How to Write About Coronavirus in a College Essay

Students can share how they navigated life during the coronavirus pandemic in a full-length essay or an optional supplement.

Writing About COVID-19 in College Essays

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Experts say students should be honest and not limit themselves to merely their experiences with the pandemic.

The global impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, means colleges and prospective students alike are in for an admissions cycle like no other. Both face unprecedented challenges and questions as they grapple with their respective futures amid the ongoing fallout of the pandemic.

Colleges must examine applicants without the aid of standardized test scores for many – a factor that prompted many schools to go test-optional for now . Even grades, a significant component of a college application, may be hard to interpret with some high schools adopting pass-fail classes last spring due to the pandemic. Major college admissions factors are suddenly skewed.

"I can't help but think other (admissions) factors are going to matter more," says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy, a website that offers free and paid essay-writing resources.

College essays and letters of recommendation , Sawyer says, are likely to carry more weight than ever in this admissions cycle. And many essays will likely focus on how the pandemic shaped students' lives throughout an often tumultuous 2020.

But before writing a college essay focused on the coronavirus, students should explore whether it's the best topic for them.

Writing About COVID-19 for a College Application

Much of daily life has been colored by the coronavirus. Virtual learning is the norm at many colleges and high schools, many extracurriculars have vanished and social lives have stalled for students complying with measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"For some young people, the pandemic took away what they envisioned as their senior year," says Robert Alexander, dean of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management at the University of Rochester in New York. "Maybe that's a spot on a varsity athletic team or the lead role in the fall play. And it's OK for them to mourn what should have been and what they feel like they lost, but more important is how are they making the most of the opportunities they do have?"

That question, Alexander says, is what colleges want answered if students choose to address COVID-19 in their college essay.

But the question of whether a student should write about the coronavirus is tricky. The answer depends largely on the student.

"In general, I don't think students should write about COVID-19 in their main personal statement for their application," Robin Miller, master college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a college counseling company, wrote in an email.

"Certainly, there may be exceptions to this based on a student's individual experience, but since the personal essay is the main place in the application where the student can really allow their voice to be heard and share insight into who they are as an individual, there are likely many other topics they can choose to write about that are more distinctive and unique than COVID-19," Miller says.

Opinions among admissions experts vary on whether to write about the likely popular topic of the pandemic.

"If your essay communicates something positive, unique, and compelling about you in an interesting and eloquent way, go for it," Carolyn Pippen, principal college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. She adds that students shouldn't be dissuaded from writing about a topic merely because it's common, noting that "topics are bound to repeat, no matter how hard we try to avoid it."

Above all, she urges honesty.

"If your experience within the context of the pandemic has been truly unique, then write about that experience, and the standing out will take care of itself," Pippen says. "If your experience has been generally the same as most other students in your context, then trying to find a unique angle can easily cross the line into exploiting a tragedy, or at least appearing as though you have."

But focusing entirely on the pandemic can limit a student to a single story and narrow who they are in an application, Sawyer says. "There are so many wonderful possibilities for what you can say about yourself outside of your experience within the pandemic."

He notes that passions, strengths, career interests and personal identity are among the multitude of essay topic options available to applicants and encourages them to probe their values to help determine the topic that matters most to them – and write about it.

That doesn't mean the pandemic experience has to be ignored if applicants feel the need to write about it.

Writing About Coronavirus in Main and Supplemental Essays

Students can choose to write a full-length college essay on the coronavirus or summarize their experience in a shorter form.

To help students explain how the pandemic affected them, The Common App has added an optional section to address this topic. Applicants have 250 words to describe their pandemic experience and the personal and academic impact of COVID-19.

"That's not a trick question, and there's no right or wrong answer," Alexander says. Colleges want to know, he adds, how students navigated the pandemic, how they prioritized their time, what responsibilities they took on and what they learned along the way.

If students can distill all of the above information into 250 words, there's likely no need to write about it in a full-length college essay, experts say. And applicants whose lives were not heavily altered by the pandemic may even choose to skip the optional COVID-19 question.

"This space is best used to discuss hardship and/or significant challenges that the student and/or the student's family experienced as a result of COVID-19 and how they have responded to those difficulties," Miller notes. Using the section to acknowledge a lack of impact, she adds, "could be perceived as trite and lacking insight, despite the good intentions of the applicant."

To guard against this lack of awareness, Sawyer encourages students to tap someone they trust to review their writing , whether it's the 250-word Common App response or the full-length essay.

Experts tend to agree that the short-form approach to this as an essay topic works better, but there are exceptions. And if a student does have a coronavirus story that he or she feels must be told, Alexander encourages the writer to be authentic in the essay.

"My advice for an essay about COVID-19 is the same as my advice about an essay for any topic – and that is, don't write what you think we want to read or hear," Alexander says. "Write what really changed you and that story that now is yours and yours alone to tell."

Sawyer urges students to ask themselves, "What's the sentence that only I can write?" He also encourages students to remember that the pandemic is only a chapter of their lives and not the whole book.

Miller, who cautions against writing a full-length essay on the coronavirus, says that if students choose to do so they should have a conversation with their high school counselor about whether that's the right move. And if students choose to proceed with COVID-19 as a topic, she says they need to be clear, detailed and insightful about what they learned and how they adapted along the way.

"Approaching the essay in this manner will provide important balance while demonstrating personal growth and vulnerability," Miller says.

Pippen encourages students to remember that they are in an unprecedented time for college admissions.

"It is important to keep in mind with all of these (admission) factors that no colleges have ever had to consider them this way in the selection process, if at all," Pippen says. "They have had very little time to calibrate their evaluations of different application components within their offices, let alone across institutions. This means that colleges will all be handling the admissions process a little bit differently, and their approaches may even evolve over the course of the admissions cycle."

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I Thought We’d Learned Nothing From the Pandemic. I Wasn’t Seeing the Full Picture

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

M y first home had a back door that opened to a concrete patio with a giant crack down the middle. When my sister and I played, I made sure to stay on the same side of the divide as her, just in case. The 1988 film The Land Before Time was one of the first movies I ever saw, and the image of the earth splintering into pieces planted its roots in my brain. I believed that, even in my own backyard, I could easily become the tiny Triceratops separated from her family, on the other side of the chasm, as everything crumbled into chaos.

Some 30 years later, I marvel at the eerie, unexpected ways that cartoonish nightmare came to life – not just for me and my family, but for all of us. The landscape was already covered in fissures well before COVID-19 made its way across the planet, but the pandemic applied pressure, and the cracks broke wide open, separating us from each other physically and ideologically. Under the weight of the crisis, we scattered and landed on such different patches of earth we could barely see each other’s faces, even when we squinted. We disagreed viciously with each other, about how to respond, but also about what was true.

Recently, someone asked me if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, and my first thought was a flat no. Nothing. There was a time when I thought it would be the very thing to draw us together and catapult us – as a capital “S” Society – into a kinder future. It’s surreal to remember those early days when people rallied together, sewing masks for health care workers during critical shortages and gathering on balconies in cities from Dallas to New York City to clap and sing songs like “Yellow Submarine.” It felt like a giant lightning bolt shot across the sky, and for one breath, we all saw something that had been hidden in the dark – the inherent vulnerability in being human or maybe our inescapable connectedness .

More from TIME

Read More: The Family Time the Pandemic Stole

But it turns out, it was just a flash. The goodwill vanished as quickly as it appeared. A couple of years later, people feel lied to, abandoned, and all on their own. I’ve felt my own curiosity shrinking, my willingness to reach out waning , my ability to keep my hands open dwindling. I look out across the landscape and see selfishness and rage, burnt earth and so many dead bodies. Game over. We lost. And if we’ve already lost, why try?

Still, the question kept nagging me. I wondered, am I seeing the full picture? What happens when we focus not on the collective society but at one face, one story at a time? I’m not asking for a bow to minimize the suffering – a pretty flourish to put on top and make the whole thing “worth it.” Yuck. That’s not what we need. But I wondered about deep, quiet growth. The kind we feel in our bodies, relationships, homes, places of work, neighborhoods.

Like a walkie-talkie message sent to my allies on the ground, I posted a call on my Instagram. What do you see? What do you hear? What feels possible? Is there life out here? Sprouting up among the rubble? I heard human voices calling back – reports of life, personal and specific. I heard one story at a time – stories of grief and distrust, fury and disappointment. Also gratitude. Discovery. Determination.

Among the most prevalent were the stories of self-revelation. Almost as if machines were given the chance to live as humans, people described blossoming into fuller selves. They listened to their bodies’ cues, recognized their desires and comforts, tuned into their gut instincts, and honored the intuition they hadn’t realized belonged to them. Alex, a writer and fellow disabled parent, found the freedom to explore a fuller version of herself in the privacy the pandemic provided. “The way I dress, the way I love, and the way I carry myself have both shrunk and expanded,” she shared. “I don’t love myself very well with an audience.” Without the daily ritual of trying to pass as “normal” in public, Tamar, a queer mom in the Netherlands, realized she’s autistic. “I think the pandemic helped me to recognize the mask,” she wrote. “Not that unmasking is easy now. But at least I know it’s there.” In a time of widespread suffering that none of us could solve on our own, many tended to our internal wounds and misalignments, large and small, and found clarity.

Read More: A Tool for Staying Grounded in This Era of Constant Uncertainty

I wonder if this flourishing of self-awareness is at least partially responsible for the life alterations people pursued. The pandemic broke open our personal notions of work and pushed us to reevaluate things like time and money. Lucy, a disabled writer in the U.K., made the hard decision to leave her job as a journalist covering Westminster to write freelance about her beloved disability community. “This work feels important in a way nothing else has ever felt,” she wrote. “I don’t think I’d have realized this was what I should be doing without the pandemic.” And she wasn’t alone – many people changed jobs , moved, learned new skills and hobbies, became politically engaged.

Perhaps more than any other shifts, people described a significant reassessment of their relationships. They set boundaries, said no, had challenging conversations. They also reconnected, fell in love, and learned to trust. Jeanne, a quilter in Indiana, got to know relatives she wouldn’t have connected with if lockdowns hadn’t prompted weekly family Zooms. “We are all over the map as regards to our belief systems,” she emphasized, “but it is possible to love people you don’t see eye to eye with on every issue.” Anna, an anti-violence advocate in Maine, learned she could trust her new marriage: “Life was not a honeymoon. But we still chose to turn to each other with kindness and curiosity.” So many bonds forged and broken, strengthened and strained.

Instead of relying on default relationships or institutional structures, widespread recalibrations allowed for going off script and fortifying smaller communities. Mara from Idyllwild, Calif., described the tangible plan for care enacted in her town. “We started a mutual-aid group at the beginning of the pandemic,” she wrote, “and it grew so quickly before we knew it we were feeding 400 of the 4000 residents.” She didn’t pretend the conditions were ideal. In fact, she expressed immense frustration with our collective response to the pandemic. Even so, the local group rallied and continues to offer assistance to their community with help from donations and volunteers (many of whom were originally on the receiving end of support). “I’ve learned that people thrive when they feel their connection to others,” she wrote. Clare, a teacher from the U.K., voiced similar conviction as she described a giant scarf she’s woven out of ribbons, each representing a single person. The scarf is “a collection of stories, moments and wisdom we are sharing with each other,” she wrote. It now stretches well over 1,000 feet.

A few hours into reading the comments, I lay back on my bed, phone held against my chest. The room was quiet, but my internal world was lighting up with firefly flickers. What felt different? Surely part of it was receiving personal accounts of deep-rooted growth. And also, there was something to the mere act of asking and listening. Maybe it connected me to humans before battle cries. Maybe it was the chance to be in conversation with others who were also trying to understand – what is happening to us? Underneath it all, an undeniable thread remained; I saw people peering into the mess and narrating their findings onto the shared frequency. Every comment was like a flare into the sky. I’m here! And if the sky is full of flares, we aren’t alone.

I recognized my own pandemic discoveries – some minor, others massive. Like washing off thick eyeliner and mascara every night is more effort than it’s worth; I can transform the mundane into the magical with a bedsheet, a movie projector, and twinkle lights; my paralyzed body can mother an infant in ways I’d never seen modeled for me. I remembered disappointing, bewildering conversations within my own family of origin and our imperfect attempts to remain close while also seeing things so differently. I realized that every time I get the weekly invite to my virtual “Find the Mumsies” call, with a tiny group of moms living hundreds of miles apart, I’m being welcomed into a pocket of unexpected community. Even though we’ve never been in one room all together, I’ve felt an uncommon kind of solace in their now-familiar faces.

Hope is a slippery thing. I desperately want to hold onto it, but everywhere I look there are real, weighty reasons to despair. The pandemic marks a stretch on the timeline that tangles with a teetering democracy, a deteriorating planet , the loss of human rights that once felt unshakable . When the world is falling apart Land Before Time style, it can feel trite, sniffing out the beauty – useless, firing off flares to anyone looking for signs of life. But, while I’m under no delusions that if we just keep trudging forward we’ll find our own oasis of waterfalls and grassy meadows glistening in the sunshine beneath a heavenly chorus, I wonder if trivializing small acts of beauty, connection, and hope actually cuts us off from resources essential to our survival. The group of abandoned dinosaurs were keeping each other alive and making each other laugh well before they made it to their fantasy ending.

Read More: How Ice Cream Became My Own Personal Act of Resistance

After the monarch butterfly went on the endangered-species list, my friend and fellow writer Hannah Soyer sent me wildflower seeds to plant in my yard. A simple act of big hope – that I will actually plant them, that they will grow, that a monarch butterfly will receive nourishment from whatever blossoms are able to push their way through the dirt. There are so many ways that could fail. But maybe the outcome wasn’t exactly the point. Maybe hope is the dogged insistence – the stubborn defiance – to continue cultivating moments of beauty regardless. There is value in the planting apart from the harvest.

I can’t point out a single collective lesson from the pandemic. It’s hard to see any great “we.” Still, I see the faces in my moms’ group, making pancakes for their kids and popping on between strings of meetings while we try to figure out how to raise these small people in this chaotic world. I think of my friends on Instagram tending to the selves they discovered when no one was watching and the scarf of ribbons stretching the length of more than three football fields. I remember my family of three, holding hands on the way up the ramp to the library. These bits of growth and rings of support might not be loud or right on the surface, but that’s not the same thing as nothing. If we only cared about the bottom-line defeats or sweeping successes of the big picture, we’d never plant flowers at all.

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Writing about COVID-19 in a college admission essay

by: Venkates Swaminathan | Updated: September 14, 2020

Print article

Writing about COVID-19 in your college admission essay

For students applying to college using the CommonApp, there are several different places where students and counselors can address the pandemic’s impact. The different sections have differing goals. You must understand how to use each section for its appropriate use.

The CommonApp COVID-19 question

First, the CommonApp this year has an additional question specifically about COVID-19 :

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

This question seeks to understand the adversity that students may have had to face due to the pandemic, the move to online education, or the shelter-in-place rules. You don’t have to answer this question if the impact on you wasn’t particularly severe. Some examples of things students should discuss include:

  • The student or a family member had COVID-19 or suffered other illnesses due to confinement during the pandemic.
  • The candidate had to deal with personal or family issues, such as abusive living situations or other safety concerns
  • The student suffered from a lack of internet access and other online learning challenges.
  • Students who dealt with problems registering for or taking standardized tests and AP exams.

Jeff Schiffman of the Tulane University admissions office has a blog about this section. He recommends students ask themselves several questions as they go about answering this section:

  • Are my experiences different from others’?
  • Are there noticeable changes on my transcript?
  • Am I aware of my privilege?
  • Am I specific? Am I explaining rather than complaining?
  • Is this information being included elsewhere on my application?

If you do answer this section, be brief and to-the-point.

Counselor recommendations and school profiles

Second, counselors will, in their counselor forms and school profiles on the CommonApp, address how the school handled the pandemic and how it might have affected students, specifically as it relates to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

Students don’t have to mention these matters in their application unless something unusual happened.

Writing about COVID-19 in your main essay

Write about your experiences during the pandemic in your main college essay if your experience is personal, relevant, and the most important thing to discuss in your college admission essay. That you had to stay home and study online isn’t sufficient, as millions of other students faced the same situation. But sometimes, it can be appropriate and helpful to write about something related to the pandemic in your essay. For example:

  • One student developed a website for a local comic book store. The store might not have survived without the ability for people to order comic books online. The student had a long-standing relationship with the store, and it was an institution that created a community for students who otherwise felt left out.
  • One student started a YouTube channel to help other students with academic subjects he was very familiar with and began tutoring others.
  • Some students used their extra time that was the result of the stay-at-home orders to take online courses pursuing topics they are genuinely interested in or developing new interests, like a foreign language or music.

Experiences like this can be good topics for the CommonApp essay as long as they reflect something genuinely important about the student. For many students whose lives have been shaped by this pandemic, it can be a critical part of their college application.

Want more? Read 6 ways to improve a college essay , What the &%$! should I write about in my college essay , and Just how important is a college admissions essay? .

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Read these 12 moving essays about life during coronavirus

Artists, novelists, critics, and essayists are writing the first draft of history.

by Alissa Wilkinson

A woman wearing a face mask in Miami.

The world is grappling with an invisible, deadly enemy, trying to understand how to live with the threat posed by a virus . For some writers, the only way forward is to put pen to paper, trying to conceptualize and document what it feels like to continue living as countries are under lockdown and regular life seems to have ground to a halt.

So as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched around the world, it’s sparked a crop of diary entries and essays that describe how life has changed. Novelists, critics, artists, and journalists have put words to the feelings many are experiencing. The result is a first draft of how we’ll someday remember this time, filled with uncertainty and pain and fear as well as small moments of hope and humanity.

  • The Vox guide to navigating the coronavirus crisis

At the New York Review of Books, Ali Bhutto writes that in Karachi, Pakistan, the government-imposed curfew due to the virus is “eerily reminiscent of past military clampdowns”:

Beneath the quiet calm lies a sense that society has been unhinged and that the usual rules no longer apply. Small groups of pedestrians look on from the shadows, like an audience watching a spectacle slowly unfolding. People pause on street corners and in the shade of trees, under the watchful gaze of the paramilitary forces and the police.

His essay concludes with the sobering note that “in the minds of many, Covid-19 is just another life-threatening hazard in a city that stumbles from one crisis to another.”

Writing from Chattanooga, novelist Jamie Quatro documents the mixed ways her neighbors have been responding to the threat, and the frustration of conflicting direction, or no direction at all, from local, state, and federal leaders:

Whiplash, trying to keep up with who’s ordering what. We’re already experiencing enough chaos without this back-and-forth. Why didn’t the federal government issue a nationwide shelter-in-place at the get-go, the way other countries did? What happens when one state’s shelter-in-place ends, while others continue? Do states still under quarantine close their borders? We  are  still one nation, not fifty individual countries. Right?
  • A syllabus for the end of the world

Award-winning photojournalist Alessio Mamo, quarantined with his partner Marta in Sicily after she tested positive for the virus, accompanies his photographs in the Guardian of their confinement with a reflection on being confined :

The doctors asked me to take a second test, but again I tested negative. Perhaps I’m immune? The days dragged on in my apartment, in black and white, like my photos. Sometimes we tried to smile, imagining that I was asymptomatic, because I was the virus. Our smiles seemed to bring good news. My mother left hospital, but I won’t be able to see her for weeks. Marta started breathing well again, and so did I. I would have liked to photograph my country in the midst of this emergency, the battles that the doctors wage on the frontline, the hospitals pushed to their limits, Italy on its knees fighting an invisible enemy. That enemy, a day in March, knocked on my door instead.

In the New York Times Magazine, deputy editor Jessica Lustig writes with devastating clarity about her family’s life in Brooklyn while her husband battled the virus, weeks before most people began taking the threat seriously:

At the door of the clinic, we stand looking out at two older women chatting outside the doorway, oblivious. Do I wave them away? Call out that they should get far away, go home, wash their hands, stay inside? Instead we just stand there, awkwardly, until they move on. Only then do we step outside to begin the long three-block walk home. I point out the early magnolia, the forsythia. T says he is cold. The untrimmed hairs on his neck, under his beard, are white. The few people walking past us on the sidewalk don’t know that we are visitors from the future. A vision, a premonition, a walking visitation. This will be them: Either T, in the mask, or — if they’re lucky — me, tending to him.

Essayist Leslie Jamison writes in the New York Review of Books about being shut away alone in her New York City apartment with her 2-year-old daughter since she became sick:

The virus.  Its sinewy, intimate name. What does it feel like in my body today? Shivering under blankets. A hot itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts in the middle of the day. My daughter trying to pull another blanket over my body with her tiny arms. An ache in the muscles that somehow makes it hard to lie still. This loss of taste has become a kind of sensory quarantine. It’s as if the quarantine keeps inching closer and closer to my insides. First I lost the touch of other bodies; then I lost the air; now I’ve lost the taste of bananas. Nothing about any of these losses is particularly unique. I’ve made a schedule so I won’t go insane with the toddler. Five days ago, I wrote  Walk/Adventure!  on it, next to a cut-out illustration of a tiger—as if we’d see tigers on our walks. It was good to keep possibility alive.

At Literary Hub, novelist Heidi Pitlor writes about the elastic nature of time during her family’s quarantine in Massachusetts:

During a shutdown, the things that mark our days—commuting to work, sending our kids to school, having a drink with friends—vanish and time takes on a flat, seamless quality. Without some self-imposed structure, it’s easy to feel a little untethered. A friend recently posted on Facebook: “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay.” ... Giving shape to time is especially important now, when the future is so shapeless. We do not know whether the virus will continue to rage for weeks or months or, lord help us, on and off for years. We do not know when we will feel safe again. And so many of us, minus those who are gifted at compartmentalization or denial, remain largely captive to fear. We may stay this way if we do not create at least the illusion of movement in our lives, our long days spent with ourselves or partners or families.
  • What day is it today?

Novelist Lauren Groff writes at the New York Review of Books about trying to escape the prison of her fears while sequestered at home in Gainesville, Florida:

Some people have imaginations sparked only by what they can see; I blame this blinkered empiricism for the parks overwhelmed with people, the bars, until a few nights ago, thickly thronged. My imagination is the opposite. I fear everything invisible to me. From the enclosure of my house, I am afraid of the suffering that isn’t present before me, the people running out of money and food or drowning in the fluid in their lungs, the deaths of health-care workers now growing ill while performing their duties. I fear the federal government, which the right wing has so—intentionally—weakened that not only is it insufficient to help its people, it is actively standing in help’s way. I fear we won’t sufficiently punish the right. I fear leaving the house and spreading the disease. I fear what this time of fear is doing to my children, their imaginations, and their souls.

At ArtForum , Berlin-based critic and writer Kristian Vistrup Madsen reflects on martinis, melancholia, and Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s 2018 graphic novel  Retreat , in which three young people exile themselves in the woods:

In melancholia, the shape of what is ending, and its temporality, is sprawling and incomprehensible. The ambivalence makes it hard to bear. The world of  Retreat  is rendered in lush pink and purple watercolors, which dissolve into wild and messy abstractions. In apocalypse, the divisions established in genesis bleed back out. My own Corona-retreat is similarly soft, color-field like, each day a blurred succession of quarantinis, YouTube–yoga, and televized press conferences. As restrictions mount, so does abstraction. For now, I’m still rooting for love to save the world.

