, my old normal seems never to come back because of my COVID-19 related identity.

Blame the victims 

If I could compare the COVID-19 with another global pandemic-HIV/AIDS, I feel like one thing they are very much in common: there is a risk to “blame the victims,” not the virus, not the social inequality and any institutional/structural barriers put the people who are at risk of the virus. This reminds me of a slogan that appeared during the AIDS 2018 conference: “Chase the virus, not me.” Briefly, please do not blame the people who are or likely to suffer from COVID-19. The approach of the state’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic may produce unintended consequences, that is, strengthen the exclusion of the people who are the victims.