At the Paris Review , Matt Levin writes about reading Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves during quarantine:

A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness—they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand. It is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s  The Waves  is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine—a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway—it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption.
  • Vox is starting a book club. Come read with us!

In an essay for the Financial Times, novelist Arundhati Roy writes with anger about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anemic response to the threat, but also offers a glimmer of hope for the future:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. 

From Boston, Nora Caplan-Bricker writes in The Point about the strange contraction of space under quarantine, in which a friend in Beirut is as close as the one around the corner in the same city:

It’s a nice illusion—nice to feel like we’re in it together, even if my real world has shrunk to one person, my husband, who sits with his laptop in the other room. It’s nice in the same way as reading those essays that reframe social distancing as solidarity. “We must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we  don’t do  is also brilliant and full of love,” the poet Anne Boyer wrote on March 10th, the day that Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. If you squint, you could almost make sense of this quarantine as an effort to flatten, along with the curve, the distinctions we make between our bonds with others. Right now, I care for my neighbor in the same way I demonstrate love for my mother: in all instances, I stay away. And in moments this month, I have loved strangers with an intensity that is new to me. On March 14th, the Saturday night after the end of life as we knew it, I went out with my dog and found the street silent: no lines for restaurants, no children on bicycles, no couples strolling with little cups of ice cream. It had taken the combined will of thousands of people to deliver such a sudden and complete emptiness. I felt so grateful, and so bereft.

And on his own website, musician and artist David Byrne writes about rediscovering the value of working for collective good , saying that “what is happening now is an opportunity to learn how to change our behavior”:

In emergencies, citizens can suddenly cooperate and collaborate. Change can happen. We’re going to need to work together as the effects of climate change ramp up. In order for capitalism to survive in any form, we will have to be a little more socialist. Here is an opportunity for us to see things differently — to see that we really are all connected — and adjust our behavior accordingly.  Are we willing to do this? Is this moment an opportunity to see how truly interdependent we all are? To live in a world that is different and better than the one we live in now? We might be too far down the road to test every asymptomatic person, but a change in our mindsets, in how we view our neighbors, could lay the groundwork for the collective action we’ll need to deal with other global crises. The time to see how connected we all are is now.

The portrait these writers paint of a world under quarantine is multifaceted. Our worlds have contracted to the confines of our homes, and yet in some ways we’re more connected than ever to one another. We feel fear and boredom, anger and gratitude, frustration and strange peace. Uncertainty drives us to find metaphors and images that will let us wrap our minds around what is happening.

Yet there’s no single “what” that is happening. Everyone is contending with the pandemic and its effects from different places and in different ways. Reading others’ experiences — even the most frightening ones — can help alleviate the loneliness and dread, a little, and remind us that what we’re going through is both unique and shared by all.

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One Student's Perspective on Life During a Pandemic

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
  • Ethics Resources
  • Ethics Spotlight
  • COVID-19: Ethics, Health and Moving Forward

person sitting at table with open laptop, notebook and pen image link to story

The pandemic and resulting shelter-in-place restrictions are affecting everyone in different ways. Tiana Nguyen, shares both the pros and cons of her experience as a student at Santa Clara University.

person sitting at table with open laptop, notebook and pen

person sitting at table with open laptop, notebook and pen

Tiana Nguyen ‘21 is a Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She is majoring in Computer Science, and is the vice president of Santa Clara University’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) chapter .

The world has slowed down, but stress has begun to ramp up.

In the beginning of quarantine, as the world slowed down, I could finally take some time to relax, watch some shows, learn to be a better cook and baker, and be more active in my extracurriculars. I have a lot of things to be thankful for. I especially appreciate that I’m able to live in a comfortable house and have gotten the opportunity to spend more time with my family. This has actually been the first time in years in which we’re all able to even eat meals together every single day. Even when my brother and I were young, my parents would be at work and sometimes come home late, so we didn’t always eat meals together. In the beginning of the quarantine I remember my family talking about how nice it was to finally have meals together, and my brother joking, “it only took a pandemic to bring us all together,” which I laughed about at the time (but it’s the truth).

Soon enough, we’ll all be back to going to different places and we’ll be separated once again. So I’m thankful for my living situation right now. As for my friends, even though we’re apart, I do still feel like I can be in touch with them through video chat—maybe sometimes even more in touch than before. I think a lot of people just have a little more time for others right now.

Although there are still a lot of things to be thankful for, stress has slowly taken over, and work has been overwhelming. I’ve always been a person who usually enjoys going to classes, taking on more work than I have to, and being active in general. But lately I’ve felt swamped with the amount of work given, to the point that my days have blurred into online assignments, Zoom classes, and countless meetings, with a touch of baking sweets and aimless searching on Youtube.

The pass/no pass option for classes continues to stare at me, but I look past it every time to use this quarter as an opportunity to boost my grades. I've tried to make sense of this type of overwhelming feeling that I’ve never really felt before. Is it because I’m working harder and putting in more effort into my schoolwork with all the spare time I now have? Is it because I’m not having as much interaction with other people as I do at school? Or is it because my classes this quarter are just supposed to be this much harder? I honestly don’t know; it might not even be any of those. What I do know though, is that I have to continue work and push through this feeling.

This quarter I have two synchronous and two asynchronous classes, which each have pros and cons. Originally, I thought I wanted all my classes to be synchronous, since that everyday interaction with my professor and classmates is valuable to me. However, as I experienced these asynchronous classes, I’ve realized that it can be nice to watch a lecture on my own time because it even allows me to pause the video to give me extra time for taking notes. This has made me pay more attention during lectures and take note of small details that I might have missed otherwise. Furthermore, I do realize that synchronous classes can also be a burden for those abroad who have to wake up in the middle of the night just to attend a class. I feel that it’s especially unfortunate when professors want students to attend but don’t make attendance mandatory for this reason; I find that most abroad students attend anyway, driven by the worry they’ll be missing out on something.

I do still find synchronous classes amazing though, especially for discussion-based courses. I feel in touch with other students from my classes whom I wouldn’t otherwise talk to or regularly reach out to. Since Santa Clara University is a small school, it is especially easy to interact with one another during classes on Zoom, and I even sometimes find it less intimidating to participate during class through Zoom than in person. I’m honestly not the type to participate in class, but this quarter I found myself participating in some classes more than usual. The breakout rooms also create more interaction, since we’re assigned to random classmates, instead of whomever we’re sitting closest to in an in-person class—though I admit breakout rooms can sometimes be awkward.

Something that I find beneficial in both synchronous and asynchronous classes is that professors post a lecture recording that I can always refer to whenever I want. I found this especially helpful when I studied for my midterms this quarter; it’s nice to have a recording to look back upon in case I missed something during a lecture.

Overall, life during these times is substantially different from anything most of us have ever experienced, and at times it can be extremely overwhelming and stressful—especially in terms of school for me. Online classes don’t provide the same environment and interactions as in-person classes and are by far not as enjoyable. But at the end of the day, I know that in every circumstance there is always something to be thankful for, and I’m appreciative for my situation right now. While the world has slowed down and my stress has ramped up, I’m slowly beginning to adjust to it.

  • Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 08 April 2021

Expectations of citizens from the government in response to COVID-19 pandemic: a cross-sectional study in Iran

  • Leila Zarei 1 ,
  • Saeed Shahabi 1 ,
  • Ahmad Kalateh Sadati   ORCID: 2 ,
  • Reza Tabrizi 1 ,
  • Seyed Taghi Heydari 1 &
  • Kamran Bagheri Lankarani 1  

BMC Public Health volume  21 , Article number:  686 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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The government is the main body in charge of controlling epidemics; hence, expectations from the intention and capacities of the government would affect the flexibility and behaviors of citizens. Given the severity of COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent need for cooperation of people in the prevention and combat processes, understanding the public perspectives would be crucial and instructive. This study aimed to explore such perspectives towards the current pandemic among the Iranian. Indeed, we sought to provide a favorable platform for effective policies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic through recognizing public expectations.

This cross-sectional survey used an open-ended online questionnaire to investigate the common perspectives of the Iranian towards the response of government to COVID-19 pandemic. The participants were selected using snowball and convenient sampling techniques across the country. The collected data were analyzed and described using a thematic analysis.

In general, 2547 participants agreed to participate in this study and completed the online questionnaire. According to the findings, the Iranian exhibited several expectations regarding the response of the government to COVID-19 pandemic. Three main themes were extracted based on these expectations: (1) health-related expectations, (2) policy-related expectations, and (3) Information-related expectations. In this study, a majority of participants highlighted the need to consider and follow-up the patients and their families, providing the financial and hygiene support during the pandemic, applying strict restrictions, and using close monitoring and controlling procedures. Furthermore, they mentioned that authorities and news agencies should observe the principals honesty and transparency.


Our findings revealed that people expect the government and other responsible institutions to minimize the burden of this pandemic through adopting effective policies. Also, they could help policy-makers become aware of the expectations of people and develop better strategies.

Peer Review reports

After numerous reports on an unknown respiratory disease in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, a novel coronavirus, which is known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was detected as the main cause of the disease (COVID-19) [ 1 ]. Almost three-million positive cases and more than 207,000 deaths have been recognized globally since April 26 [ 2 ]. Following this pandemic, countries applied different policies such as social distancing and lockdown measures to control it [ 3 ]. Due to the fact that there is no specific treatment strategy for COVID-19, the best technique to fight this outbreak is to follow the personal hygiene and preventive measures along with active case detection and isolation in order to reduce the possibility of virus transmission [ 4 ].

Following the detection of two COVID-19 cases on February 20 in Iran, this pandemic spread rapidly across the country, and more than 90,000 positive cases and about 5700 deaths were reported by April 26 [ 2 ]. Consequently, several strategies and policies were developed by the government of Iran in order to control this outbreak including social distancing, and prohibition of unnecessary trips and closure of educational centers [ 5 ]. Although applying the above-mentioned approaches had positive effects on the pandemic control [ 6 ], they led to serious challenges for the society, especially for the poor and vulnerable groups. Due to the imposition of international sanctions on Iran throughout the last decades, the negative effects of this pandemic on the already-weakened economy were enormous [ 7 ].

Evidence suggests that epidemics such as COVID-19 have significant economic and social consequences such as unemployment, poverty, and stigmatization [ 8 ]. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations have predicted that the negative economic impacts of this pandemic are harsh, especially for developing countries [ 9 , 10 ]. The enhancement of the domestic violence is considered as another consequence of COVID-19 outbreak [ 11 ]. Following the containment measures, a 30% increase in domestic violence has been reported in Europe [ 12 ].

Sociologically, the policy effectiveness and governance agenda in crisis are the main expectations of citizens in this modern public sphere. Protecting the lives of citizens is one of the first duties of the governments that can also shape the public expectations of citizens. Such expectations seem to affect the behaviors and attitudes of citizens toward public services [ 13 ]. In public health emergencies arising from an infectious disease epidemic, the government is in charge of protecting the community residents by preventing the spread of the disease [ 14 ]. The expectations of citizens from the capabilities and policies of the government can influence their decisions [ 15 ]. The government is also responsible for regulating and controlling health activities, sanitation services, and epidemiologic surveillance [ 16 ].

In a previous study, the social concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic were investigated from different perspectives. For example, Nelson et al. (2020) had assessed public concerns about the COVID-19 crisis in the United States before shelter-in-place orders were widely implemented [ 17 ]. A new study of public attitudes across Europe, America and Asia has found that people in the UK have the highest levels of concern about coronavirus – more than Italy or Spain – while those in South Korea are the least concerned [ 18 ]. Stokes et al. (2020) claimed that public response to the pandemic is important; however, they are being measured and it could lead to an earlier recognition of changing public priorities, fluctuations in wellness, and uptake of public health measures. All of the mentioned factors could have implications for individual- and population-level health [ 19 ].

The formulation and adoption of effective, equitable, and community-based policies must be considered to diminish the burdens of such epidemics [ 20 ]. The community-based policies are on the basis of community engagement, and play a vital role in controlling COVID-19; therefore, they have to be considered in the processes of policymaking. Due to the fact that the awareness of policy-makers regarding the public perspectives and viewpoints is of a considerable importance in developing and performing the strategies and programs, engaging individuals in this process is very essential [ 21 ]. Given the severity of COVID-19 pandemic and the double need for the cooperation of individuals in the process of controlling this pandemic, understanding the public perspectives would be crucial and instructive. This cross-sectional survey aimed to explore such perspectives towards the current pandemic among the Iranian. Indeed, we sought to provide a favorable platform for effective policies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic through recognizing the public expectations.

Study design and setting

This cross-sectional survey used an open-ended online questionnaire to investigate the common perspectives and perceptions among the Iranians in the current COVID-19 pandemic and inform the policy-makers about expectations of people from the government. This study was conducted by the Health Policy Research Center, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS), Shiraz, Iran, during February to March 2020.

Sampling and recruitment

In current study, the process of statistical population sampling was carried out using snowball and convenient sampling techniques. In addition, the highest heterogeneity was secured through classifying the individual based on the gender, age, job status, level of education, marital status, and geographical regions. Before mailing the link of the questionnaire, an invitation letter containing detailed information about the study (e.g., objectives of the study and anonymity) was submitted to the participants via social media ( i.e. WhatsApp, Instagram, etc.). Furthermore, a written informed form along with the questionnaire was sent to the volunteer participants.

Data collection

A self-designed questionnaire was developed and used in this online survey in order to explore the expectations of citizens from the government during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The questionnaire contained three open-ended questions:

“What are the main questions of you or those around you about this new virus?”

“What are the main concerns of you or those around you about this new virus?”

“What are the main doubts of you or those around you about this new virus?”

The first author (a female PhD in Pharmacoeconomics & Pharma Management), as a health researcher with scientific and executive background in the public health, could facilitate the investigations in this stage. According to a pilot investigation, the questions were revised to improve the clarity. In addition, an invitation letter and a written consent form that included information about research purposes and ethical issues, were provided for the individuals and all participants gave their written consent to participate in the study. In this process, a population-based random sampling of Iranian adults at the age of 18 years or more was carried out through social media with the purpose of questionnaire completion. However, the research team identified one or more focal points in each province to maintain the national status of the study. Therefore, the link was only sent to those participants that were able to answer the questions.

The initial questionnaire was delivered to five academic research experts to validate the clarity, comprehensiveness, and relevance of the questions. During the data collection process, answers were anonymously transcribed and saved in the Windows Microsoft to accelerate the analysis. A blank copy of the questionnaire provides as the supplementary file 1.

Data analysis

The collected data were analyzed and described using a thematic analysis approach. Three of the authors (LZ, AKS, and STH) participated in the analysis process in order to read and codify the transcribed texts independently and consequently, extract the meaning units. Then, the detected codes were assessed with the purpose of identifying the sub-themes. Finally, the possible connections among the manifested sub-themes were monitored, and the main themes were achieved. During this process, all disagreements between the coders were solved through the discussion and consensus strategies. Furthermore, the authors with different scientific backgrounds and interests participated in the analysis process in order to foster the critical reflexivity and reduce the risk of bias [ 22 ]. The analysis was performed manually; moreover, the analyzers used MAXQDA software version 11 if required (VERBI GmbH Berlin, Germany).

Ethical approval

Research ethics confirmation was granted by the Research Ethics Committee at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (IR.SUMS.REC.1399.090).

Generally, 2547 participants agreed to participate in this study and completed the online questionnaire (Table  1 ). The Iranian had many expectations from their government regarding its response to COVID-19 pandemic. Because the pandemic had created a kind of despair in the public sphere, the citizens expected serious and effective measures to be adopted by the government. In addition to the personal concerns, they had serious social concerns that were mostly concerned with other problems of citizens resulted from this outbreak. On the other hand, the impacts of this epidemic on losing jobs and conditions of poor people were among the most frequently mentioned concerns, as the participants represented several expectations in line with these concerns. Considering the expectations of people from the government to combat COVID-19 pandemic, three major themes were extracted: (1) Health-related expectations, (2) policy-related expectations, and (3) Information-related expectations. Furthermore, each major theme had several subthemes, as shown in Table  2 . In the following sections, the findings of the analysis process along with direct quotations from the answers of participants are described in details.

Health-related expectations

In this study, a majority of the participants highlighted the need to consider some important factors for the infected patients and their families with the purpose of preventing further transmission. Breaking the transmission chain as well as the provision of financial and hygiene support during the pandemic was another main expectation. In other words, they believed if the required support was not provided to the infected patients, there would still be the possibility of virus transmission. In addition, the fair and equitable provision of medical and preventive services to the public, especially the vulnerable groups, was the other demand of participants. As a remarkable finding, the participants described the need for continuous monitoring and screening of relatives and families of t he patients in order to interrupt the transmission chain.

"If the patient is not monitored continuously during the quarantine, the virus may be transmitted to the other individuals."
"Households, especially those with patients, should be provided with financial supports to prevent them from attending outside. On the other hand, more sanitary facilities should be provided to these groups."
"Unfortunately, in some cities, the relatives and families of those infected with coronavirus are not concerned as the potential carriers of this virus. I think health centers should monitor them constantly."

Providing sufficient health supports was another subtheme, which contained a number of codes such as equitable medical care services. Many participants pointed to the unfair access to health care services in Iran and the importance of resolving this problem to facilitate the fight against COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, some other participants believed that health packages should be submitted to households by the government and local institutions because many of people cannot afford to buy the necessary personal protective equipment due to the economic crisis. A number of these individuals also pointed to the poor distribution of preventive measures such as masks and gloves across the country, which led to increased prices, corruption, and difficult access. Accordingly, they proposed the formation of a codified and transparent distribution structure by the government. For example, they referred to various solutions such as using the capacities of the local stores to distribute the aforementioned items and goods. Additionally, the importance of disinfecting the public passages and places were also noted. Briefly, the participants stated that rationale and continuous disinfection was vital according to the findings of researchers regarding the rapid spread of the virus in public places. More importantly, paying attention to vulnerable groups and responding to their needs appropriately was another common expectation in this study.

"Direct payment for health services is very high in Iran. Although the government stated that costs of treating the coronavirus patients were to be covered by the insurances, there are still individuals who have confronted with many challenges regarding the transportation and accommodation costs."
"It is constantly recommended that people wear a mask, but there is no mask! Maybe there is, but not available to us. The government must create a proper structure for the distribution of these devices."
"Experts have recently stated that the virus would stay in the air for a longer period. I think the crowded centers should be more disinfected. Although much effort is being made now, they have to be more effective."

Political-related expectations

Our findings indicated various expectations regarding the political issues. The imposition of strict restrictions, adopting serious monitoring and controlling procedures, and providing financial support were recognized as the most important factors. With regard to the adoption of quarantine policies in some countries, the participants called for more serious policies on compulsory quarantine. On the other hand, some of them believed that the government had not implemented quarantine policies in a timely manner, and that it would be better if they took actions as soon as possible. According to another finding, the effective punitive measures have to be considered for those who do not follow the containment measures. In current study, some of the participants referred to the likelihood for the disease entering from other countries and asked the government to cancel all foreign flights. Since widespread rumors and misinformation are common after crises, serious measures against the rumor mongers would be a potential solution.

"Many people do not pay attention to quarantine and travel. The government must respond this very seriously. I think it should be a mandatory quarantine, like in European countries."
"Iran started quarantine too late. Home quarantine must have been started since the first day so that the disease would not have spread to other cities."
"There are a number of punishments, but they are not enough. Most of these punishments are limited to cars and road transportation. I think individual fines should also be considered for individuals."

Many participants expected the authorities to be honest and transparent in providing reports and advice. They argued that honesty could be a proper incentive for citizens to participate and cooperate with the made decisions. Using related experts and experiences from other countries in managing the crisis was the other expectation noted by some individuals. In addition, the participants, regardless of their position, criticized the management of medical centers and believed that the local centers had no sufficient authority and autonomy to make quick decisions. Thus, delegating authority to local units might facilitate the process of meeting demands during this pandemic. More importantly, a large proportion of the participants identified the fair distribution of medical supplies and equipment, and inter-sectorial cooperation among stakeholders as prerequisites of an effective response to COVID-19 outbreak.

"Many people have doubts in the sincerity of the authorities. If officials speak more honestly, people will be more supportive."
"We must use the experiences of successful countries such as South Korea and even Germany, which have very low mortality rates."
"Crisis management is a purely scientific and specialized matter that could be achieved by experienced managers. Experts of this field should be involved as well."
"Cooperation and coordination among responsible institutions, and integrated stewardship can be helpful."

In accordance with the adverse economic effects of pandemics such as COVID-19, there were some recommendations to provide financial supports for the public. The participants noted that bank installments and maturities should be postponed due to the prohibition of commercial activities and a sharp decline in income. Moreover, the non-payment of service bills (water, energy, etc.) and the provision of livelihood packages by the government were also expected by the participants. Supplying the low-interest loans to enhance the liquidity for commercial units and the general public during this recession was also another expectation.

"Although we have no income, the bank has withdrawn the installments. In this situation, banks should be more considerate."
" … especially for poor households, the payment of service bills must be canceled or at least postponed."
"In this recession, it is possible to facilitate the required liquidity by providing low-interest loans."

Information-related expectations

In this study, the participants expressed that adopting honesty and transparency principals by news agencies would promote the social capital. In addition, accurate news and statistics would prevent people from visiting invalid and fake news sources. Many participants believed that there was a need for more comprehensive information about the SARS-CoV-2 transmissions to prevent obsessions and other potential psychological disorders. Finding out how vulnerable groups are affected by the pandemic as well as its side effects were another point stated by the study participants. Remarkably, they believed that announcing the related information and statistics could be effective in informing citizens and adhering to the proposed principles.

"The official media must represent the real news to make people more confident."
"If the real news and information is provided, no one will refer to the rumors and fake news."
"Elderly people are very worried when it is announced in the news that the disease is more dangerous for this group. More information should be provided on the effects of the disease on the elderly and other high-risk groups."

Finally, the provision of comprehensive educational programs was another expectation of participants from policy-makers in response to COVID-19 pandemic. According to the findings, proper training in terms of the virus transmission prevention methods, healthy behaviors, and how to use e-services were the common expectations. Generally, many believed that the general public was not fully aware of the correct preventive methods, and the capacity of the official and virtual media could be further exploited. One of the interesting findings was the role of instruction in the process of changing the lifestyles based on conditions resulted from this pandemic. Due to the fact that the implementation of quarantine policies may affect the nutritional and physical conditions of individuals, the provision of accurate educational services would prevent many complications.

"The media should provide relevant educational programs tailored to the perceptions of different people in the community. Many programs use specialized terms that are not understandable to many people."
"Many individuals are not aware of e-services. Relevant training programs can be provided to prevent their direct presence in banks and organizations."
"I am very worried about my children's eating habits and physical condition during this period. I wish some educational programs were provided so that we could act based on them."

This cross-sectional study aimed to explore the expectations of the Iranian from the government during COVID-19 pandemic. The detected themes indicated that the citizens had high expectations from their government. It was noticed that people had different expectations regarding responses of the government to this pandemic, which encompassed health-related, policy-related, and Information-related expectations.

Our findings point to the importance of optimal patient quarantine during boredom and after discharge since the virus is transmitted quickly. In addition, the general public expects support the submission of health and financial services to families with the affected patients in order to make them able to tackle with the disease more appropriately. In this regard, a number of countries such as China, France, and Italy implemented highly strict quarantine policies after confirming the first positive cases [ 23 , 24 , 25 ]. However, as Iran was tackling with several economic and social problems at the same time [ 7 , 26 ], it initially focused more on advisory policies and public closures and announced tougher quarantine policies such as prohibiting intercity transportation and shopping malls a few weeks later [ 5 ]. In this case, many participants criticized the delay of the government. According to this finding, a rapid review by Nussbaumer-Streit et al. demonstrated that early quarantine had better effects [ 27 ]. Given the importance of breaking the virus transmission chain, many participants mentioned that the continuous monitoring of relatives and families of infected patients is highly important. Although Iran’s Ministry of Health is working on a national screening plan to identify and follow the suspicious cases before the symptoms appear [ 5 ], the infected people of some cities come to public places after being discharged and getting recovered, and this is an issue requiring further preventive policies. Accordingly, South Korea, which is considered as one of the most successful countries in the fight against the disease, has adopted a policy to track the corona virus carriers based on which people that are diagnosed with the disease would have an app installed on their mobile phone [ 28 ]. In this regard, without disclosing the personal information of infected people, their presence in different places would be notified to other members of the community [ 29 ].

The provision of equitable and affordable health care services was another expectation. Indeed, economic hardships are one of the most important causes of stress, as shown in a study carried out in Bangladesh [ 30 ]. Regarding the high cost of health care services in Iran, many people face with financial hardships [ 31 ]. In response, the government of Iran has developed a number of policies to increase the access to health care services for COVID-19 patients. Therefore, the services are completely free for the groups covered by the health insurance, and there are also some exemptions for the same group [ 32 ]. It should also be noted that Iran has provided free health services to immigrants during this pandemic [ 33 ]. Continuous disinfection of public places is another expectation to prevent the virus transmission. As evidence shows, almost all the affected countries disinfect public places and routes [ 34 ]. Our findings indicate that despite efforts to disinfect public places, many individuals do not consider them to be sufficient and believe that they should be increased in quality and quantity. Although wearing masks and gloves has been emphasized to prevent the infection [ 6 , 26 ], it is still difficult to have access to these protective devices in Iran; therefore, more appropriate production and distribution mechanisms must be adopted. However, the shortage of such equipment after the crisis is not unexpected, as observed in developed countries such as the U.S. and Italy [ 35 , 36 ].

COVID-19 pandemic has been considered as a global political crisis [ 37 ]. In Iran, there have been a number of political problems posed by this pandemic. According to the findings, stricter enforcement measures during the quarantine period and the imposition of effective fines were expected by the participants. From another perspective, many participants stated that as it was applied in Wuhan, traveling from cities such as Qom and Tehran, which were the sources of the outbreak, should be prohibited [ 25 ]. However, this strategy could not been practically applied due to the limitations existed for the government of Iran resulted from international sanctions [ 7 ]. Many participants also referred to serious actions against lawbreakers and rumor mongers as an effective approach in facilitating the fight against COVID-19. Evidence suggests that countries such as India and France have imposed severe penalties on lawbreakers with the purpose of slowing down the spread of the virus [ 38 , 39 ]. Saudi Arabia, also imposed heavy fines on violators during COVID-19 outbreak based on its experiences with MERS pandemic [ 40 ].

Honesty and transparency are the best policies in the crisis management [ 41 ]. As evidence indicates, openness and honesty can promote the fight against the pandemic, as observed in the case of SARS in 2003 in Hong Kong and Taiwan [ 42 , 43 ]. Moreover, the participants emphasized the importance of the honesty of authorities and expressed it as a requirement for public trust. Findings indicated the need for greater use of experts in COVID-19 control process in Iran. On the other hand, since coordination and collaboration among stakeholders and actors is a crucial prerequisite for effective policy-making and implementation of programs and strategies [ 44 ], a majority of the participants highlighted this point. Also, the need to delegate authority to relevant local institutions and centers with the purpose of expediting the decision-making process was another finding of this study. Unfortunately, the existence of slow bureaucratic structures in Iran has always been considered as one of the main obstacles in the face of crises [ 45 ]. Notably, Norway was one of the most successful countries in controlling the COVID-19 using the capacity of regional and local enterprises such as municipalities [ 46 ]. It is noteworthy that due to the delegation of strong power to local organizations in Japan, local governments in Tokyo and Hokkaido responded to the COVID-19 outbreak earlier than the national government [ 47 ].

The negative economic effects of pandemics have always been a major challenge to societies [ 48 , 49 ]. During a short period after the COVID-19 outbreak, the world economy faced many problems; therefore, the citizens, especially the vulnerable, have a range of expectations from their governments [ 50 ]. According to our findings and economic problems, the participants declared that delaying the bank installments, providing low-interest loans, submitting livelihood packages to poor households, and considering exemptions from non-payment of service bills could be potential policies. Different countries have pursued various financial policies in facing with the disease. For example, South Korea allocates approximately $1030 per month on four-member families with an infected patient [ 51 ]. Similar policies have been also adopted by Italy, the United States, Germany, Japan and France [ 52 ]. Furthermore, the British government has set aside about $400 billion to support small and large businesses in the form of guaranteed loans [ 52 ]. In addition, the Swiss central bank called on its banks to refrain from paying dividends and repurchasing stocks as the government seeks to increase funding in order to prevent the industry stagnation. The Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority has also announced that it has allowed banks to defer the re-payment of mortgage installments [ 53 ]. Since the International Monetary Fund has forecasted a negative 3% global growth in 2020 [ 54 ], various countries, including Iran, need to develop comprehensive policies to reduce the negative economic effects of COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts believe that the main role of media in different crises, such as pandemics, is to publish the right news, reduce the pessimism towards the information and news of official sources, and create peace of mind [ 55 , 56 , 57 ]. In current study, participants demanded for the provision of real time, and accurate news and statistics by the official media; also, and many believed that the distrust of people had turned them to unofficial sources. In addition, mass media play a significant role during pandemics such as effective health communication for consideration of the preventive measures, appropriate approaches of helping individuals to deal with the social distancing, reduction of inequalities, stigma, and psychological disorders [ 58 ]. In other words, media are acknowledged as a main tool in risk communication during this situation; however, the impacts of media on the pandemics are complex [ 59 ]. Briefly, considering the importance of information and their potential benefits can be an appropriate solution to reduce the adverse effects of COVID-19 epidemic.


Two of the most important limitations of the current study should be mentioned before generalizing the findings. First, current study did not conduct the conventional qualitative methods, i.e., interviews or discussion, and the data collected through textual information online. Second, it is a cross-sectional study so that we can not make any transformations in perspectives or perceptions based on changes in the COVID-19 epidemic.

Generally, three main themes were recognized as the main expectations from government to fight COVID-19 pandemic including health-related expectations, policy-related expectations, and Information-related expectations. Results showed that people would face a number of challenges during this pandemic; therefore, they have to expect the government and other responsible institutions to minimize their burden by adopting effective policies. Furthermore, the findings of this study could help the policy-makers become more aware of the expectations of people and develop better strategies. It is suggested that governments be aware of the requirements of their citizens during the epidemics and adjust their policies accordingly. Quantitative studies in this field are also recommended.

Availability of data and materials

The data collected and analyzed during the study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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The present study was supported by the Vice-chancellor for Research, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Shiraz, Iran. We would like to thank the study participants.

This work was supported by the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS), Shiraz, Iran (No. 98–01–106-22071). The funding bodies played no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data and in writing the manuscript.

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Leila Zarei, Saeed Shahabi, Reza Tabrizi, Seyed Taghi Heydari & Kamran Bagheri Lankarani

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STH, LZ, and KBL designed the study. STH and LZ collected the raw data. AKS, RT and SSH participated in analysis process. SSH and LZ wrote the initial draft of manuscript. The authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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The COVID-19 responsibility we all own

Call it common sense or call it ‘self-leadership’, as citizens, we all have a responsibility to heed the current health advice or risk increasingly severe government restrictions

By Professor Thomas Maak, University of Melbourne

Australia’s states have come down hard on social interactions , following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s move to limit gatherings to no more than two people.

Most of the states, including Victoria and New South Wales, have banned leaving home except for essential purposes like shopping or medical appointments, with large fines and even jail time for those who break the rules.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

“The sacrifice we make as individuals is the protect everyone across the board,” said Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

What we’re seeing, both here and around the world, is governments walking a very fine line; attempting to balance society’s health benefits with the potential economic costs of the pandemic, and balance our personal freedoms with public restrictions for our own good.

However, the more people that flout these restrictions, the more likely the government is to impose more.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Where is the data on whether Australia aims to squash or flatten the curve?

My research looks at how we can balance government-imposed sanctions with our own behaviour, inspired by traditional ideas of civic republicanism in Ancient Greece, the Italian Republics and more recent developments in democracy.

A well-known example is featured in Homer’s The Odyssey , where the hero Odysseus binds himself to the mast of the ship while passing the beautiful but deadly songs of the sirens.

Odysseus knows he will be tempted by the sirens’ song – but also that it will lead him and his crew to shipwreck on the rocks. By curtailing his own freedoms, he saves the ship.

In the same way, if we choose to confine ourselves to our homes as much as possible, we can each play our part in reducing deaths from COVID-19.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay


Governments around the world are taking all of these steps in order avoid the ethical tragedy of doctors having to choose who to save.

It’s a terrible choice we’ve seen faced by doctors in Italy and Spain .

Italy has suffered the deadliest outbreak of coronavirus in the world with more deaths recorded than in China, in part due to its older population profile.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Protecting our ageing population from COVID-19

According to some reports out of northern Italy, only patients under 60 are getting ventilators.

Having watched the Italian horror unfold, the Spanish Society of Critical Intensive Care Medicine and Coronary Units drafted an ethical guide to help doctors make these awful decisions.

The text recommends that priority should be given to patients with the greatest life expectancy , taking into account quality-of-life considerations and that “age should not be the only element to consider in assignation strategies”.

Australian disease modelling suggests a similar scenario will play out in our country in the coming weeks, unless the government implements effective social distancing measure, and citizens actually take heed of them.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay


Despite government health warnings, we saw Australians continue to gather in large groups – on Victoria’s beaches , on Bondi beach and in city bars and clubs . There are similar examples from overseas.

As a result, the government was left with little choice but to implement stronger measures.

And this highlights the problem of responding to the pandemic in a liberal democracy like Australia. The government can set the guidelines and health advisories, but it is actually up to all of us to take steps as individuals to listen and think about the impact of our own actions.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

The maths and ethics of minimising COVID-19 deaths

In leadership studies, we call this “self-leadership”, or the responsibility we take over our own actions. Just as leaders of organisations and governments have to manage other people, self-leadership is about managing ourselves.

In particular during COVID-19, we can use a form of self-leadership known as “intelligent self-binding”. Like Odysseus binding himself to the mast of his ship, this requires us to take the call to stay home seriously – setting up routines and rituals to make restricted living more comfortable.

Practising extra hygiene and stocking up on some basic supplies, without panic-buying, is another element, while taking extra caution to maintain space around us.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

But it’s also about reducing face-to-face interaction to an absolute minimum and limiting our use of public spaces.

Even dinner with friends can be problematic at this point of the crisis, let alone clustering at the beaches. What the beach crowds and groups heading out on a Friday night display is a lack of self-leadership.


Self-leadership at the moment means that we should all stay at home whenever and wherever possible – isolation is a key component of any pandemic fight; act fast, isolate, break up social clustering.

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

How to take care of yourself if you have COVID-19

If we don’t take up these responsibilities ourselves, the government will have to step in, and in some places that has already happened.

In the UK, police will be able to issue “unlimited fines” to those who don’t comply with new rules on social distancing. And here in Australia, Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews has put together a force of 500 police to enforce social distancing measures. The latest rules announced by the states give even further powers to the police.

None of us want that if we can avoid it.

This is why self-leadership of citizens must go hand-in-hand with government action.

The more Australian bind themselves to rules of self-governance in this crisis, the more individual freedom we can preserve – even in the eye of the storm.

Perhaps it’s time to read Homer again, at home. As far as I am concerned, that’s all the tragedy I need right now.

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Essays reveal experiences during pandemic, unrest.

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Field study students share their thoughts 

Members of Advanced Field Study, a select group of Social Ecology students who are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in a year-long field study experience and course, had their internships and traditional college experience cut short this year. During our final quarter of the year together, during which we met weekly for two hours via Zoom, we discussed their reactions as the world fell apart around them. First came the pandemic and social distancing, then came the death of George Floyd and the response of the Black Lives Matter movement, both of which were imprinted on the lives of these students. This year was anything but dull, instead full of raw emotion and painful realizations of the fragility of the human condition and the extent to which we need one another. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for our students to chronicle their experiences — the good and the bad, the lessons learned, and ways in which they were forever changed by the events of the past four months. I invited all of my students to write an essay describing the ways in which these times had impacted their learning and their lives during or after their time at UCI. These are their voices. — Jessica Borelli , associate professor of psychological science

Becoming Socially Distant Through Technology: The Tech Contagion

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

The current state of affairs put the world on pause, but this pause gave me time to reflect on troubling matters. Time that so many others like me probably also desperately needed to heal without even knowing it. Sometimes it takes one’s world falling apart for the most beautiful mosaic to be built up from the broken pieces of wreckage. 

As the school year was coming to a close and summer was edging around the corner, I began reflecting on how people will spend their summer breaks if the country remains in its current state throughout the sunny season. Aside from living in the sunny beach state of California where people love their vitamin D and social festivities, I think some of the most damaging effects Covid-19 will have on us all has more to do with social distancing policies than with any inconveniences we now face due to the added precautions, despite how devastating it may feel that Disneyland is closed to all the local annual passholders or that the beaches may not be filled with sun-kissed California girls this summer. During this unprecedented time, I don’t think we should allow the rare opportunity we now have to be able to watch in real time how the effects of social distancing can impact our mental health. Before the pandemic, many of us were already engaging in a form of social distancing. Perhaps not the exact same way we are now practicing, but the technology that we have developed over recent years has led to a dramatic decline in our social contact and skills in general. 

The debate over whether we should remain quarantined during this time is not an argument I am trying to pursue. Instead, I am trying to encourage us to view this event as a unique time to study how social distancing can affect people’s mental health over a long period of time and with dramatic results due to the magnitude of the current issue. Although Covid-19 is new and unfamiliar to everyone, the isolation and separation we now face is not. For many, this type of behavior has already been a lifestyle choice for a long time. However, the current situation we all now face has allowed us to gain a more personal insight on how that experience feels due to the current circumstances. Mental illness continues to remain a prevalent problem throughout the world and for that reason could be considered a pandemic of a sort in and of itself long before the Covid-19 outbreak. 

One parallel that can be made between our current restrictions and mental illness reminds me in particular of hikikomori culture. Hikikomori is a phenomenon that originated in Japan but that has since spread internationally, now prevalent in many parts of the world, including the United States. Hikikomori is not a mental disorder but rather can appear as a symptom of a disorder. People engaging in hikikomori remain confined in their houses and often their rooms for an extended period of time, often over the course of many years. This action of voluntary confinement is an extreme form of withdrawal from society and self-isolation. Hikikomori affects a large percent of people in Japan yearly and the problem continues to become more widespread with increasing occurrences being reported around the world each year. While we know this problem has continued to increase, the exact number of people practicing hikikomori is unknown because there is a large amount of stigma surrounding the phenomenon that inhibits people from seeking help. This phenomenon cannot be written off as culturally defined because it is spreading to many parts of the world. With the technology we now have, and mental health issues on the rise and expected to increase even more so after feeling the effects of the current pandemic, I think we will definitely see a rise in the number of people engaging in this social isolation, especially with the increase in legitimate fears we now face that appear to justify the previously considered irrational fears many have associated with social gatherings. We now have the perfect sample of people to provide answers about how this form of isolation can affect people over time. 

Likewise, with the advancements we have made to technology not only is it now possible to survive without ever leaving the confines of your own home, but it also makes it possible for us to “fulfill” many of our social interaction needs. It’s very unfortunate, but in addition to the success we have gained through our advancements we have also experienced a great loss. With new technology, I am afraid that we no longer engage with others the way we once did. Although some may say the advancements are for the best, I wonder, at what cost? It is now commonplace to see a phone on the table during a business meeting or first date. Even worse is how many will feel inclined to check their phone during important or meaningful interactions they are having with people face to face. While our technology has become smarter, we have become dumber when it comes to social etiquette. As we all now constantly carry a mini computer with us everywhere we go, we have in essence replaced our best friends. We push others away subconsciously as we reach for our phones during conversations. We no longer remember phone numbers because we have them all saved in our phones. We find comfort in looking down at our phones during those moments of free time we have in public places before our meetings begin. These same moments were once the perfect time to make friends, filled with interactive banter. We now prefer to stare at other people on our phones for hours on end, and often live a sedentary lifestyle instead of going out and interacting with others ourselves. 

These are just a few among many issues the advances to technology led to long ago. We have forgotten how to practice proper tech-etiquette and we have been inadvertently practicing social distancing long before it was ever required. Now is a perfect time for us to look at the society we have become and how we incurred a different kind of pandemic long before the one we currently face. With time, as the social distancing regulations begin to lift, people may possibly begin to appreciate life and connecting with others more than they did before as a result of the unique experience we have shared in together while apart.

Maybe the world needed a time-out to remember how to appreciate what it had but forgot to experience. Life is to be lived through experience, not to be used as a pastime to observe and compare oneself with others. I’ll leave you with a simple reminder: never forget to take care and love more because in a world where life is often unpredictable and ever changing, one cannot risk taking time or loved ones for granted. With that, I bid you farewell, fellow comrades, like all else, this too shall pass, now go live your best life!

Privilege in a Pandemic 

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Covid-19 has impacted millions of Americans who have been out of work for weeks, thus creating a financial burden. Without a job and the certainty of knowing when one will return to work, paying rent and utilities has been a problem for many. With unemployment on the rise, relying on unemployment benefits has become a necessity for millions of people. According to the Washington Post , unemployment rose to 14.7% in April which is considered to be the worst since the Great Depression. 

Those who are not worried about the financial aspect or the thought never crossed their minds have privilege. Merriam Webster defines privilege as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” Privilege can have a negative connotation. What you choose to do with your privilege is what matters. Talking about privilege can bring discomfort, but the discomfort it brings can also carry the benefit of drawing awareness to one’s privilege, which can lead the person to take steps to help others. 

I am a first-generation college student who recently transferred to a four-year university. When schools began to close, and students had to leave their on-campus housing, many lost their jobs.I was able to stay on campus because I live in an apartment. I am fortunate to still have a job, although the hours are minimal. My parents help pay for school expenses, including housing, tuition, and food. I do not have to worry about paying rent or how to pay for food because my parents are financially stable to help me. However, there are millions of college students who are not financially stable or do not have the support system I have. Here, I have the privilege and, thus, I am the one who can offer help to others. I may not have millions in funding, but volunteering for centers who need help is where I am able to help. Those who live in California can volunteer through Californians For All  or at food banks, shelter facilities, making calls to seniors, etc. 

I was not aware of my privilege during these times until I started reading more articles about how millions of people cannot afford to pay their rent, and landlords are starting to send notices of violations. Rather than feel guilty and be passive about it, I chose to put my privilege into a sense of purpose: Donating to nonprofits helping those affected by COVID-19, continuing to support local businesses, and supporting businesses who are donating profits to those affected by COVID-19.

My World is Burning 

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

As I write this, my friends are double checking our medical supplies and making plans to buy water and snacks to pass out at the next protest we are attending. We write down the number for the local bailout fund on our arms and pray that we’re lucky enough not to have to use it should things get ugly. We are part of a pivotal event, the kind of movement that will forever have a place in history. Yet, during this revolution, I have papers to write and grades to worry about, as I’m in the midst of finals. 

My professors have offered empty platitudes. They condemn the violence and acknowledge the stress and pain that so many of us are feeling, especially the additional weight that this carries for students of color. I appreciate their show of solidarity, but it feels meaningless when it is accompanied by requests to complete research reports and finalize presentations. Our world is on fire. Literally. On my social media feeds, I scroll through image after image of burning buildings and police cars in flames. How can I be asked to focus on school when my community is under siege? When police are continuing to murder black people, adding additional names to the ever growing list of their victims. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. David Mcatee. And, now, Rayshard Brooks. 

It already felt like the world was being asked of us when the pandemic started and classes continued. High academic expectations were maintained even when students now faced the challenges of being locked down, often trapped in small spaces with family or roommates. Now we are faced with another public health crisis in the form of police violence and once again it seems like educational faculty are turning a blind eye to the impact that this has on the students. I cannot study for exams when I am busy brushing up on my basic first-aid training, taking notes on the best techniques to stop heavy bleeding and treat chemical burns because at the end of the day, if these protests turn south, I will be entering a warzone. Even when things remain peaceful, there is an ugliness that bubbles just below the surface. When beginning the trek home, I have had armed members of the National Guard follow me and my friends. While kneeling in silence, I have watched police officers cock their weapons and laugh, pointing out targets in the crowd. I have been emailing my professors asking for extensions, trying to explain that if something is turned in late, it could be the result of me being detained or injured. I don’t want to be penalized for trying to do what I wholeheartedly believe is right. 

I have spent my life studying and will continue to study these institutions that have been so instrumental in the oppression and marginalization of black and indigenous communities. Yet, now that I have the opportunity to be on the frontlines actively fighting for the change our country so desperately needs, I feel that this study is more of a hindrance than a help to the cause. Writing papers and reading books can only take me so far and I implore that professors everywhere recognize that requesting their students split their time and energy between finals and justice is an impossible ask.

Opportunity to Serve

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Since the start of the most drastic change of our lives, I have had the privilege of helping feed more than 200 different families in the Santa Ana area and even some neighboring cities. It has been an immense pleasure seeing the sheer joy and happiness of families as they come to pick up their box of food from our site, as well as a $50 gift card to Northgate, a grocery store in Santa Ana. Along with donating food and helping feed families, the team at the office, including myself, have dedicated this time to offering psychosocial and mental health check-ups for the families we serve. 

Every day I go into the office I start my day by gathering files of our families we served between the months of January, February, and March and calling them to check on how they are doing financially, mentally, and how they have been affected by COVID-19. As a side project, I have been putting together Excel spreadsheets of all these families’ struggles and finding a way to turn their situation into a success story to share with our board at PY-OCBF and to the community partners who make all of our efforts possible. One of the things that has really touched me while working with these families is how much of an impact this nonprofit organization truly has on family’s lives. I have spoken with many families who I just call to check up on and it turns into an hour call sharing about how much of a change they have seen in their child who went through our program. Further, they go on to discuss that because of our program, their children have a different perspective on the drugs they were using before and the group of friends they were hanging out with. Of course, the situation is different right now as everyone is being told to stay at home; however, there are those handful of kids who still go out without asking for permission, increasing the likelihood they might contract this disease and pass it to the rest of the family. We are working diligently to provide support for these parents and offering advice to talk to their kids in order to have a serious conversation with their kids so that they feel heard and validated. 

Although the novel Coronavirus has impacted the lives of millions of people not just on a national level, but on a global level, I feel that in my current position, it has opened doors for me that would have otherwise not presented themselves. Fortunately, I have been offered a full-time position at the Project Youth Orange County Bar Foundation post-graduation that I have committed to already. This invitation came to me because the organization received a huge grant for COVID-19 relief to offer to their staff and since I was already part-time, they thought I would be a good fit to join the team once mid-June comes around. I was very excited and pleased to be recognized for the work I have done at the office in front of all staff. I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. I will work even harder to provide for the community and to continue changing the lives of adolescents, who have steered off the path of success. I will use my time as a full-time employee to polish my resume, not forgetting that the main purpose of my moving to Irvine was to become a scholar and continue the education that my parents couldn’t attain. I will still be looking for ways to get internships with other fields within criminology. One specific interest that I have had since being an intern and a part-time employee in this organization is the work of the Orange County Coroner’s Office. I don’t exactly know what enticed me to find it appealing as many would say that it is an awful job in nature since it relates to death and seeing people in their worst state possible. However, I feel that the only way for me to truly know if I want to pursue such a career in forensic science will be to just dive into it and see where it takes me. 

I can, without a doubt, say that the Coronavirus has impacted me in a way unlike many others, and for that I am extremely grateful. As I continue working, I can also state that many people are becoming more and more hopeful as time progresses. With people now beginning to say Stage Two of this stay-at-home order is about to allow retailers and other companies to begin doing curbside delivery, many families can now see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Let’s Do Better

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

This time of the year is meant to be a time of celebration; however, it has been difficult to feel proud or excited for many of us when it has become a time of collective mourning and sorrow, especially for the Black community. There has been an endless amount of pain, rage, and helplessness that has been felt throughout our nation because of the growing list of Black lives we have lost to violence and brutality.

To honor the lives that we have lost, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Trayon Martin, and all of the other Black lives that have been taken away, may they Rest in Power.

Throughout my college experience, I have become more exposed to the various identities and the upbringings of others, which led to my own self-reflection on my own privileged and marginalized identities. I identify as Colombian, German, and Mexican; however navigating life as a mixed race, I have never been able to identify or have one culture more salient than the other. I am visibly white-passing and do not hold any strong ties with any of my ethnic identities, which used to bring me feelings of guilt and frustration, for I would question whether or not I could be an advocate for certain communities, and whether or not I could claim the identity of a woman of color. In the process of understanding my positionality, I began to wonder what space I belonged in, where I could speak up, and where I should take a step back for others to speak. I found myself in a constant theme of questioning what is my narrative and slowly began to realize that I could not base it off lone identities and that I have had the privilege to move through life without my identities defining who I am. Those initial feelings of guilt and confusion transformed into growth, acceptance, and empowerment.

This journey has driven me to educate myself more about the social inequalities and injustices that people face and to focus on what I can do for those around me. It has motivated me to be more culturally responsive and competent, so that I am able to best advocate for those around me. Through the various roles I have worked in, I have been able to listen to a variety of communities’ narratives and experiences, which has allowed me to extend my empathy to these communities while also pushing me to continue educating myself on how I can best serve and empower them. By immersing myself amongst different communities, I have been given the honor of hearing others’ stories and experiences, which has inspired me to commit myself to support and empower others.

I share my story of navigating through my privileged and marginalized identities in hopes that it encourages others to explore their own identities. This journey is not an easy one, and it is an ongoing learning process that will come with various mistakes. I have learned that with facing our privileges comes feelings of guilt, discomfort, and at times, complacency. It is very easy to become ignorant when we are not affected by different issues, but I challenge those who read this to embrace the discomfort. With these emotions, I have found it important to reflect on the source of discomfort and guilt, for although they are a part of the process, in taking the steps to become more aware of the systemic inequalities around us, understanding the source of discomfort can better inform us on how we perpetuate these systemic inequalities. If we choose to embrace ignorance, we refuse to acknowledge the systems that impact marginalized communities and refuse to honestly and openly hear cries for help. If we choose our own comfort over the lives of those being affected every day, we can never truly honor, serve, or support these communities.

I challenge any non-Black person, including myself, to stop remaining complacent when injustices are committed. We need to consistently recognize and acknowledge how the Black community is disproportionately affected in every injustice experienced and call out anti-Blackness in every role, community, and space we share. We need to keep ourselves and others accountable when we make mistakes or fall back into patterns of complacency or ignorance. We need to continue educating ourselves instead of relying on the emotional labor of the Black community to continuously educate us on the history of their oppressions. We need to collectively uplift and empower one another to heal and rise against injustice. We need to remember that allyship ends when action ends.

To the Black community, you are strong. You deserve to be here. The recent events are emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, and the need for rest to take care of your mental, physical, and emotional well-being are at an all time high. If you are able, take the time to regain your energy, feel every emotion, and remind yourself of the power you have inside of you. You are not alone.

The Virus That Makes You Forget

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Following Jan. 1 of 2020 many of my classmates and I continued to like, share, and forward the same meme. The meme included any image but held the same phrase: I can see 2020. For many of us, 2020 was a beacon of hope. For the Class of 2020, this meant walking on stage in front of our families. Graduation meant becoming an adult, finding a job, or going to graduate school. No matter what we were doing in our post-grad life, we were the new rising stars ready to take on the world with a positive outlook no matter what the future held. We felt that we had a deal with the universe that we were about to be noticed for our hard work, our hardships, and our perseverance.

Then March 17 of 2020 came to pass with California Gov. Newman ordering us to stay at home, which we all did. However, little did we all know that the world we once had open to us would only be forgotten when we closed our front doors.

Life became immediately uncertain and for many of us, that meant graduation and our post-graduation plans including housing, careers, education, food, and basic standards of living were revoked! We became the forgotten — a place from which many of us had attempted to rise by attending university. The goals that we were told we could set and the plans that we were allowed to make — these were crushed before our eyes.

Eighty days before graduation, in the first several weeks of quarantine, I fell extremely ill; both unfortunately and luckily, I was isolated. All of my roommates had moved out of the student apartments leaving me with limited resources, unable to go to the stores to pick up medicine or food, and with insufficient health coverage to afford a doctor until my throat was too swollen to drink water. For nearly three weeks, I was stuck in bed, I was unable to apply to job deadlines, reach out to family, and have contact with the outside world. I was forgotten.

Forty-five days before graduation, I had clawed my way out of illness and was catching up on an honors thesis about media depictions of sexual exploitation within the American political system, when I was relayed the news that democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was accused of sexual assault. However, when reporting this news to close friends who had been devastated and upset by similar claims against past politicians, they all were too tired and numb from the quarantine to care. Just as I had written hours before reading the initial story, history was repeating, and it was not only I who COVID-19 had forgotten, but now survivors of violence.

After this revelation, I realize the silencing factor that COVID-19 has. Not only does it have the power to terminate the voices of our older generations, but it has the power to silence and make us forget the voices of every generation. Maybe this is why social media usage has gone up, why we see people creating new social media accounts, posting more, attempting to reach out to long lost friends. We do not want to be silenced, moreover, we cannot be silenced. Silence means that we have been forgotten and being forgotten is where injustice and uncertainty occurs. By using social media, pressing like on a post, or even sending a hate message, means that someone cares and is watching what you are doing. If there is no interaction, I am stuck in the land of indifference.

This is a place that I, and many others, now reside, captured and uncertain. In 2020, my plan was to graduate Cum Laude, dean's honor list, with three honors programs, three majors, and with research and job experience that stretched over six years. I would then go into my first year of graduate school, attempting a dual Juris Doctorate. I would be spending my time experimenting with new concepts, new experiences, and new relationships. My life would then be spent giving a microphone to survivors of domestic violence and sex crimes. However, now the plan is wiped clean, instead I sit still bound to graduate in 30 days with no home to stay, no place to work, and no future education to come back to. I would say I am overly qualified, but pandemic makes me lost in a series of names and masked faces.

Welcome to My Cage: The Pandemic and PTSD

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

When I read the campuswide email notifying students of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus pandemic, I was sitting on my couch practicing a research presentation I was going to give a few hours later. For a few minutes, I sat there motionless, trying to digest the meaning of the words as though they were from a language other than my own, familiar sounds strung together in way that was wholly unintelligible to me. I tried but failed to make sense of how this could affect my life. After the initial shock had worn off, I mobilized quickly, snapping into an autopilot mode of being I knew all too well. I began making mental checklists, sharing the email with my friends and family, half of my brain wondering if I should make a trip to the grocery store to stockpile supplies and the other half wondering how I was supposed take final exams in the midst of so much uncertainty. The most chilling realization was knowing I had to wait powerlessly as the fate of the world unfolded, frozen with anxiety as I figured out my place in it all.

These feelings of powerlessness and isolation are familiar bedfellows for me. Early October of 2015, shortly after beginning my first year at UCI, I was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Despite having had years of psychological treatment for my condition, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Retraining, the flashbacks, paranoia, and nightmares still emerge unwarranted. People have referred to the pandemic as a collective trauma. For me, the pandemic has not only been a collective trauma, it has also been the reemergence of a personal trauma. The news of the pandemic and the implications it has for daily life triggered a reemergence of symptoms that were ultimately ignited by the overwhelming sense of helplessness that lies in waiting, as I suddenly find myself navigating yet another situation beyond my control. Food security, safety, and my sense of self have all been shaken by COVID-19.

The first few weeks after UCI transitioned into remote learning and the governor issued the stay-at-home order, I hardly got any sleep. My body was cycling through hypervigilance and derealization, and my sleep was interrupted by intrusive nightmares oscillating between flashbacks and frightening snippets from current events. Any coping methods I had developed through hard-won efforts over the past few years — leaving my apartment for a change of scenery, hanging out with friends, going to the gym — were suddenly made inaccessible to me due to the stay-at-home orders, closures of non-essential businesses, and many of my friends breaking their campus leases to move back to their family homes. So for me, learning to cope during COVID-19 quarantine means learning to function with my re-emerging PTSD symptoms and without my go-to tools. I must navigate my illness in a rapidly evolving world, one where some of my internalized fears, such as running out of food and living in an unsafe world, are made progressively more external by the minute and broadcasted on every news platform; fears that I could no longer escape, being confined in the tight constraints of my studio apartment’s walls. I cannot shake the devastating effects of sacrifice that I experience as all sense of control has been stripped away from me.

However, amidst my mental anguish, I have realized something important—experiencing these same PTSD symptoms during a global pandemic feels markedly different than it did years ago. Part of it might be the passage of time and the growth in my mindset, but there is something else that feels very different. Currently, there is widespread solidarity and support for all of us facing the chaos of COVID-19, whether they are on the frontlines of the fight against the illness or they are self-isolating due to new rules, restrictions, and risks. This was in stark contrast to what it was like to have a mental disorder. The unity we all experience as a result of COVID-19 is one I could not have predicted. I am not the only student heartbroken over a cancelled graduation, I am not the only student who is struggling to adapt to remote learning, and I am not the only person in this world who has to make sacrifices.

Between observations I’ve made on social media and conversations with my friends and classmates, this time we are all enduring great pain and stress as we attempt to adapt to life’s challenges. As a Peer Assistant for an Education class, I have heard from many students of their heartache over the remote learning model, how difficult it is to study in a non-academic environment, and how unmotivated they have become this quarter. This is definitely something I can relate to; as of late, it has been exceptionally difficult to find motivation and put forth the effort for even simple activities as a lack of energy compounds the issue and hinders basic needs. However, the willingness of people to open up about their distress during the pandemic is unlike the self-imposed social isolation of many people who experience mental illness regularly. Something this pandemic has taught me is that I want to live in a world where mental illness receives more support and isn’t so taboo and controversial. Why is it that we are able to talk about our pain, stress, and mental illness now, but aren’t able to talk about it outside of a global pandemic? People should be able to talk about these hardships and ask for help, much like during these circumstances.

It has been nearly three months since the coronavirus crisis was declared a pandemic. I still have many bad days that I endure where my symptoms can be overwhelming. But somehow, during my good days — and some days, merely good moments — I can appreciate the resilience I have acquired over the years and the common ground I share with others who live through similar circumstances. For veterans of trauma and mental illness, this isn’t the first time we are experiencing pain in an extreme and disastrous way. This is, however, the first time we are experiencing it with the rest of the world. This strange new feeling of solidarity as I read and hear about the experiences of other people provides some small comfort as I fight my way out of bed each day. As we fight to survive this pandemic, I hope to hold onto this feeling of togetherness and acceptance of pain, so that it will always be okay for people to share their struggles. We don’t know what the world will look like days, months, or years from now, but I hope that we can cultivate such a culture to make life much easier for people coping with mental illness.

A Somatic Pandemonium in Quarantine

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

I remember hearing that our brains create the color magenta all on their own. 

When I was younger I used to run out of my third-grade class because my teacher was allergic to the mold and sometimes would vomit in the trash can. My dad used to tell me that I used to always have to have something in my hands, later translating itself into the form of a hair tie around my wrist.

Sometimes, I think about the girl who used to walk on her tippy toes. medial and lateral nerves never planted, never grounded. We were the same in this way. My ability to be firmly planted anywhere was also withered. 

Was it from all the times I panicked? Or from the time I ran away and I blistered the soles of my feet 'til they were black from the summer pavement? Emetophobia. 

I felt it in the shower, dressing itself from the crown of my head down to the soles of my feet, noting the feeling onto my white board in an attempt to solidify it’s permanence.

As I breathed in the chemical blue transpiring from the Expo marker, everything was more defined. I laid down and when I looked up at the starlet lamp I had finally felt centered. Still. No longer fleeting. The grooves in the lamps glass forming a spiral of what felt to me like an artificial landscape of transcendental sparks. 

She’s back now, magenta, though I never knew she left or even ever was. Somehow still subconsciously always known. I had been searching for her in the tremors.

I can see her now in the daphnes, the golden rays from the sun reflecting off of the bark on the trees and the red light that glowed brighter, suddenly the town around me was warmer. A melting of hues and sharpened saturation that was apparent and reminded of the smell of oranges.

I threw up all of the carrots I ate just before. The trauma that my body kept as a memory of things that may or may not go wrong and the times that I couldn't keep my legs from running. Revelations bring memories bringing anxieties from fear and panic released from my body as if to say “NO LONGER!” 

I close my eyes now and my mind's eye is, too, more vivid than ever before. My inner eyelids lit up with orange undertones no longer a solid black, neurons firing, fire. Not the kind that burns you but the kind that can light up a dull space. Like the wick of a tea-lit candle. Magenta doesn’t exist. It is perception. A construct made of light waves, blue and red.

Demolition. Reconstruction. I walk down the street into this new world wearing my new mask, somatic senses tingling and I think to myself “Houston, I think we’ve just hit equilibrium.”

How COVID-19 Changed My Senior Year

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

During the last two weeks of Winter quarter, I watched the emails pour in. Spring quarter would be online, facilities were closing, and everyone was recommended to return home to their families, if possible. I resolved to myself that I would not move back home; I wanted to stay in my apartment, near my boyfriend, near my friends, and in the one place I had my own space. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, things continued to change quickly. Soon I learned my roommate/best friend would be cancelling her lease and moving back up to Northern California. We had made plans for my final quarter at UCI, as I would be graduating in June while she had another year, but all of the sudden, that dream was gone. In one whirlwind of a day, we tried to cram in as much of our plans as we could before she left the next day for good. There are still so many things – like hiking, going to museums, and showing her around my hometown – we never got to cross off our list.

Then, my boyfriend decided he would also be moving home, three hours away. Most of my sorority sisters were moving home, too. I realized if I stayed at school, I would be completely alone. My mom had been encouraging me to move home anyway, but I was reluctant to return to a house I wasn’t completely comfortable in. As the pandemic became more serious, gentle encouragement quickly turned into demands. I had to cancel my lease and move home.

I moved back in with my parents at the end of Spring Break; I never got to say goodbye to most of my friends, many of whom I’ll likely never see again – as long as the virus doesn’t change things, I’m supposed to move to New York over the summer to begin a PhD program in Criminal Justice. Just like that, my time at UCI had come to a close. No lasts to savor; instead I had piles of things to regret. In place of a final quarter filled with memorable lasts, such as the senior banquet or my sorority’s senior preference night, I’m left with a laundry list of things I missed out on. I didn’t get to look around the campus one last time like I had planned; I never got to take my graduation pictures in front of the UC Irvine sign. Commencement had already been cancelled. The lights had turned off in the theatre before the movie was over. I never got to find out how the movie ended.

Transitioning to a remote learning system wasn’t too bad, but I found that some professors weren’t adjusting their courses to the difficulties many students were facing. It turned out to be difficult to stay motivated, especially for classes that are pre-recorded and don’t have any face-to-face interaction. It’s hard to make myself care; I’m in my last few weeks ever at UCI, but it feels like I’m already in summer. School isn’t real, my classes aren’t real. I still put in the effort, but I feel like I’m not getting much out of my classes.

The things I had been looking forward to this quarter are gone; there will be no Undergraduate Research Symposium, where I was supposed to present two projects. My amazing internship with the US Postal Inspection Service is over prematurely and I never got to properly say goodbye to anyone I met there. I won’t receive recognition for the various awards and honors I worked so hard to achieve.

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I feel guilty for feeling bad about my situation, when I know there are others who have it much, much worse. I am like that quintessential spoiled child, complaining while there are essential workers working tirelessly, people with health concerns constantly fearing for their safety, and people dying every day. Yet knowing that doesn't help me from feeling I was robbed of my senior experience, something I worked very hard to achieve. I know it’s not nearly as important as what many others are going through. But nevertheless, this is my situation. I was supposed to be enjoying this final quarter with my friends and preparing to move on, not be stuck at home, grappling with my mental health and hiding out in my room to get some alone time from a family I don’t always get along with. And while I know it’s more difficult out there for many others, it’s still difficult for me.

The thing that stresses me out most is the uncertainty. Uncertainty for the future – how long will this pandemic last? How many more people have to suffer before things go back to “normal” – whatever that is? How long until I can see my friends and family again? And what does this mean for my academic future? Who knows what will happen between now and then? All that’s left to do is wait and hope that everything will work out for the best.

Looking back over my last few months at UCI, I wish I knew at the time that I was experiencing my lasts; it feels like I took so much for granted. If there is one thing this has all made me realize, it’s that nothing is certain. Everything we expect, everything we take for granted – none of it is a given. Hold on to what you have while you have it, and take the time to appreciate the wonderful things in life, because you never know when it will be gone.

Physical Distancing

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

Thirty days have never felt so long. April has been the longest month of the year. I have been through more in these past three months than in the past three years. The COVID-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on both physical and social well-being of a lot of Americans, including me. Stress has been governing the lives of so many civilians, in particular students and workers. In addition to causing a lack of motivation in my life, quarantine has also brought a wave of anxiety.

My life changed the moment the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the government announced social distancing. My busy daily schedule, running from class to class and meeting to meeting, morphed into identical days, consisting of hour after hour behind a cold computer monitor. Human interaction and touch improve trust, reduce fear and increases physical well-being. Imagine the effects of removing the human touch and interaction from midst of society. Humans are profoundly social creatures. I cannot function without interacting and connecting with other people. Even daily acquaintances have an impact on me that is only noticeable once removed. As a result, the COVID-19 outbreak has had an extreme impact on me beyond direct symptoms and consequences of contracting the virus itself.

It was not until later that month, when out of sheer boredom I was scrolling through my call logs and I realized that I had called my grandmother more than ever. This made me realize that quarantine had created some positive impacts on my social interactions as well. This period of time has created an opportunity to check up on and connect with family and peers more often than we were able to. Even though we might be connecting solely through a screen, we are not missing out on being socially connected. Quarantine has taught me to value and prioritize social connection, and to recognize that we can find this type of connection not only through in-person gatherings, but also through deep heart to heart connections. Right now, my weekly Zoom meetings with my long-time friends are the most important events in my week. In fact, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to reconnect with many of my old friends and have actually had more meaningful conversations with them than before the isolation.

This situation is far from ideal. From my perspective, touch and in-person interaction is essential; however, we must overcome all difficulties that life throws at us with the best we are provided with. Therefore, perhaps we should take this time to re-align our motives by engaging in things that are of importance to us. I learned how to dig deep and find appreciation for all the small talks, gatherings, and face-to-face interactions. I have also realized that friendships are not only built on the foundation of physical presence but rather on meaningful conversations you get to have, even if they are through a cold computer monitor. My realization came from having more time on my hands and noticing the shift in conversations I was having with those around me. After all, maybe this isolation isn’t “social distancing”, but rather “physical distancing” until we meet again.

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Citizenship in the time of pandemic

CAMP Aguinaldo—For the past three months, contemporary life as we know it has been turned upside down. Segments of our society were pushed to the edge in an unprecedented crisis that has exposed the deep crevasses in our society, particularly in our government institutions.

The spread of COVID-19 is a vicious test of the resilience of our government institutions, the capacity of the people in power to run this fragile system, and the capability of the Filipino people to make them accountable.

With local governments at the epicenter of government response, people saw how local executives performed (or underperformed) in response to the spread of the virus. Many are now convinced more than ever that able executives are crucial in responding to situations of great emergency.

In Metro Manila and other urban centers, these able executives utilized the autonomy granted them by the Local Government Code to make sure their constituents were safe not just from COVID-19, but more so from the ill effects of the mandatory quarantine. Unfortunately, not all local governments have these able executives.

On the other hand, the need for investments in mechanisms of public health that can easily be activated in situations of public health emergency has been highlighted. Efficient testing and contact tracing are two crucial elements in arresting the spread of a highly contagious pathogen, and it seems the health department can do so much better in this regard.

On a positive note, we have seen the primary asset of our society—a vibrant civil society—in action. Despite being locked up, the exercise of civil liberties was on display as citizens took to social media and observed every step the government took in trying to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

Moreover, we saw how sectors of civil society stepped up to help the government and those who were in need: big businesses mobilized their resources to provide assistance, religious organizations did what they could to help affected communities, a team of fashion designers designed reusable personal protective equipment for frontliners, and random Facebook groups popped up to help vulnerable groups such as jeepney drivers who had lost their source of livelihood due to the quarantine.

These initiatives, among many others, were a testament to the strength of our civil society.

The Asian Development Bank, in a policy brief published in 2013, named the Philippines’ civil society as “some of the most vibrant and advanced in the world… The basis for civil society comes from the Filipino concepts of pakikipagkapwa (holistic interaction with others) and kapwa (shared inner self). Voluntary assistance or charity connotes for Filipinos an equal status between the provider of assistance and the recipient, which is embodied in the terms damayan (assistance of peers in periods of crisis) and pagtutulungan (mutual self-help).”

Nevertheless, civil society and/or private sector cannot work on the pandemic fight alone. They need the government to be at the helm of effective decision-making to make sure that no efforts go to waste in fighting this invisible enemy.

Experts say this new normal could last up to two years until a vaccine is found. One thing that offers hope in this situation is the suggestion by one study that people’s tolerance for reckless government decision-making declines after a society emerges out of a pandemic.

Here’s hoping that Filipinos will remember the time when the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on their lives, as they cast their ballots in May 2022.

P2Lt. Jesse Angelo L. Altez is a member of the Corps of Professors, Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is a recipient of the Asian Development Bank-Japan Scholarship and obtained a master’s degree in public policy from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the AFP.

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The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic Is Shifting

We understand how this will end. But who bears the risk that remains?

During a pandemic , no one’s health is fully in their own hands. No field should understand that more deeply than public health, a discipline distinct from medicine. Whereas doctors and nurses treat sick individuals in front of them, public-health practitioners work to prevent sickness in entire populations. They are expected to think big. They know that infectious diseases are always collective problems because they are infectious . An individual’s choices can ripple outward to affect cities, countries, and continents; one sick person can seed a hemisphere’s worth of cases. In turn, each person’s odds of falling ill depend on the choices of everyone around them—and on societal factors, such as poverty and discrimination, that lie beyond their control.

Across 15 agonizing months, the COVID-19 pandemic repeatedly confirmed these central concepts. Many essential workers, who held hourly-wage jobs with no paid sick leave, were unable to isolate themselves for fear of losing their livelihood. Prisons and nursing homes, whose residents have little autonomy, became hot spots for the worst outbreaks. People in Black and Latino communities that were underserved by the existing health system were disproportionately infected and killed by the new coronavirus, and now have among the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Perhaps that’s why so many public-health experts were disquieted when, on May 13, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear masks in most indoor places. “The move today was really to talk about individuals and what individuals are safe doing,” Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, told PBS NewsHour . “We really want to empower people to take this responsibility into their own hands.” Walensky later used similar language on Twitter : “Your health is in your hands,” she wrote.

Framing one’s health as a matter of personal choice “is fundamentally against the very notion of public health,” Aparna Nair, a historian and an anthropologist of public health at the University of Oklahoma, told me. “For that to come from one of the most powerful voices in public health today … I was taken aback.” (The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.) It was especially surprising coming from a new administration. Donald Trump was a manifestation of America’s id—an unempathetic narcissist who talked about dominating the virus through personal strength while leaving states and citizens to fend for themselves. Joe Biden, by contrast, took COVID-19 seriously from the off, committed to ensuring an equitable pandemic response , and promised to invest $7.4 billion in strengthening America’s chronically underfunded public-health workforce . And yet, the same peal of individualism that rang in his predecessor’s words still echoes in his. “The rule is very simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do,” Biden said after the CDC announced its new guidance . “The choice is yours.”

From its founding, the United States has cultivated a national mythos around the capacity of individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, ostensibly by their own merits. This particular strain of individualism, which valorizes independence and prizes personal freedom, transcends administrations. It has also repeatedly hamstrung America’s pandemic response. It explains why the U.S. focused so intensely on preserving its hospital capacity instead of on measures that would have saved people from even needing a hospital. It explains why so many Americans refused to act for the collective good, whether by masking up or isolating themselves. And it explains why the CDC, despite being the nation’s top public-health agency, issued guidelines that focused on the freedoms that vaccinated people might enjoy. The move signaled to people with the newfound privilege of immunity that they were liberated from the pandemic’s collective problem. It also hinted to those who were still vulnerable that their challenges are now theirs alone and, worse still, that their lingering risk was somehow their fault. (“If you’re not vaccinated, that, again, is taking your responsibility for your own health into your own hands,” Walensky said .)

Neither is true. About half of Americans have yet to receive a single vaccine dose; for many of them, lack of access, not hesitancy, is the problem. The pandemic, meanwhile, is still just that—a pan demic, which is raging furiously around much of the world, and which still threatens large swaths of highly vaccinated countries, including some of their most vulnerable citizens. It is still a collective problem, whether or not Americans are willing to treat it as such.

Individualism can be costly in a pandemic. It represents one end of a cultural spectrum with collectivism at the other—independence versus interdependence, “me first” versus “we first.” These qualities can be measured by surveying attitudes in a particular community, or by assessing factors such as the proportion of people who live, work, or commute alone. Two studies found that more strongly individualistic countries tended to rack up more COVID-19 cases and deaths. A third suggested that more individualistic people (from the U.S., U.K, and other nations) were less likely to practice social distancing. A fourth showed that mask wearing was more common in more collectivist countries, U.S. states, and U.S. counties—a trend that held after accounting for factors including political affiliation, wealth, and the pandemic’s severity. These correlative studies all have limitations, but across them, a consistent pattern emerges—one supported by a closer look at the U.S. response.

“From the very beginning, I’ve thought that the way we’ve dealt with the pandemic reflects our narrow focus on the individual,” Camara Jones, a social epidemiologist at Morehouse School of Medicine, told me. Testing, for instance, relied on slow PCR-based tests to diagnose COVID-19 in individual patients. This approach makes intuitive sense—if you’re sick, you need to know why—but it cannot address the problem of “where the virus actually is in the population, and how to stop it,” Jones said. Instead, the U.S. could have widely distributed rapid antigen tests so that people could regularly screen themselves irrespective of symptoms, catch infections early, and isolate themselves when they were still contagious. Several sports leagues successfully used rapid tests in exactly this way, but they were never broadly deployed, despite months of pleading from experts .

The U.S. also largely ignored other measures that could have protected entire communities, such as better ventilation, high-filtration masks for essential workers, free accommodation for people who needed to isolate themselves, and sick-pay policies. As the country focused single-mindedly on a vaccine endgame, and Operation Warp Speed sped ahead, collective protections were left in the dust. And as vaccines were developed, the primary measure of their success was whether they prevented symptomatic disease in individuals.

Vaccines, of course, can be a collective solution to infectious disease, especially if enough people are immune that outbreaks end on their own. And even if the U.S. does not achieve herd immunity , vaccines will offer a measure of collective protection. As well as preventing infections—severe and mild, symptomatic and asymptomatic, vanilla and variant—they also clearly make people less likely to spread the virus to one another. In the rare event that fully vaccinated people get breakthrough infections , these tend to be milder and shorter ( as recently seen among the New York Yankees ); they also involve lower viral loads. “The available evidence strongly suggests that vaccines decrease the transmission potential of vaccine recipients who become infected with SARS-CoV-2 by at least half,” wrote three researchers in a recent review . Another team estimated that a single dose of Moderna’s vaccine “reduces the potential for transmission by at least 61 percent, possibly considerably more.”

Even if people get their shots purely to protect themselves, they also indirectly protect their communities. In Israel and the U.S. , rising proportions of immunized adults led to plummeting case numbers among children, even though the latter are too young to be vaccinated themselves. “For people who do not get vaccinated and remain vulnerable, their risk is still greatly reduced by the immunity around them,” Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, told me.

There’s a catch, though. Unvaccinated people are not randomly distributed. They tend to cluster together, socially and geographically, enabling the emergence of localized COVID-19 outbreaks. Partly, these clusters exist because vaccine skepticism grows within cultural and political divides, and spreads through social networks. But they also exist because decades of systemic racism have pushed communities of color into poor neighborhoods and low-paying jobs, making it harder for them to access health care in general, and now vaccines in particular .

“This rhetoric of personal responsibility seems to be tied to the notion that everyone in America who wants to be vaccinated can get a vaccine: You walk to your nearest Walgreens and get your shot,” Gavin Yamey, a global-health expert at Duke, told me. “The reality is very different.” People who live in poor communities might not be near vaccination sites, or have transportation options for reaching one. Those working in hourly jobs might be unable to take time off to visit a clinic, or to recover from side effects. Those who lack internet access or regular health-care providers might struggle to schedule appointments. Predictably, the new pockets of immune vulnerability map onto old pockets of social vulnerability.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey , a third of unvaccinated Hispanic adults want a vaccine as soon as possible—twice the proportion of unvaccinated whites. But 52 percent of this eager group were worried that they might need to miss work because of the reputed side effects, and 43 percent feared that getting vaccinated could jeopardize their immigration status or their families’. Unsurprisingly then, among the states that track racial data for vaccinations, just 32 percent of Hispanic Americans had received at least one dose by May 24, compared with 43 percent of white people. The proportion of at least partly vaccinated Black people was lower still, at 29 percent. And as Lola Fadulu and Dan Keating reported in The Washington Post , Black people now account for 82 percent of COVID-19 cases in Washington, D.C., up from 46 percent at the end of last year. The vaccines have begun to quench the pandemic inferno, but the remaining flames are still burning through the same communities that have already been disproportionately scorched by COVID-19 —and by a much older legacy of poor health care.

For unvaccinated people, the pandemic’s collective problem not only persists , but could deepen. “We’re entering a time when younger children are going to be the biggest unvaccinated population around,” Lessler told me. Overall, children are unlikely to have severe infections, but that low individual risk is still heightened by social factors; it is telling that more than 75 percent of the children who have died from COVID-19 were Black, Hispanic, or Native American. And when schools reopen for in-person classes, children can still spread the virus to their families and communities . “Schools play this fairly unique role in life,” Lessler said. “They’re places where a lot of communities get connected up, and they give the virus the ability, even if there’s not much transmission happening, to make its way from one pocket of unvaccinated people to another.”

Schools aren’t helpless. Lessler has shown that they can reduce the risk of seeding community outbreaks by combining several protective measures, such as regular symptom screenings and masks for teachers, tying their use to community incidence. But he worries that schools might instead pull back on such measures, whether in reaction to the CDC’s new guidance or because of complacency about an apparently waning pandemic. He worries, too, that complacency may be commonplace. Yes, vaccines substantially lower the odds that people will spread the virus, but those nonzero odds will creep upward if other protective measures are widely abandoned. The onset of cooler weather in the fall might increase them further. So might the arrival of new variants.

The Alpha variant of the new coronavirus (B.1.1.7, now the most common U.S. lineage) can already spread more easily than the original virus. The Delta variant (B.1.617.2, which has raised concerns after becoming dominant in the U.K. and India) could be more transmissible still . An assessment from the U.K. suggests that a single vaccine dose is less protective against Delta than its predecessors, although two doses are still largely effective . For now, vaccines are still beating the variants. But the variants are pummeling the unvaccinated.

“My biggest concern is that those who are unvaccinated will have a false sense of safety and security as cases drop this summer,” says Joseph Allen, who directs Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program. “It might feel like the threat has fully diminished if this is in the news less often, but if you’re unvaccinated and you catch this virus, your risk is still high.” Or perhaps higher: In the U.S., unvaccinated people might be less likely to encounter someone infectious. But on each such encounter , their odds of catching COVID-19 are now greater than they were last year.

When leaders signal to vaccinated people that they can tap out of the collective problem, that problem is shunted onto a smaller and already overlooked swath of society. And they do so myopically. The longer rich societies ignore the vulnerable among them, and the longer rich nations neglect countries that have barely begun to vaccinate their citizens, the more chances SARS-CoV-2 has to evolve into variants that spread even faster than Delta, or—the worst-case scenario—that finally smash through the vaccines’ protection. The virus thrives on time. “The longer we allow the pandemic to rage, the less protected we’ll be,” Morehouse’s Camara Jones says. “I think we’re being a bit smug about how well protected we are.”

Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, famously imagined pandemic defenses as layers of Swiss cheese . Each layer has holes, but when combined, they can block a virus. In Mackay’s model, vaccines were the last layer of many. But the U.S. has prematurely stripped the others away, including many of the most effective ones. A virus can evolve around a vaccine, but it cannot evolve to teleport across open spaces or punch its way through a mask. And yet, the country is going all in on vaccines, even though 48 percent of Americans still haven’t had their first dose, and despite the possibility that it might fall short of herd immunity . Instead of asking, “How do we end the pandemic?” it seems to be asking, “What level of risk can we tolerate?” Or perhaps, “Who gets to tolerate that risk?”

Consider what happened in May, after the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most indoor places. Almost immediately, several states lifted their mask mandate. At least 24 have now done so , as have many retailers including Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Costco, which now rely on the honor system. The speed of these changes was surprising. When The New York Times surveyed 570 epidemiologists a few weeks before the announcement, 95 percent of them predicted that Americans would need to continue wearing masks indoors for at least half a year.

Some public-health experts have defended the CDC’s new guidance, for at least four reasons. They say that the CDC correctly followed the science, that its new rules allow for more flexibility , that it correctly read the pulse of a fatigued nation, and that it may have encouraged vaccination (although Walensky has denied that this was the CDC’s intention). In sum, vaccinated people should know that they are safe, and act accordingly. By contrast, others feel that the CDC abrogated one of its primary responsibilities: to coordinate safety across the entire population .

In the strictest sense, the CDC’s guidance is accurate; vaccinated people are very unlikely to be infected with COVID-19, even without a mask. “You can’t expect the CDC to not share their scientific assessment because the implications have problems,” Ashish Jha, who heads the Brown University School of Public Health, told me. “They have to share it.” Harvard’s Joseph Allen agrees, and notes that the agency clearly stated that unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks indoors. And having some flexibility is useful. “You can’t have 150 million people who are vaccinated and ready to get back to some semblance of what they’re used to, and not have this tension in the country,” he told me. The new guidelines also move the U.S. away from top-down mandates, recognizing that “decisions are rightly shifting to the local level and individual organizations,” Allen wrote in The Washington Post . If some organizations and states pulled their mask mandate too early, he told me, “that’s an issue not with the CDC but with how people are acting based on its guidance.”

It’s true, too, that the CDC is in a difficult position. It had emerged from a year of muzzling and interference from the Trump administration, and was operating in a climate of polarization and public fatigue. “When agencies are putting out recommendations that people aren’t following, that undermines their credibility,” Jha told me. “The CDC, as a public-health agency, must be sensitive to where the public is.” And by May, “there was a sense that mask mandates were starting to topple.”

But that problem—that collective behavior was starting to change against collective interest—shows the weaknesses of the CDC’s decisions. “Science doesn’t stand outside of society,” Cecília Tomori, an anthropologist and a public-health scholar at Johns Hopkins, told me. “You can’t just ‘focus on the science’ in the abstract,” and especially not when you’re a federal agency whose guidance has been heavily politicized from the get-go. In that context, it was evident that the new guidance “would send a cultural message that we don’t need masks anymore,” Tomori said. Anticipating those reactions “is squarely within the expertise of public health,” she added, and the CDC could have clarified how its guidelines should be implemented. It could have tied the lifting of mask mandates to specific levels of vaccination, or the arrival of worker protections . Absent that clarity, and with no way for businesses to even verify who is vaccinated, a mass demasking was inevitable. “If you’re blaming the public for not understanding the guidance— wow ,” Duke’s Gavin Yamey said. “If people have misunderstood your guidance, your guidance was poor and confusing.”

Meanwhile, the idea that the new guidance led to more vaccinations is likely wrong. “I’ve overseen close to 10,000 people being vaccinated, and I’ve yet to hear ‘I can take the mask off’ as a reason,” Theresa Chapple-McGruder, a local-health-department director, told me. Although visits to the site spiked after the CDC’s announcement, actual vaccination rates increased only among children ages 12 to 15, who had become eligible the day before. Meanwhile, a KFF survey showed that 85 percent of unvaccinated adults felt that the new guidance didn’t change their vaccination plans. Only 10 percent said they were more likely to get vaccinated, while 4 percent said they were less likely. Vaccination rates are stuck on a plateau.

Creating incentives for vaccination is vital; treating the removal of an important protective measure as an incentive is folly. The latter implicitly supports the individualistic narrative that masks are oppressive burdens “that people need to get away from to get back to ‘normal,’” Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician and public-health advocate from the Bay Area, told me. In fact, they are an incredibly cheap, simple, and effective means of collective protection. “The pandemic made clear that the world is vulnerable to infectious disease and we should normalize the idea of precaution, as we see in other countries that have faced similar epidemics,” Boyd said. “But recommendations like this say, This is something we put behind us , rather than something we put in our back pocket.”

Collective action is not impossible for a highly individualistic country; after all, a majority of Americans used and supported masks. But such action erodes in the absence of leadership. In the U.S., only the federal government has the power and financial freedom to define and defend the collective good at the broad scales necessary to fight a pandemic. “Local public health depends on guidance from the federal level,” Chapple-McGruder said. “We don’t make local policies that fly in the face of national guidance.” Indeed, the CDC’s guidance prompted some local leaders to abandon sensible strategies: North Carolina’s governor had planned to lift COVID-19 restrictions after two-thirds of the state had been vaccinated, but did so the day after the CDC’s announcement, when only 41 percent had received their first dose. Meanwhile, Iowa and Texas joined Florida in preventing cities, counties, schools, or local institutions from issuing mask mandates. Rather than ushering in an era of flexibility, the CDC has arguably triggered a chain of buck-passing, wherein responsibility for one’s health is once again shunted all the way back to individuals. “Often, Let everyone decide for themselves is the easiest policy decision to make, but it’s a decision that facilitates spread of COVID in vulnerable communities,” Julia Raifman, a health-policy researcher at Boston University, told me.

The CDC’s own website lists the 10 essential public-health services —a set of foundational duties arranged in a colorful wheel. And at the center of that wheel, uniting and underpinning everything else, is equity —a commitment to “protect and promote the health of all people in all communities.” The CDC’s critics say that it has abandoned this central tenet of public health. Instead, its guidelines centered people who had the easiest and earliest access to vaccines, while overlooking the most vulnerable groups. These include immunocompromised people , for whom the shots may be less effective; essential workers , whose jobs place them in prolonged contact with others; and Black and Latino people, who are among the most likely to die of COVID-19 and the least likely to have been vaccinated.

During a pandemic, “someone taking all the personal responsibility in the world may still be affected by a lack of coordinated safety,” Raifman said. “They may be vaccinated but less protected because they are immunosuppressed and get the disease working in a grocery store amidst unmasked people. They may have a child who cannot be vaccinated, and miss work if that child gets COVID.” As Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said on Twitter , “Don’t tell me it’s “safe”; tell me what level of death or disability you are implicitly choosing to accept.” When Rochelle Walensky said, “It’s safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks,” she was accurate, but left unaddressed other, deeper questions: How much additive burden is a country willing to foist upon people who already carry their disproportionate share? What is America’s goal—to end the pandemic, or to suppress it to a level where it mostly plagues communities that privileged individuals can ignore?

“When you’re facing an epidemic, the responsibility of public health is to protect everybody , but those made vulnerable first ,” Boyd, the pediatrician, told me. “If you have protection, the CDC is glad for you, but their role is not the same for you. Their role is to keep those most at risk of infection and death from exposure.”

America is especially prone to the allure of individualism. But that same temptation has swayed the entire public-health field throughout its history. The debate about the CDC’s guidance is just the latest step in a centuries-old dance to define the very causes of disease.

In the early 19th century, European researchers such as Louis-René Villermé and Rudolf Virchow correctly recognized that disease epidemics were tied to societal conditions like poverty, poor sanitation, squalid housing, and dangerous jobs. They understood that these factors explain why some people become sick and others don’t. But this perspective slowly receded as the 19th century gave way to the 20th.

During those decades, researchers confirmed that microscopic germs cause infectious diseases, that occupational exposures to certain chemicals can cause cancers, that vitamin deficiencies can lead to nutritional disorders like scurvy, and that genetic differences can lead to physical variations among people. “Here … was a world in which disease was caused by germs, carcinogens, vitamin deficiencies, and genes,” wrote the epidemiologist Anthony J. McMichael in his classic 1999 paper, “ Prisoners of the Proximate . ” Public health itself became more individualistic. Epidemiologists began to see health largely in terms of personal traits and exposures. They became focused on finding “risk factors” that make individuals more vulnerable to disease, as if the causes of sickness play out purely across the boundaries of a person’s skin.

“The fault is not in doing such studies, but in only doing such studies,” McMichael wrote. Liver cirrhosis, for example, is caused by alcohol, but a person’s drinking behavior is influenced by their culture, occupation, and exposure to advertising or peer pressure. The distribution of individual risk factors—the spread of germs, the availability of nutritious food, one’s exposure to carcinogens—is always profoundly shaped by cultural and historical forces, and by inequities of race and class. “Yet modern epidemiology has largely ignored these issues of wider context,” McMichael wrote.

“The field has moved forward since then,” Nancy Krieger, a social epidemiologist at Harvard told me. Epidemiology is rediscovering its social side, fueled by new generations of researchers who don’t come from traditional biomedical backgrounds. “When I started out in the mid-1980s, there were virtually no sessions [at academic conferences] about class, racism, and health in the U.S.” Krieger said. “Now they’re commonplace.” But these connections have yet to fully penetrate the wider zeitgeist, where they are still eclipsed by the rhetoric of personal choice: Eat better. Exercise more. Your health is in your hands.

This is the context in which today’s CDC operates, and against which its choices must be understood. The CDC represents a field that has only recently begun to rebalance itself after long being skewed toward individualism. And the CDC remains a public-health agency in one of the most individualistic countries in the world. Its mission exists in tension with its environment. Its choice to resist that tension or yield to it affects not only America’s fate, but also the soul of public health—what it is and what it stands for, whom it serves and whom it abandons.

The Atlantic ’s COVID-19 coverage is supported by grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Beyond compliance: Good citizenship during the COVID‐19 pandemic

Nick clarke.

1 Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton, Southampton UK

Clive Barnett

2 School of Geography, University of Exeter, Exeter UK

Associated Data

Data supporting the results and analysis can be accessed at the Mass Observation Archive (see ).

In the UK, discussion of good citizenship during the COVID‐19 pandemic largely focused on compliance and non‐compliance with government rules. In this paper, we offer an alternative point of focus. Pandemic governance proceeded not only through rules/morality, but also through freedom/ethics. Good citizenship, therefore, involved practical reasoning in response to situations. We demonstrate this using diaries and other forms of writing collected by Mass Observation during the first six months of the pandemic. Responses to government rules and guidance varied by situation. Many people found governance through freedom/ethics confusing and burdensome. Faced with ethical dilemmas, they managed risks and responsibilities by deliberating, weighing justifications, and sometimes falling back on rules of thumb or heuristics. Discussion of good citizenship during future emergencies would benefit from a greater focus on situations, dilemmas, and justifications.

Short Abstract

Good citizenship during the COVID‐19 pandemic involved not only compliance with rules but also practical reasoning in response to situations. We demonstrate this using diaries and other forms of writing collected by Mass Observation.


During the COVID‐19 pandemic, there was much discussion of good (and bad) citizenship. In the UK, until a significant proportion of the population was vaccinated, much of this discussion focused on (non‐)compliance with government rules concerning geographical behaviour (e.g., Reicher & Stott,  2020 ; Webster et al.,  2020 ; Wright et al.,  2021 ) – rules requiring people to stay at home, meet others outside, keep two metres apart, wear face coverings in certain places, and so on. One prominent view in this discussion was developed by psychologists and behavioural scientists, who argued that: rates of compliance were generally high (Fancourt & Steptoe,  2020 ); examples of non‐compliance were explained less by psychological factors such as panic or fatigue, and more by systematic factors such as just‐in‐time supply chains or lack of government support (Drury et al.,  2020 ); and the preoccupation of government ministers and journalists with examples of non‐compliance led to policy failures, including delayed lockdowns and public health messaging that set norms of non‐compliance for previously compliant people to follow (Reicher & Drury,  2021 ).

In this paper, we offer a complementary view developed from three starting points: an observation of how pandemic governance in the UK varied over time; a reading of the ‘geographies of citizenship’ literature; and analysis of diaries and directive responses collected by Mass Observation during the first six months of the pandemic.

In the UK, governance of the pandemic developed over time. An initial focus on rules in spring 2020 – the UK's first lockdown – was replaced in summer 2020 by a focus on ‘freedom’, ‘common sense’, and ‘personal responsibility’. After this, during the rest of 2020 and for much of 2021, governance of the pandemic fluctuated between periods of lockdown and ‘relaxation’, depending on infection rates and other considerations. We might say that governance of the pandemic worked, or tried to work, initially through morality (rules), but later through ethics (freedom, choice, responsibility). And we might say this latter mode of governance caused problems for some commentators. It demanded a focus beyond compliance and non‐compliance. It demanded an imagination of citizenship as not only formal and liberal, but also substantive, communitarian, and radical democratic (Delanty, 2000); as not only duty‐based and elitist, but also engaged (Dalton, 2009); as not only traditional and conventional, but also critical (Norris, 1999). It demanded that ‘common sense’ be taken seriously – as the repertoire of ways people think, feel, and do when confronted by problems – and not just dismissed as government or party ideology (e.g., Earle,  2021 ; West,  2020 ). It demanded that ‘personal responsibility’ be taken seriously and not just relegated to one of many ‘unknowns’ driving uncertainty and variation in epidemiological models (e.g., Thompson et al.,  2020 ).

Good citizenship during the pandemic, then, involved not only compliance with rules, but also the exercise of freedom, choice, and responsibility. The literature on geographies of citizenship can help us to approach such a more broadly conceived good citizenship. Geographers have been studying the management of risk, responsibility, and geographical behaviour by engaged, critical citizens operating in contexts of relative freedom for at least two decades. They have done so in response to so‐called ‘real‐world problems’ like international development, globalisation, climate change, and multiculturalism. And they have done so in response to at least two theoretical developments: Beck's risk society thesis, in which modernity produces risks and associated management of risks and responsibilities by various actors, including individuals (Beck,  1992 ); and Foucauldian governmentality studies, in which one definition of liberalism is government by risk management, and one definition of advanced liberalism is government by individual responsibility, including responsibility for risk management (Dean,  1999 ; Rose,  1999 ).

The geographies of citizenship literature covers many themes. One prominent theme is the development of citizenship in response to globalisation, transnationalism, European integration, and decentralisation (Barnett et al.,  2011 ; Desforges,  2004 ; Ehrkamp & Leitner,  2006 ; Hörschelmann & El Refaie,  2014 ; Lough & McBridge,  2014 ; Mäkinen,  2021 ). These processes have encouraged a geographical view of citizenship as multi‐dimensional, multi‐sited, and multi‐scaled. Another prominent theme is the relationship between advanced liberalism – or, more commonly in the literature, ‘neoliberalism’ – and various dimensions of citizenship (Ghose & Pettygrove,  2014 ; Kearns,  1995 ; Leitner & Strunk,  2014 ; Mitchell,  2005 ; Painter & Philo,  1995 ; Swyngedouw,  1996 ; Teo,  2015 ). Neoliberalism is thought to involve: privileging the rights of individual, autonomous, private citizens; downloading responsibilities for welfare to individual citizens; limiting opportunities for meaningful participation by citizens; granting members of different groups different rights (graduated citizenship) in exchange for different behaviours (conditional citizenship); and struggles for alternative rights, duties, and spaces for participation and belonging. The COVID‐19 pandemic is thought to have exposed and exacerbated some of these neoliberal citizenships. For example, Schliehe et al. ( 2022 ) argue that British prisons used the emergency of the pandemic as an opportunity to retrench and rework the carceral, extending or introducing new population management strategies, micro‐spatial partitioning, extensive isolation, enforced segregation, and reduced association time.

For the purposes of the present paper, two insights from the geographies of citizenship literature are particularly important. First, people are geographical beings whose moral concerns emerge from their geographical actions and awareness (Sack,  1997 ). Therefore, ethics, politics, responsibility, democratic agency, and good citizenship are all contextual and relational. They emerge from situations or locales or lifeworlds that provide resources and opportunities for practices, encounters, interactions, and experiences (Askins,  2016 ; Barnett,  2017 ; Clarke et al.,  2017 ; Jackson & Valentine,  2014 ; Massey,  2004 ; Popke,  2009 ; Smith,  1999 ). ‘Actually existing citizenship’ (Spinney et al.,  2015 ), then, is ‘ordinary’ (Staeheli et al.,  2012 ): framed by laws and policies, but negotiated and performed in response to norms, values, and everyday contexts. Second, once responsibility emerges from situations, people argue about it (Hinchliffe,  1996 ). They do ‘lay normativity’ (Sayer,  2004 ). They treat norms as normative, and reason in response to them – using practical reasoning skills to learn norms, but also to interpret and make judgements in relation to them (Barnett,  2015 ). People act with discretion, expect to be judged, and give accounts of their actions populated by reasons and justifications (Barnett,  2015 ; see also Barnett,  2012 , 2014 ). They carry multiple prior commitments and engage with responsibility talk – especially demands that people ‘take responsibility’ – critically (Barnett et al.,  2011 ). Therefore, if policy‐makers wish to encourage good citizenship in the form of risk and responsibility management by citizens, they need to provide information (allowing people to make informed decisions), practical support (allowing people to act on those decisions and put them into practice), and, crucially, justifications people can use in the arguments that almost inevitably arise during responsibility talk (Barnett et al.,  2011 ; see also Barnett,  2010 ). It should be added here that geographers have developed these insights alongside scholars from allied disciplines attuned to contexts, situations, relations, interactions, norms, and values. Mary Douglas from anthropology is one example. For Douglas ( 1994 ), risk and responsibility are connected. Risk decisions are intersubjective, social, and taken in consultation with family, friends, and colleagues. They are not made in isolation, but in comparison to multiple other risks and cared about objectives and goals. They are moral decisions, made in relation to values.

In this paper, we consider good citizenship during the pandemic from a geographical perspective, or at least a contextual, situational, relational perspective. We argue that not only has there been too much emphasis on non‐compliance at the expense of compliance (the concern of the psychologists introduced previously), but also there has been too much emphasis on compliance at the expense of other aspects of good citizenship. We focus on the following questions. What did people do when asked to use common sense, to act responsibly, and to manage risk by adjusting their geographical behaviour during the pandemic? How did people interpret such demands? How did they act on them? How did they justify their responses? How was all this affected by situations made up of resources, opportunities, practices, relations, norms? And how was all this governance through freedom/ethics experienced? We address these questions drawing on volunteer writing for Mass Observation, which provides our focus on the UK in spring and summer 2020.


Mass Observation (MO) was originally founded in 1937. Throughout its history (see Hinton,  2013 ; Hubble,  2010 ), it has combined a dual focus on ordinary life – what people do, think, and feel on a daily basis – and popular responses to extraordinary events, e.g., the Coronation of George VI, the Second World War, the period of high inflation at the beginning of the 1980s, and, most recently, the COVID‐19 pandemic. Today, MO consists of: the Mass Observation Archive (MOA), established in 1975; the Mass Observation Project, established in 1981 by the MOA, which sends ‘directives’ three times a year to a panel of roughly 500 volunteer writers from across the UK, asking panellists to write about particular topics for the Archive; and the 12 May project, established in 2010 by the MOA, which publishes annual calls asking anyone resident in the UK to keep a ‘day diary’ on 12 May for the Archive (inspired by the original MO's first book, May the Twelfth – Jennings & Madge,  1937 ).

In 2020, MO asked about life during the COVID‐19 pandemic in its regular spring and summer directives, a special directive sent on 17 March at the start of the UK's first lockdown, and the call for 12 May day diaries (see Appendix  S1 : Section 1). The writing sent back to MO in response to these calls, along with responses to other calls made during 2021, makes up MO's COVID‐19 collections. In this paper, we focus on that part of the collections covering the period of the UK's first lockdown (March to May 2020) and the ensuing period of opening up, before restrictions were brought back for some regions in July, nationally in September, and formally as the UK's second lockdown in November 2020.

What does this collection of archived writing – diaries, letters, and other forms – tell us about life in the UK during the COVID‐19 pandemic? More broadly, how should MO sources be interpreted? There is a mature literature on this latter question spanning the social sciences and humanities. One thing to learn from this literature is that writing for MO is dialogic and subjective. It is part of a dialogue with MO (Bloome et al.,  1993 ; Salter,  2010 ), with panellists best thought of not as respondents but as cor respondents (Sheridan et al.,  2000 ) who exchange writing with MO as part of an ongoing conversation with a purpose, which is to document everyday life for an imagined audience of current and future researchers (Kramer,  2014 ). It is also subjective writing in the service of identity construction (Nettleton & Uprichard,  2011 ) and especially the positioning of panellists in relation to MO and other authorities and institutions (Sheridan et al.,  2000 ). Writing for MO, then, provides evidence of top‐down and bottom‐up processes. In the diaries and letters of panellists, we see their cultural worlds – their worlds of discourse – and how they construct from these worlds their own distinct selfhoods (Hinton,  2010 ). We see evidence of standards and codes, but also how people receive such standards and codes, their dis/comfort with them, and what people do with them (Langhamer,  2016 ). We see the sociological constructs panellists use as resources, but also their lay articulations of those constructs – their practices of selection, interpretation, appropriation, incorporation, and contextualisation (Wilson‐Kovacs,  2014 ).

From the above paragraph, we conclude that MO sources are particularly well suited to researching how people practise their lives in relation to audiences, authorities, institutions, discourses, standards, and codes, and so are particularly well suited to our purposes in this paper. Furthermore, one particular part of MO's COVID‐19 collections is especially well suited to our focus on governance through freedom/ethics: the 12 May day diaries. These were kept by just over 5000 people across the UK on 12 May 2020, just two days after the Prime Minister announced the end of the first lockdown. As such, they capture an important moment when governing the pandemic through rules/morality (e.g., the ‘instruction’ to ‘stay home’) was supplemented and, for a time, largely replaced by recommendations that people ‘stay alert’ and use ‘common sense’ to manage their own risks and responsibilities. In the 12 May diaries, we see people beginning to work through the implications of this change. In these and other materials from subsequent weeks, we see people working out how to manage their own risks and responsibilities, how to reason about and justify their own hygiene and associated practices, and how to resolve the multiple ethical dilemmas thrown up by the novel situations in which they find themselves.

If these are the advantages of MO's COVID‐19 collections – that writing for MO demonstrates how people respond to demands and situations, and materials from the period following 10 May 2020 capture the shift in governmentality from rules/morality to freedom/ethics – then the most commonly discussed disadvantage of MO, especially the directive responses, is the social constitution of MO's panel of volunteer writers. This panel has never been statistically representative of the UK population as a whole. In recent decades, it has been skewed a little towards women, older people, the middle classes, and England (Hinton,  2013 ). Certain groups and experiences are largely missed by the panel, e.g., the experiences of prisoners ‘locked down under lockdown’ during the COVID‐19 pandemic (on which see Schliehe et al.,  2022 ). What can be said for the panel is that good citizens are well‐represented. By definition, panellists are volunteers (who volunteer for MO's social history project). Hinton ( 2010 ) found them to be ‘active citizens’: participants in society as members of families and friendship networks, and as consumers and workers; people on a quest for meaning and purpose in their lives beyond the mundane satisfactions of everyday life; and particularly reflective people who provide access through their writing to the cultural worlds inhabited by themselves and others. Manning ( 2018 ) found them to be citizens who generally vote and engage with representative democracy in other respects (e.g., keeping themselves informed regarding political issues and options). Lindsey and Mohan ( 2019 ) found many panellists to be volunteers not only for MO, but also for other civil society organisations and projects (of the kind prominent during the COVID‐19 pandemic, e.g., mutual aid organisations and projects – on which see Mould et al.,  2022 ). All this is consistent with Pattie et al.'s ( 2004 ) findings on citizenship in general: that people who volunteer for one organisation or project (e.g., MO) tend to practice good citizenship in other ways too – by volunteering for other organisations and projects, and by participating in politics (both formally, e.g., voting, and informally, e.g., signing petitions).

Again, this focus on good citizens is well‐suited to our purposes in this paper. In order to research good citizenship during the pandemic, we are interested in precisely these citizens. Furthermore, it is possible to sample within the panel – or the writers, in the case of the 12 May diaries – which we did for each of the collections. Following Clarke et al. ( 2018 ), we sampled 60 writers per collection, which was enough to achieve descriptive saturation and also, for the most part, to fill quotas for gender, age group, region, and occupational classification (see Appendix  S1 : Section 2). In total, we read 180 pieces of writing from 60 day diarists and 60 panellists (two directive responses per panellist). Together, these made up almost 800 sides of A4 (typed and single‐spaced). We read this material for stories of risk and responsibility management, working independently at first, then comparing notes, then, where agreement could be reached on interpretations – a version of intercoder reliability – sorting the material accordingly.

We return to the question of representativeness in the concluding section of this paper, where we situate our findings from the MO data in relation to findings from available survey data, before clarifying what the paper adds to existing portraits of good citizenship during the COVID‐19 pandemic. For now, having addressed the sampling, or statistical, or input problem of representativeness (described in the previous paragraph), let us briefly attend to the output, literary, aesthetic problem of representation. This has often been a point of debate between users of MO sources, with social scientists more focused on the problem of representativeness and those in the humanities more focused on the problem of representation. In this paper, we seek to address both problems (so far as that is possible within the word limit). Regarding the latter problem – the aesthetic problem of representation – we take lessons from histories of the original MO (Highmore,  2002 ; Hubble,  2010 ; Jardine,  2018 ; Marcus,  2001 ). The founders of MO in the late 1930s were influenced by Surrealism and sought to represent everyday life using aesthetic techniques from surrealist poetry, painting, film, and theatre. We seek the same in the rest of this paper: depicting pandemic life in the UK using panoramas and close‐ups, typical and atypical cases, juxtapositions of different and partial perspectives; providing a composition, a collage or montage, appropriate to British society (a heterogeneous ‘totality of fragments’ – Highmore,  2002 ).


3.1. from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’.

Many of the 12 May diaries and the longer diaries kept by panellists in response to MO's special directive – some for a period of six months or more – capture the moment on 10 May when government messaging shifted from ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ to ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’. Diarists were generally confused by the shift and viewed the new rules and guidance as less clear and more open to interpretation. They ‘found this change in slogan confusing’ (MT 2020 37) and ‘very muddled and unclear’ (MT 2020 132). They were ‘utterly baffled’ (K7050) by the new guidelines, which they found ‘very confusing’ (M3231).

Many diarists now realised they had to calculate, manage, and justify their own risks and responsibilities. An air traffic planner in his 50s from Hampshire (D4736) found the Prime Minister's press conference on 10 May to be ‘vague and open’. There was ‘not enough detail’. His family were left ‘scratching our heads wondering what this new “stay alert” phase means. Will [wife] be able to go swimming? Could I venture up to Heathrow [to go plane spotting]? Can we go and visit [daughters]?’ There were ‘so many questions’.

How would people answer these questions? Some panellists picked up from government messaging that ‘common sense’ should be used. They were not impressed. A retired teacher in his 60s from Somerset (MT 2020 119) wrote: ‘The government's communications have become increasingly confused and confusing’. With due scepticism, he continued: ‘The PM who boasted (pre‐becoming infected with COVID‐19 and nearly losing his life) of shaking hands with everybody despite scientific warnings that we should not be shaking hands has advised the British public to use “good solid British common sense” in interpreting the new lockdown rules’. Similarly, a woman in her 70s from Warwickshire (T6654) described ‘the whole thing’ as ‘totally confused and muddled – leading to a dangerous situation where eventually the public was just told to “use your common sense”’. Like the previous diarist, she regarded this promotion of common sense with scepticism. If such a thing as common sense exists, presumably it describes what people perceive, think, feel, and do when confronted by problems. In the rest of this paper, we describe the content of such common sense for the period following the 10 May press conference. We finish the current set of points by emphasising that many panellists did not welcome their new freedoms around this time. In these freedoms, they saw responsibilities. They were ‘angry and frustrated’ by the ‘inconsistent and confusing’ guidance (MT 2020 250). They were ‘fed up of all the announcements and lack of clarity’, and ‘confused about the new message’ (MT 2020 542). They wore this new demand to act responsibly like a heavy burden.

3.2. Situations for minimising risk

How this demand was met, of course, varied by situation. Writers who saw themselves as vulnerable – often because ministers, civil servants, scientists, and/or journalists had seen them as vulnerable – took extra care to minimise risk. A graphic designer in his 20s from Suffolk (MT 2020 221) wrote: ‘I am deemed vulnerable, as I have an underlying health condition. As a household, we have needed to be extra cautious, with our travel significantly reduced and taking the initiative with additional precautions such as wearing gloves and masks in shops – weeks before it became recommended’. He also took walks early in the morning, ‘when there are barely any other people out walking, so the risk of encounters is reduced’. His partner did all their ‘in‐store shopping, to protect me from coming into contact with people’. This couple were not simply adhering to rules and guidance. They were ‘being extra cautious’, ‘taking the initiative’, taking ‘additional precautions’, and doing so ‘before it became recommended’. They were taking risks appropriate to what they understood of their own particular situation. And they were allocating responsibilities appropriately too (with his partner, deemed less vulnerable, taking responsibility for shopping trips).

There were many other examples of ‘additional precautions’ taken by ‘vulnerable’ writers, including the couple in their 70s with ‘health issues’ who were ‘particularly careful’, exercising ‘early in the morning to avoid everyone’, visiting the Post Office at ‘what I thought would be a quiet time’, purchasing the newspaper ‘wearing gloves’, and putting its outer pages ‘in the microwave to disinfect it’ (P1796). But let us turn to another group: key workers. This was another new social identity inhabited by some. And again, it carried its own set of risks and responsibilities to be managed. A retired nurse in her 50s from Cambridgeshire (MT 2020 284) wrote of her husband: ‘he is a “key worker”’. He wears ‘a cloth face covering’ at work. He ‘immediately washes his hands when he arrives home’. A clinical pharmacist in her 40s from Cheltenham (MT 2020 479) described her own post‐work routine as follows: ‘After work each day I need to put my clothes in a bag and leave them for three days before washing them and then shower to reduce the chances of COVID infection. I shower using plenty of shower gel and shampoo and then dress in clean clothes and join my children to catch up on their day’. There were few correspondents working from home during this period who felt the need – the responsibility – for such a laborious post‐work routine before seeing their children.

Nevertheless, many panellists – as good citizens writing for MO – did seek to reduce risk to themselves and others during spring and summer 2020. They timed and located their daily walks for quiet periods and places, getting up ‘at 6 am to avoid the crowds’ (M6737) or walking ‘late in the evening in order to avoid lots of people’ (W7312). They cleaned themselves, their clothes, and their homes more regularly. A retired university administrator in her 60s from Oxfordshire (M6749) described her ‘dry and cracked’ hands, before writing: ‘I have always hated housework and cleaning but push myself into an hour's cleaning and sanitising every day whether I feel like it or not’. She continued: ‘And who would have thought that we would be washing the shopping?’ She was not alone in going to these lengths. Consider this routine of a retired writer in his 70s from Lancashire (W3176) on returning from ‘a shopping expedition’: ‘Hand washing immediately’, followed by ‘Handrails, door handles, wheelie bin grips, and even the steering wheel of the car’, which all ‘receive attention, courtesy of cleaning with antiseptic wipes’. These risk‐conscious panellists, often older in age (and so vulnerable by some definitions), also avoided certain places perceived to be risky – especially public transport. A woman in her 80s from Essex (B7306) explained that she would not be seeing her family because she was ‘dependent on public transport’ and ‘apprehensive about the dangers of infection while travelling’. Another woman in her 80s, this one a retired shop worker from Yorkshire (J1890), kept ‘putting off’ visiting the dentist and optician ‘because I don't want to go on a bus’. A woman in her 60s from Fife (H6675) gave the following justification for missing her granddaughter's school show: ‘want to avoid trains’. She went on to describe risk management during this period as ‘an exhausting game, having to think about every move you make, and how to do things’.

The game was exhausting partly because it involved extra washing and cleaning, but partly because it was difficult to know quite when to stop, where to draw the line, and what was appropriate or excessive. ‘Is opening a gate with a stick being over‐cautious?’, as one panellist put it (H6004). In the same paragraph, this retired civil servant in his 60s from Yorkshire wrote: ‘Oddly, given that restrictions are being eased, I feel more rather than less glum. One factor is uncertainty about the right level of caution to be exercised’. This was one responsibility allocated to citizens by the decision to relax lockdown rules on 10 May: the responsibility to decide how much caution to exercise. The other side of this was a related but different responsibility: to decide how much risk to take (by leaving home, taking trips, meeting people, and so on).

3.3. Justifications for taking risks

In the writing of MO correspondents, risk‐taking was justified as ‘essential’ or ‘acceptable’ in multiple terms: competing risks, such as to the wellbeing of selves (at risk of reduced mental wellbeing if denied a trip or meeting); competing responsibilities, such as for the wellbeing of others with care needs; public health messaging about levels of risk and available mitigation measures (social distancing, ventilation, face coverings etc.); infection rates (nationally, but especially locally); what feels right (quiet, clean, safe); and what is practical, given the time and effort involved, and the potential endlessness and impossibility of risk management.

Much of this can be illustrated by a close‐up of an air traffic planner in his 50s from Hampshire (D4736). Like other dutiful panellists, he sought to reduce risk where possible. He cancelled a visit to a friend because ‘her son is reporting a cough and temperature’, writing: ‘I decided we should not do that […] I think the risk of staying at [the friend's] is too great’. He took packed lunches to the office ‘to avoid the canteen’. He went shopping ‘at midday, thinking it might be a quieter time’. Walking the dog, he avoided the back path: ‘a bit too busy for my liking’. Like many panellists, he also worried about how much caution was necessary or sufficient. He wrote: ‘We have three parcels sitting at home waiting to go to the post office. Can't decide if this is a necessary journey/risk to take’. Later, after a trip to the supermarket, he asked: ‘what do I do with my trolley?’ (he used ‘gloves kept in the car to hold it’). Shopping was described as ‘a minefield’. He found it ‘hard to relax’. The virus ‘could be on anything, anywhere’. On arriving home, the questions kept coming: ‘Washed hands thoroughly, and face, and hands again. Blow nose. Rinse and repeat. Trouble is you've touched products which the checkout lady has too, then I come in and wash hands, put things away, touching handles in the kitchen. Where does it end?’

Despite all the worry and caution displayed in the previous paragraph, this panellist did take risks during the pandemic, justifying them in his diary, including some episodes of non‐compliance with government rules and guidance. He argued that risk management has to be ‘practicable’. When shopping, ‘Isolating/distancing is just a nightmare, so difficult to actually do’. Yet shopping must be done. He argued that rules could be broken, such as the limit of one walk per day during the first lockdown, so long as their spirit was met: ‘After tea took [dog] a quick twice around the little wood behind us to tire and settle her […] It's OK, met no one, and that's the whole point isn't it?’ He argued that infection rates were relevant to the risk‐management decisions of individuals. After non‐essential shops were reopened at the end of the first lockdown, he wrote: ‘I want to see how it goes, see if there is a spike or second wave before I relax any of the things I'm doing’. Later in the summer, when some of the rules had been relaxed, he argued that risks could be taken if mitigated following the latest advice. ‘We ended up with a bit of a little garden party this afternoon’, he confessed. They had invited some friends round. Then some other friends had turned up. In the diary, he reassures himself (and us): ‘Oh well – as I understand it, it is being indoors and touching surfaces that are the real transmission danger spots, so open air meeting is relatively safe I suppose’. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he argued that care of loved ones, or those for whom one feels responsible, took precedence over government rules and guidance. This included care for his neighbour, whose computer he fixed, ‘considering [the visit] essential care for the elderly’. And it included care for his daughter, living alone, except for some health problems. At one point, he wrote: ‘We've decided if we have to go [and get her], it's legit travel as it's a medical emergency’. Later, with his wife, he discussed ‘bringing her home as a health need for recuperation and hugs’, asserting that ‘acute need for some looking after takes precedence in the circumstances’. Towards the end of the diary, he wrote: ‘In a way, we are breaking restrictions by having [both daughters] back in our family bubble but returning them next week. We think it's an acceptable and calculated risk’.

3.4. Ethical dilemmas

Good citizenship during the pandemic involved not only compliance with government rules, but also calculating risks and justifying caution or risk‐taking. Indeed, it involved practices of calculation and justification in relation to risk, but also responsibility. We have seen that such calculations could be made, with justifications provided, but ethical dilemmas were also frequently confronted, leaving people unsure how to proceed. MO correspondents wondered how to balance the demands of government – ‘stay home’, ‘protect the NHS’, ‘stay alert’, ‘control the virus’ – against other demands, rights, and goods, for which social distancing and related hygiene measures were perhaps less appropriate responses. There were the ‘vulnerable’ panellists, for whom staying at home and accepting help with tasks like shopping threatened a virtue they valued in themselves: independence. ‘For 90 years I have been independent and not been a nuisance to my family’, wrote a retired shop worker from Essex (H260). ‘We have always been incredibly independent and we did not always like to ask for favours’, wrote a student support worker from Derbyshire (W7312) – younger than the previous panellist, but shielding with her vulnerable husband. There were the panellists who valued politeness and reciprocity, and wished to respond positively to invites and offers, while worrying about the risks involved. A woman in her 60s from Fife (H6675) confessed: ‘[A friend] ran out to invite us in to view her new kitchen: I went in reluctantly and briefly; not sure I should have’. A writer in her 40s from North Ayrshire (M5645) ‘felt that’ she ‘had to go to a quiz’ organised by her neighbour because that neighbour ‘gave me a care package’ earlier in the week, ‘saying they thought I was struggling, and that they were there for me’. At the quiz, someone ‘insisted that I have a glass of pink gin, she put a tin on our table […] I felt I had to accept it to show that she was taking care of me’.

In the novel situations of the pandemic, people were asked to comply with rules and guidance, but also to compare and sort numerous demands, rights, and goods. To illustrate more of this, we provide another close‐up of the air traffic planner in his 50s from Hampshire (D4736). Ethical dilemmas appear frequently in his diary. An early one is the dilemma of social distancing (stay home, protect the NHS) versus providing care to his vulnerable neighbour. He asked himself: ‘Wonder if I should be “meeting up” with [neighbour] with the ever tighter restrictions. Know she gets depression sometimes and anxiety’. Later, a similar dilemma concerned providing care to his friends. ‘I suggested we have [friends] round for curry this evening’, he wrote. ‘I've been meaning to do this for ages to “check in” how they're doing […] to support them. Was it me or [friend] who suggested it and I enthusiastically agreed? And then I wonder if this is the right thing as both our wives are shielding’. He also wondered if it was the right thing for his wife to visit the coast to swim. Lockdown rules were being relaxed by this point in the diary, but people were still meant to be avoiding unnecessary travel. He wrote:

With the easing of lockdown, we have been figuring out what that means for us, particularly [wife's] swimming. Decided going to [regular swimming spot] would be OK. It's 40 miles, 50 minutes, there is not really anywhere closer that's ideal and it's where the group she is with all swim […] It does make a difference to [wife], she's been feeling more aches and pains and seizing up from not having this usual exercise and the mental stimulus side of it is so beneficial to her.

Travel in this case was judged to be necessary or at least defendable in terms of exercise and mental stimulus. The same judgement was not made, at least initially, regarding his own preferred activity of plane spotting. He continued: ‘My dilemma for exercise or “mental stimulus” is do I go spotting?’ He checked the ‘Government website’ for advice, concluding that it would be ‘technically OK’. But he also checked the ‘aviation forums’, where opinion was ‘split’. He proceeded by asking himself questions. ‘If I am careful and sensible as we are being it'd be OK? […] Should I go or can I wait?’ In the diary, plane spotting is described as ‘a trivial need, superfluous. Just a tick in a book’. But it is also described as ‘what I do’ – meaning that plane spotting for this panellist, and whether he should go or not, was not a trivial or simple question. It was a moral question of human flourishing and its relation to other goods, rights, and responsibilities.

In the end, the panellist did go plane spotting, justifying the trip to Heathrow as the equivalent of travelling for swimming in his wife's case, in relation to rules at the time (‘I could do it under drive‐to‐exercise‐cum‐picnic‐sunbathe as per the regulations’), and on the basis of mitigation or hygiene measures he would take (‘all self‐contained with my sandwiches and bottle of juice’). With this particular dilemma resolved, however, the diarist just faced other dilemmas. What should he do about neighbours breaking the rules? Should he report them? How to balance being a good citizen (by helping to enforce the rules) against being a good neighbour (‘Don't want to cause aggro with our neighbours’). In the event, he sought advice from Facebook friends. Another dilemma set protecting the NHS against protecting the environment. ‘Trying to save on plastic’, he ‘picked some loose tomatoes’ at the supermarket. But then in order to weigh them, the cashier had to touch them. ‘It's a minefield’, wrote the panellist, before reporting on yet another dilemma. His daughter was ‘deeply concerned as we all are about the events in America following the murder of George Floyd. She was worried, conflicted and distressed in equal measure. Torn between wanting to join in the protests here but afraid of the impact of Coronavirus amongst the crowds’. How to balance staying home, managing risks to one's own health and responsibilities to the NHS and those it serves, against demonstrating support for the Black Lives Matter movement?

Many diarists found these dilemmas upsetting and exhausting. Having been given the responsibility for making decisions, they felt the burden of that responsibility and worried about making wrong decisions. Let us move to a different example. A company director in her 50s from Leeds (MT 2020 529) began her 12 May diary as follows: ‘Today my husband and I are arguing about whether he can play golf or not. The government advice is that they can play in pairs but he has also been told he is still shielding’. She continued:

He does not feel that going to play golf on his own and having no contact with anyone is going to increase his risk […] I want him to be able to enjoy his sport but I feel worried about the risks. It felt easier when no‐one could play golf or travel or work. Now there is so much to navigate and so much to decide. My mum is already talking about me visiting them again. But it is 200 miles by train to London […] and that exposes me to a whole lot of risk. ‘But what is our exit plan?’ my husband asks. I am somehow expected to know, to somehow be the grown up in all of this. He seems to expect me to set the rules for him and yet he does not really want that. I no longer know what to say to him about it all. ‘Yes it is unfair that you cannot go out’ and yes it is unfair that your asthma means you may not recover if you get the virus and yes I'd feel very guilty if I was to bring the virus home.

There is a lot going on here. Government rules and guidance were seen as unclear. Different parties in the argument began from different perceptions of risk. The diarist felt under pressure to somehow manage both risks (to herself on public transport) and responsibilities (to her mother, demanding a visit). She felt responsible for protecting her shielding husband and guilty for numerous things, from stopping him enjoying his sport in the present, to potentially bringing the virus home in the future. No wonder it ‘felt easier’ before 10 May when the pandemic was governed primarily through rules/morality, as opposed to freedom/ethics (which, for this diarist, still involved rules, but placed the burden for setting them – and the blame and guilt – on her).

In the last four paragraphs, we have seen that people often faced ethical dilemmas during the pandemic and found decisions hard to make. How, then, were these decisions ultimately made? One way, as we have seen, was through deliberation among family members (who ‘scratched their heads’ together), friends (e.g., on Facebook), and strangers (e.g., on internet forums). But another way, common to many writers for MO, was rules of thumb, or what behavioural scientists call ‘heuristics’: simplifying shortcuts allowing judgements in situations where actors lack information, experience, and feedback (Kahneman,  2012 ). Some of these rules of thumb encouraged pragmatic action over paralysis. We have to ‘muddle through’ (MT 2020 7), put our ‘best foot forward’ (MT 2020 14), ‘do our best’ (MT 2020 479), ‘just keep doing the next right thing’ (M5645). Some helped to justify greater risk‐taking. We should not ‘go overboard’ in taking precautions (M3462). ‘We have to crack on with life’ (K7050). After all, ‘life is for living’ (K7522). Alternatively, some heuristics helped to justify greater caution. We should ‘be on the safe side’ (D4736) and ‘play safe’ (W633). ‘One cannot be too careful’ and it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’ (L6048).


There are many ways for geographers to engage with the COVID‐19 pandemic. The disease and responses to the disease can be mapped. The (non‐)human causes of the pandemic can be studied. The uneven distribution of vulnerabilities and harms, especially across space and place, can be described and explained. The implications of the pandemic for globalisation, supply chains, borders, biopolitical surveillance, and cities can be studied. During 2020 and 2021, many such options were outlined in editorials in geography journals (e.g., Diaz & Mountz,  2020 ; Dodds et al.,  2020 ; Sparke & Anguelov,  2020 ). During 2022, papers began to emerge taking up some of these options, not least in this journal (e.g., Herrick et al.,  2022 ; Lin,  2022 ; Mould et al.,  2022 ; Schliehe et al.,  2022 ). In the present paper, we have touched on various geographical themes, including: rules governing geographical behaviour (e.g., ‘Stay Home’); coding of the home (as safe) and the outside world (as dangerous); technologies for protecting the home from the outside world (quarantine, sanitiser); and alternative imaginative geographies of the outside world as diverse (with more risky places, identified as crowded or dirty, and less risky places, identified as quiet and clean) or even the privileged location for certain goods (participation, sociality).

All such themes deserve more research. Our main concern in this paper, though, has been with good citizenship during the pandemic, especially when good citizenship is viewed through a geographical – contextual, situational, relational – lens. We agree with many psychologists that too much attention was given to non‐compliance during the pandemic. Most people complied with government rules – at least in the UK, at least during the early stages of the pandemic. However, we argue that too much attention was also given to compliance. The pandemic was governed by rules/morality, but also – especially during periods of lockdown relaxation – freedom/ethics (including common sense and personal responsibility). Governance through freedom/ethics begs a different set of questions to those focused on compliance.

We asked: what did people do when encouraged to use common sense and manage their own risk, responsibility, and geographical behaviour; and how did people experience all this? We found that responses varied by situation. Many people who saw themselves as vulnerable, or lived with people they saw as vulnerable, responded by taking extra care to minimise risks. Many key workers responded by taking extra care to leave the virus at work and not bring it home (so far as that was possible). Beyond this claim of variation by situation, however, five claims have been made about ‘diarists generally’ or ‘many panellists’. We now consider these claims in relation to available survey evidence, before clarifying the original contributions of the paper and the MO evidence on which it is based.

Diarists were generally confused by the shift in government messaging on 10 May from ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ to ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’. They viewed the new rules and guidance as less clear and more open to interpretation. How does this claim fit with relevant survey data from the period? The ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (ONS,  2020 ) asked questions about ‘Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain’ either side of 10 May (24 April–3 May and 14–17 May). A majority of people reported they had enough information to protect themselves from the virus, though this figure dropped from 88% to 80% over the period. A minority of people reported they had enough information about the UK's plan for dealing with the virus. Again, this figure dropped over the period (from 48% to 41%). Before 10 May, questions were asked about awareness of official government advice and stay home guidelines (a majority of people reported awareness), but these questions were not repeated after 10 May. Moreover, these questions about whether people had enough information to protect themselves or were aware of government advice do not really capture the same thing as confusion (on the part of citizens) or lack of clarity (on the part of government advice). One can have enough information to protect oneself – gathered from a variety of sources – or be aware of government advice, but think the messaging, rules, and guidance provided by government are confusing and lack clarity. A better set of survey questions for our purposes are those asked by King's College London and Ipsos MORI on 1–3 April (Policy Institute,  2020a ) and 20–22 May (Policy Institute,  2020b ). Between these two points, they found the proportion of people viewing the government response as confused and inconsistent rose from 42% to 59%, and the proportion of people viewing government communications and advice as helpful fell from 68% to 47%. The discontent expressed by many MO correspondents around the middle of May 2020 regarding messaging from the government and its general approach to the pandemic appears to have been the majority position in the UK.

A second claim we have made is that many panellists did not welcome the new freedoms announced on 10 May 2020. In these freedoms, they saw responsibilities. They wore the new demand to act responsibly like a heavy burden. Again, there are no survey questions from the time that precisely test our findings, but there are some relevant questions worth discussing. The ONS survey found strong support for the ‘Stay home’ approach prior to 10 May (96%), as did King's College London and Ipsos MORI polling (89%). After 10 May, the ONS did not ask about support for the new approach, but King's College London and Ipsos MORI did. Support fell from 89% for the ‘Stay home’ approach (1–3 April) to 38% for the relaxation of lockdown measures signalled by the ‘Stay alert’ approach (20–22 May). King's College London and Ipsos MORI polling in late May found that a majority thought the government was relaxing control measures too quickly (54%), a majority felt uncomfortable about sending their child to school (56%), and a significant minority felt uncomfortable about returning to the workplace (41%). The ONS survey also asked about feelings regarding the relaxation of lockdown. In mid‐May, 41% of respondents felt unsafe outside of their home (14–17 May). In late May, 63% felt unconfident about sending their children back to school in June (28–31 May). In early July, 70% felt uncomfortable about visiting the cinema and 60% felt uncomfortable about eating indoors at a restaurant (2–5 July). In mid‐May, a majority (65%) did say their lives were being affected by a lack of freedom and independence (14–17 May), but this is different from saying they wanted freedom and independence regardless of the costs. Overall, the survey data give an impression of a majority who supported the ‘Stay home’ approach and were not ready in May 2020, or even in subsequent months, for the relaxation of lockdown measures. Again, our evidence from MO is consistent with this overall picture.

A third claim made in previous sections is that many panellists sought to reduce risk to themselves and others by doing things like timing and locating their daily walks for quiet periods and places, and cleaning themselves, their clothes, and their homes more regularly. The ONS survey confirms that MO panellists were not unusual in doing such things during spring and summer 2020. Large majorities washed their hands more regularly (90%, 20–30 March), avoided physical contact with older and/or more vulnerable adults (91%, 24 April to 3 May), and avoided physical contact with others, staying 2 metres apart, when outside the home (93%, 24 April–3 May). King's College London and Ipsos MORI polling tells a similar story. Large majorities reported: washing their hands more regularly (93%, 1–3 April; 90%, 20–22 May); staying 2 metres apart from others when outside the home (94%, 1–3 April; 92%, 20–22 May); avoiding public transport (84%, 1–3 April; 82%, 20–22 May); avoiding places where many people gather (93%, 1–3 April); and using caution when handling deliveries and mail (73%, 1–3 April). A significant proportion of respondents reported washing or disinfecting items brought into the home (55%, 20–22 May) and changing or washing clothes on returning home (38%, 20–22 May).

We now move to the final two claims in this paper, which constitute its main contributions, not least because they are not well covered by available survey research. We have demonstrated that many MO correspondents, despite seeking to reduce risk to themselves and others where possible, took risks during spring and summer 2020 and justified that risk‐taking in multiple terms. Travel and visiting were justified if they allowed certain responsibilities to be fulfilled: caring responsibilities for others, but also for the self (mental health, in particular). They were also justified in terms of local infection rates (if comparatively low), options for mitigation (masks, gloves, sanitiser), practical considerations (regarding what is possible, given certain resources and opportunities), and feelings (regarding certain places perceived as safe/unsafe). Furthermore, we have demonstrated that many MO correspondents found themselves confronted by ethical dilemmas and required to balance multiple demands, rights, virtues, and goods. Those shielding at home worried about losing their independence. They also worried about how to participate and flourish. Those social distancing worried about how to reciprocate politely when invited into situations of social proximity. They also worried about how to care for others. Those using sanitiser, extra packaging, and personal protective equipment worried about their impact on the environment. For many people, such balancing acts were not easily completed. They used rules of thumb or heuristics to move forward beyond paralysis, but with little satisfaction regarding both process and outcome. In general, governance through personal responsibility was experienced by many as confusing, exhausting, a burden, an imposition.

We are aware of no survey evidence from the period that directly speaks to these findings on justifications and ethical dilemmas. Indeed, in common with qualitative data more generally, this is what MO materials have been traditionally good for: demonstrating not only people's preferences but also how people arrived at those preferences, and the extent to which they are ‘preferences’ at all. Regarding the COVID‐19 pandemic, MO materials are particularly well‐suited to demonstrating how good citizenship emerged from situations and involved: interpretation of rules and guidance; management of freedom, risks, and responsibilities; management of such items by way of deliberation and justification; and negotiation of ethical dilemmas. More broadly, MO materials are well suited to studying the ‘spaces of democracy’ (Barnett & Low,  2004 ) where actually existing, ordinary citizenships form through geographical action and awareness, but also argument, reasoning, interpretation, judgement, and justification.

Finally, as we have seen, experiences of managing risk and responsibility during the COVID‐19 pandemic were far from positive for many people. What, then, might be learned from this exercise – viewing good citizenship during the pandemic from a geographical perspective – for governing future emergencies? We finish with three lessons. First, when people act in emergencies, they do so in complex, ambiguous, diverse situations. Their actions are governed by rules, but also multiple and variable resources, opportunities, relations, commitments, and norms. We need a public conversation that recognises all this and takes us beyond the binary of compliance and non‐compliance. Second, to govern themselves in contexts of relative freedom, people need information, such as that provided to varying degrees of effectiveness by government, science, and media actors during the COVID‐19 pandemic. They also need practical support, such as that recommended by various commentators during the COVID‐19 pandemic (e.g., payments for those asked to self‐isolate by contact tracers). Then, crucially, they need justifications appropriate to the complex, ambiguous, diverse situations in which people find themselves. They need such justifications to replace the unsatisfactory rules of thumb currently relied on by many to navigate the ethical dilemmas and arguments about responsibility generated by emergencies when governed through freedom. Third, while focusing on what a better public conversation might sound like in future similar circumstances, we should also acknowledge that freedom and responsibility are not things people generally ask for during emergencies. In such times of complexity, uncertainty, and gravity, many people want government through rules/morality. They want the burden, blame, and guilt of deciding and acting to fall on experts and authorities. They wonder if government through freedom/ethics is appropriate to such events. Indeed, determining when and where governing through freedom is appropriate has become one of the central challenges for advanced liberal governmentality in an age of crises – financial, climate, public health, and geopolitical.


British Academy [Grant number: COV19\200422].

Supporting information

Appendix S1 : The directives & The sample.


We thank the British Academy for funding the research (Special Research Awards: COVID‐19, project COV19\200422, ‘Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID‐19’). We thank the Mass Observation Archive for providing access and permissions, and especially Jessica Scantlebury and Kirsty Pattrick for their assistance and expertise. We also thank the editor, Matt Sparke, and three anonymous reviewers for suggesting revisions to an earlier version of the paper.

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Seven short essays about life during the pandemic

The boston book festival's at home community writing project invites area residents to describe their experiences during this unprecedented time..

my responsibility as a citizen during this pandemic essay

My alarm sounds at 8:15 a.m. I open my eyes and take a deep breath. I wiggle my toes and move my legs. I do this religiously every morning. Today, marks day 74 of staying at home.

My mornings are filled with reading biblical scripture, meditation, breathing in the scents of a hanging eucalyptus branch in the shower, and making tea before I log into my computer to work. After an hour-and-a-half Zoom meeting, I decided to take a long walk to the post office and grab a fresh bouquet of burnt orange ranunculus flowers. I embrace the warm sun beaming on my face. I feel joy. I feel at peace.

I enter my apartment and excessively wash my hands and face. I pour a glass of iced kombucha. I sit at my table and look at the text message on my phone. My coworker writes that she is thinking of me during this difficult time. She must be referring to the Amy Cooper incident. I learn shortly that she is not.


I Google Minneapolis and see his name: George Floyd. And just like that a simple and beautiful day transitions into a day of sorrow.

Nakia Hill, Boston

It was a wobbly, yet solemn little procession: three masked mourners and a canine. Beginning in Kenmore Square, at David and Sue Horner’s condo, it proceeded up Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

S. Sue Horner died on Good Friday, April 10, in the Year of the Virus. Sue did not die of the virus but her parting was hemmed by it: no gatherings to mark the passing of this splendid human being.

David devised a send-off nevertheless. On April 23rd, accompanied by his daughter and son-in-law, he set out for Old South Church. David led, bearing the urn. His daughter came next, holding her phone aloft, speaker on, through which her brother in Illinois played the bagpipes for the length of the procession, its soaring thrum infusing the Mall. Her husband came last with Melon, their golden retriever.

I unlocked the empty church and led the procession into the columbarium. David drew the urn from its velvet cover, revealing a golden vessel inset with incandescent tiles. We lifted the urn into the niche, prayed, recited Psalm 23, and shared some words.

It was far too small for the luminous “Dr. Sue”, but what we could manage in the Year of the Virus.

Nancy S. Taylor, Boston

On April 26, 2020, our household was a bustling home for four people. Our two sons, ages 18 and 22, have a lot of energy. We are among the lucky ones. I can work remotely. Our food and shelter are not at risk.

As I write this a week later, it is much quieter here.

On April 27, our older son, an EMT, transported a COVID-19 patient to the ER. He left home to protect my delicate health and became ill with the virus a week later.

On April 29, my husband’s 95-year-old father had a stroke. My husband left immediately to be with his 90-year-old mother near New York City and is now preparing for his father’s discharge from the hospital. Rehab people will come to the house; going to a facility would be too dangerous.

My husband just called me to describe today’s hospital visit. The doctors had warned that although his father had regained the ability to speak, he could only repeat what was said to him.

“It’s me,” said my husband.

“It’s me,” said my father-in-law.

“I love you,” said my husband.

“I love you,” said my father-in-law.

“Sooooooooo much,” said my father-in-law.

Lucia Thompson, Wayland

Would racism exist if we were blind?

I felt his eyes bore into me as I walked through the grocery store. At first, I thought nothing of it. With the angst in the air attributable to COVID, I understood the anxiety-provoking nature of feeling as though your 6-foot bubble had burst. So, I ignored him and maintained my distance. But he persisted, glaring at my face, squinting to see who I was underneath the mask. This time I looked back, when he yelled, in my mother tongue, for me to go back to my country.

In shock, I just laughed. How could he tell what I was under my mask? Or see anything through the sunglasses he was wearing inside? It baffled me. I laughed at the irony that he would use my own language against me, that he knew enough to guess where I was from in some version of culturally competent racism. I laughed because dealing with the truth behind that comment generated a sadness in me that was too much to handle. If not now, then when will we be together?

So I ask again, would racism exist if we were blind?

Faizah Shareef, Boston

My Family is “Out” There

But I am “in” here. Life is different now “in” Assisted Living since the deadly COVID-19 arrived. Now the staff, employees, and all 100 residents have our temperatures taken daily. Everyone else, including my family, is “out” there. People like the hairdresser are really missed — with long straight hair and masks, we don’t even recognize ourselves.

Since mid-March we are in quarantine “in” our rooms with meals served. Activities are practically non-existent. We can sit on the back patio 6 feet apart, wearing masks, do exercises there, chat, and walk nearby. Nothing inside. Hopefully June will improve.

My family is “out” there — somewhere! Most are working from home (or Montana). Hopefully an August wedding will happen, but unfortunately, I may still be “in” here.

From my window I wave to my son “out” there. Recently, when my daughter visited, I opened the window “in” my second-floor room and could see and hear her perfectly “out” there. Next time she will bring a chair so we can have an “in” and “out” conversation all day, or until we run out of words.

Barbara Anderson, Raynham

My boyfriend Marcial lives in Boston, and I live in New York City. We had been doing the long-distance thing pretty successfully until coronavirus hit. In mid-March, I was furloughed from my temp job, Marcial began working remotely, and New York started shutting down. I went to Boston to stay with Marcial.

We are opposites in many ways, but we share a love of food. The kitchen has been the center of quarantine life —and also quarantine problems.

Marcial and I have gone from eating out and cooking/grocery shopping for each other during our periodic visits to cooking/grocery shopping with each other all the time. We’ve argued over things like the proper way to make rice and what greens to buy for salad. Our habits are deeply rooted in our upbringing and individual cultures (Filipino immigrant and American-born Chinese, hence the strong rice opinions).

On top of the mundane issues, we’ve also dealt with a flooded kitchen (resulting in cockroaches) and a mandoline accident leading to an ER visit. Marcial and I have spent quarantine navigating how to handle the unexpected and how to integrate our lifestyles. We’ve been eating well along the way.

Melissa Lee, Waltham

It’s 3 a.m. and my dog Rikki just gave me a worried look. Up again?

“I can’t sleep,” I say. I flick the light, pick up “Non-Zero Probabilities.” But the words lay pinned to the page like swatted flies. I watch new “Killing Eve” episodes, play old Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats songs. Still night.

We are — what? — 12 agitated weeks into lockdown, and now this. The thing that got me was Chauvin’s sunglasses. Perched nonchalantly on his head, undisturbed, as if he were at a backyard BBQ. Or anywhere other than kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, on his life. And Floyd was a father, as we all now know, having seen his daughter Gianna on Stephen Jackson’s shoulders saying “Daddy changed the world.”

Precious child. I pray, safeguard her.

Rikki has her own bed. But she won’t leave me. A Goddess of Protection. She does that thing dogs do, hovers increasingly closely the more agitated I get. “I’m losing it,” I say. I know. And like those weighted gravity blankets meant to encourage sleep, she drapes her 70 pounds over me, covering my restless heart with safety.

As if daybreak, or a prayer, could bring peace today.

Kirstan Barnett, Watertown

Until June 30, send your essay (200 words or less) about life during COVID-19 via . Some essays will be published on the festival’s blog and some will appear in The Boston Globe.

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A vacant amphitheatre near the Peoples' Friendship Arch in Kyiv, Ukraine is normally a popular spot for students. Under COVID-19, students face increased socio-economic pressures including isolation and food insecurity. United Nations photo: Volodymyr Shu

During the pandemic, students rely on solidarity

About the author, unric brussels.

The United Nations Department of Global Communications (DGC) promotes global awareness and understanding of the work of the United Nations through its network of United Nations Information Centres (UNICs) around the world. The UN Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) in Brussels engages with local audiences in 21 countries as well as the Holy Sea and European institutions.

Isolated, abandoned, depressed. Those are the words used to describe how students feel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them must study online with very little social interaction. Unprecedented solitude leads to psychological suffering, in addition to growing impoverishment.

According to UNESCO, "half of the world's pupils and students continue to be affected by the total or partial closure of schools and universities," which means more than 800 million young people around the world.

"Prolonged and repeated closures of educational institutions are taking a growing psychosocial toll on students, increasing learning losses and the risk of dropping out and disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable," said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay on International Education Day. "Complete school closures should, therefore, be a last resort and safe reopening should be a priority," added Ms. Azoulay.

In Belgium, 80% of French-speaking students feel somewhat or completely affected psychologically, with a consequent risk of a 60% drop out rate from schools. In France, nearly 11.4% of students say they thought of curtailing their studies at least once during the first lockdown.

Many organisations, universities, and students themselves are joining forces to overcome the effects of the health crisis, and a growing number of initiatives are underway.

United against hunger

Deprived of work that enables them to finance their daily lives, some students have difficulty getting enough to eat, and as Secours Populaire in France has observed, an increasing number are resorting to food distribution centres.

During the first lockdown, associations mobilized under the Federation of General Student Associations (FAGE). The 360 volunteers of its "AGORAé" network, from 24 solidarity grocery stores in France, distributed 29,000 meals to more than 12,000 students. Solidarity refrigerators also store food collected by associations but on a smaller scale.

Young people prefer this kind of assistance, often student-to-student, rather than conventional aid centres. At the same time, university restaurants have adapted to distribute meal boxes or allow the sale of takeaway meals for one euro to students who are in need.

Breaking isolation

In addition to financial worries, students are hit hard by being isolated at an age when social interaction is fundamental. Often housed in cramped spaces or student bedrooms, these young people spend their days in front of a computer with very little social interaction.

During the first lockdown, the Picto-charentais Students' Federation Association launched a conversation and instant messaging service on the Discord application. Students can discuss educational topics, hobbies, and passions, or simply talk about their feelings to other students. This initiative, shared by various associations, has spread to other cities such as Lille, Rennes and Strasbourg. In Belgium, universities have been creative in organizing events that encourage social interaction. In Antwerp, students get to know one another through short online meetings or "speed-meeting". In Ghent students met online during a quiz on the American elections and a photography competition.

In this way, the virtual space becomes a place for sharing and collective relaxation. Associations, some of which are linked to FAGE, use the social potential of applications such as Discord to set up sessions of games, competitions, or simply to have conversations about classes, films, or music.

Governments react

Students have made repeated appeals to authorities in their countries for help. These alerts by the "last in containment," as they call themselves, paved the way for further government and academic action. Some 20,000 students are to be recruited in France in the coming months as tutors to their classmates in the lower years to facilitate communication and mutual aid within the university system. Emergency financial aid schemes are being developed by the CROUS to the amount of 500 euros for young graduates looking for work.

The French Government has also announced "psychological support vouchers" for students as well as recruiting 80 new psychologists attached to universities, doubling their current number.

In an open letter published in the Belgian press, parents of confined young people challenged policy makers to "Open up the auditoriums. This is a priority. Get organized so they can go back to their classes. They know the health rules and they want to be able to apply them. They also look forward to seeing more than two of each other, to resuming sports and, even crazier, to remaking the world. Which really needs it."

UNESCO is providing advice and expertise to the Ministries of Education in several countries to facilitate the sharing of experience and multilateral cooperation in favour of students, for example with the promotion of distance learning tools.

The promotion of quality education for the world remains one of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations for the year 2030.

"Education is the key to personal development and to the future of our societies," according to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who recommends giving top priority to the return of students to schools and other educational centres "when the transmission of COVID-19 at the local level is stopped." France has authorized a partial return of first-year students to campuses, but this measure is deemed insufficient and could be reconsidered depending on the evolution of the pandemic.

David is speaking with colleagues

S7-Episode 2: Bringing Health to the World

“You see, we're not doing this work to make ourselves feel better. That sort of conventional notion of what a do-gooder is. We're doing this work because we are totally convinced that it's not necessary in today's wealthy world for so many people to be experiencing discomfort, for so many people to be experiencing hardship, for so many people to have their lives and their livelihoods imperiled.”

Dr. David Nabarro has dedicated his life to global health. After a long career that’s taken him from the horrors of war torn Iraq, to the devastating aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, he is still spurred to action by the tremendous inequalities in global access to medical care.

“The thing that keeps me awake most at night is the rampant inequities in our world…We see an awful lot of needless suffering.”

:: David Nabarro interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Ballet Manguinhos resumes performing after a COVID-19 hiatus with “Woman: Power and Resistance”. Photo courtesy Ana Silva/Ballet Manguinhos

Brazilian ballet pirouettes during pandemic

Ballet Manguinhos, named for its favela in Rio de Janeiro, returns to the stage after a long absence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It counts 250 children and teenagers from the favela as its performers. The ballet group provides social support in a community where poverty, hunger and teen pregnancy are constant issues.

Nazira Inoyatova is a radio host and the creative/programme director at Avtoradio FM 102.0 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo courtesy Azamat Abbasov

Radio journalist gives the facts on COVID-19 in Uzbekistan

The pandemic has put many people to the test, and journalists are no exception. Coronavirus has waged war not only against people's lives and well-being but has also spawned countless hoaxes and scientific falsehoods.

The complexity of managing COVID-19: How important is good governance?

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Alaka m. basu , amb alaka m. basu professor, department of global development - cornell university, senior fellow - united nations foundation kaushik basu , and kaushik basu nonresident senior fellow - global economy and development @kaushikcbasu jose maria u. tapia jmut jose maria u. tapia student - cornell university.

November 17, 2020

  • 13 min read

This essay is part of “ Reimagining the global economy: Building back better in a post-COVID-19 world ,” a collection of 12 essays presenting new ideas to guide policies and shape debates in a post-COVID-19 world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of public health systems worldwide, casting a shadow that we could not have imagined even a year ago. As the fog of confusion lifts and we begin to understand the rudiments of how the virus behaves, the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight. The number of cases and the deaths continue to rise. The latter breached the 1 million mark a few weeks ago and it looks likely now that, in terms of severity, this pandemic will surpass the Asian Flu of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69.

Moreover, a parallel problem may well exceed the direct death toll from the virus. We are referring to the growing economic crises globally, and the prospect that these may hit emerging economies especially hard.

The economic fall-out is not entirely the direct outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic but a result of how we have responded to it—what measures governments took and how ordinary people, workers, and firms reacted to the crisis. The government activism to contain the virus that we saw this time exceeds that in previous such crises, which may have dampened the spread of the COVID-19 but has extracted a toll from the economy.

This essay takes stock of the policies adopted by governments in emerging economies, and what effect these governance strategies may have had, and then speculates about what the future is likely to look like and what we may do here on.

Nations that build walls to keep out goods, people and talent will get out-competed by other nations in the product market.

It is becoming clear that the scramble among several emerging economies to imitate and outdo European and North American countries was a mistake. We get a glimpse of this by considering two nations continents apart, the economies of which have been among the hardest hit in the world, namely, Peru and India. During the second quarter of 2020, Peru saw an annual growth of -30.2 percent and India -23.9 percent. From the global Q2 data that have emerged thus far, Peru and India are among the four slowest growing economies in the world. Along with U.K and Tunisia these are the only nations that lost more than 20 percent of their GDP. 1

COVID-19-related mortality statistics, and, in particular, the Crude Mortality Rate (CMR), however imperfect, are the most telling indicator of the comparative scale of the pandemic in different countries. At first glance, from the end of October 2020, Peru, with 1039 COVID-19 deaths per million population looks bad by any standard and much worse than India with 88. Peru’s CMR is currently among the highest reported globally.

However, both Peru and India need to be placed in regional perspective. For reasons that are likely to do with the history of past diseases, there are striking regional differences in the lethality of the virus (Figure 11.1). South America is worse hit than any other world region, and Asia and Africa seem to have got it relatively lightly, in contrast to Europe and America. The stark regional difference cries out for more epidemiological analysis. But even as we await that, these are differences that cannot be ignored.


To understand the effect of policy interventions, it is therefore important to look at how these countries fare within their own regions, which have had similar histories of illnesses and viruses (Figure 11.2). Both Peru and India do much worse than the neighbors with whom they largely share their social, economic, ecological and demographic features. Peru’s COVID-19 mortality rate per million population, or CMR, of 1039 is ahead of the second highest, Brazil at 749, and almost twice that of Argentina at 679.


Similarly, India at 88 compares well with Europe and the U.S., as does virtually all of Asia and Africa, but is doing much worse than its neighbors, with the second worst country in the region, Afghanistan, experiencing less than half the death rate of India.

The official Indian statement that up to 78,000 deaths 2 were averted by the lockdown has been criticized 3 for its assumptions. A more reasonable exercise is to estimate the excess deaths experienced by a country that breaks away from the pattern of its regional neighbors. So, for example, if India had experienced Afghanistan’s COVID-19 mortality rate, it would by now have had 54,112 deaths. And if it had the rate reported by Bangladesh, it would have had 49,950 deaths from COVID-19 today. In other words, more than half its current toll of some 122,099 COVID-19 deaths would have been avoided if it had experienced the same virus hit as its neighbors.

What might explain this outlier experience of COVID-19 CMRs and economic downslide in India and Peru? If the regional background conditions are broadly similar, one is left to ask if it is in fact the policy response that differed markedly and might account for these relatively poor outcomes.

Peru and India have performed poorly in terms of GDP growth rate in Q2 2020 among the countries displayed in Table 2, and given that both these countries are often treated as case studies of strong governance, this draws attention to the fact that there may be a dissonance between strong governance and good governance.

The turnaround for India has been especially surprising, given that until a few years ago it was among the three fastest growing economies in the world. The slowdown began in 2016, though the sharp downturn, sharper than virtually all other countries, occurred after the lockdown.

On the COVID-19 policy front, both India and Peru have become known for what the Oxford University’s COVID Policy Tracker 4 calls the “stringency” of the government’s response to the epidemic. At 8 pm on March 24, 2020, the Indian government announced, with four hours’ notice, a complete nationwide shutdown. Virtually all movement outside the perimeter of one’s home was officially sought to be brought to a standstill. Naturally, as described in several papers, such as that of Ray and Subramanian, 5 this meant that most economic life also came to a sudden standstill, which in turn meant that hundreds of millions of workers in the informal, as well as more marginally formal sectors, lost their livelihoods.

In addition, tens of millions of these workers, being migrant workers in places far-flung from their original homes, also lost their temporary homes and their savings with these lost livelihoods, so that the only safe space that beckoned them was their place of origin in small towns and villages often hundreds of miles away from their places of work.

After a few weeks of precarious living in their migrant destinations, they set off, on foot since trains and buses had been stopped, for these towns and villages, creating a “lockdown and scatter” that spread the virus from the city to the town and the town to the village. Indeed, “lockdown” is a bit of a misnomer for what happened in India, since over 20 million people did exactly the opposite of what one does in a lockdown. Thus India had a strange combination of lockdown some and scatter the rest, like in no other country. They spilled out and scattered in ways they would otherwise not do. It is not surprising that the infection, which was marginally present in rural areas (23 percent in April), now makes up some 54 percent of all cases in India. 6

In Peru too, the lockdown was sudden, nationwide, long drawn out and stringent. 7 Jobs were lost, financial aid was difficult to disburse, migrant workers were forced to return home, and the virus has now spread to all parts of the country with death rates from it surpassing almost every other part of the world.

As an aside, to think about ways of implementing lockdowns that are less stringent and geographically as well as functionally less total, an example from yet another continent is instructive. Ethiopia, with a COVID-19 death rate of 13 per million population seems to have bettered the already relatively low African rate of 31 in Table 1. 8

We hope that human beings will emerge from this crisis more aware of the problems of sustainability.

The way forward

We next move from the immediate crisis to the medium term. Where is the world headed and how should we deal with the new world? Arguably, that two sectors that will emerge larger and stronger in the post-pandemic world are: digital technology and outsourcing, and healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

The last 9 months of the pandemic have been a huge training ground for people in the use of digital technology—Zoom, WebEx, digital finance, and many others. This learning-by-doing exercise is likely to give a big boost to outsourcing, which has the potential to help countries like India, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Globalization may see a short-run retreat but, we believe, it will come back with a vengeance. Nations that build walls to keep out goods, people and talent will get out-competed by other nations in the product market. This realization will make most countries reverse their knee-jerk anti-globalization; and the ones that do not will cease to be important global players. Either way, globalization will be back on track and with a much greater amount of outsourcing.

To return, more critically this time, to our earlier aside on Ethiopia, its historical and contemporary record on tampering with internet connectivity 9 in an attempt to muzzle inter-ethnic tensions and political dissent will not serve it well in such a post-pandemic scenario. This is a useful reminder for all emerging market economies.

We hope that human beings will emerge from this crisis more aware of the problems of sustainability. This could divert some demand from luxury goods to better health, and what is best described as “creative consumption”: art, music, and culture. 10 The former will mean much larger healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

But to take advantage of these new opportunities, nations will need to navigate the current predicament so that they have a viable economy once the pandemic passes. Thus it is important to be able to control the pandemic while keeping the economy open. There is some emerging literature 11 on this, but much more is needed. This is a governance challenge of a kind rarely faced, because the pandemic has disrupted normal markets and there is need, at least in the short run, for governments to step in to fill the caveat.

Emerging economies will have to devise novel governance strategies for doing this double duty of tamping down on new infections without strident controls on economic behavior and without blindly imitating Europe and America.

Here is an example. One interesting opportunity amidst this chaos is to tap into the “resource” of those who have already had COVID-19 and are immune, even if only in the short-term—we still have no definitive evidence on the length of acquired immunity. These people can be offered a high salary to work in sectors that require physical interaction with others. This will help keep supply chains unbroken. Normally, the market would have on its own caused such a salary increase but in this case, the main benefit of marshaling this labor force is on the aggregate economy and GDP and therefore is a classic case of positive externality, which the free market does not adequately reward. It is more a challenge of governance. As with most economic policy, this will need careful research and design before being implemented. We have to be aware that a policy like this will come with its risk of bribery and corruption. There is also the moral hazard challenge of poor people choosing to get COVID-19 in order to qualify for these special jobs. Safeguards will be needed against these risks. But we believe that any government that succeeds in implementing an intelligently-designed intervention to draw on this huge, under-utilized resource can have a big, positive impact on the economy 12 .

This is just one idea. We must innovate in different ways to survive the crisis and then have the ability to navigate the new world that will emerge, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Related Content

Emiliana Vegas, Rebecca Winthrop

Homi Kharas, John W. McArthur

Anthony F. Pipa, Max Bouchet

Note: We are grateful for financial support from Cornell University’s Hatfield Fund for the research associated with this paper. We also wish to express our gratitude to Homi Kharas for many suggestions and David Batcheck for generous editorial help.

  • “GDP Annual Growth Rate – Forecast 2020-2022,” Trading Economics,
  • “Government Cites Various Statistical Models, Says Averted Between 1.4 Million-2.9 Million Cases Due To Lockdown,” Business World, May 23, 2020,
  • Suvrat Raju, “Did the Indian lockdown avert deaths?” medRxiv , July 5, 2020,
  • “COVID Policy Tracker,” Oxford University, t.
  • Debraj Ray and S. Subramanian, “India’s Lockdown: An Interim Report,” NBER Working Paper, May 2020,
  • Gopika Gopakumar and Shayan Ghosh, “Rural recovery could slow down as cases rise, says Ghosh,” Mint, August 19, 2020,
  • Pierina Pighi Bel and Jake Horton, “Coronavirus: What’s happening in Peru?,” BBC, July 9, 2020,
  • “No lockdown, few ventilators, but Ethiopia is beating Covid-19,” Financial Times, May 27, 2020,
  • Cara Anna, “Ethiopia enters 3rd week of internet shutdown after unrest,” Washington Post, July 14, 2020,
  • Patrick Kabanda, The Creative Wealth of Nations: Can the Arts Advance Development? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  • Guanlin Li et al, “Disease-dependent interaction policies to support health and economic outcomes during the COVID-19 epidemic,” medRxiv, August 2020,
  • For helpful discussion concerning this idea, we are grateful to Turab Hussain, Daksh Walia and Mehr-un-Nisa, during a seminar of South Asian Economics Students’ Meet (SAESM).

Global Economy and Development

Maxime Houinato

June 6, 2024

Robin Brooks

Sam Boocker, Alexander Conner, David Wessel

May 29, 2024


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    The COVID-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on both physical and social well-being of a lot of Americans, including me. Stress has been governing the lives of so many civilians, in particular students and workers. In addition to causing a lack of motivation in my life, quarantine has also brought a wave of anxiety.

  12. Community participation is crucial in a pandemic

    Community participation is essential in the collective response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), from compliance with lockdown, to the steps that need to be taken as countries ease restrictions, to community support through volunteering. Communities clearly want to help: in the UK, about 1 million people volunteered to help the pandemic response1 and highly localised mutual aid groups ...

  13. Citizenship in the time of pandemic

    Citizenship in the time of pandemic. CAMP Aguinaldo—For the past three months, contemporary life as we know it has been turned upside down. Segments of our society were pushed to the edge in an unprecedented crisis that has exposed the deep crevasses in our society, particularly in our government institutions.

  14. Step up: On citizens' responsibility during a pandemic

    With any big crisis comes great responsibility. In this time of a pandemic, while there is extensive, proven value in adopting recommended personal hygiene standards, maintaining physical distance ...

  15. The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic Is Shifting

    During a pandemic, no one's health is fully in their own hands.No field should understand that more deeply than public health, a discipline distinct from medicine. Whereas doctors and nurses ...

  16. Personal responsibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

    Effective communication is always key. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of harmful rumors that spread widely during the 2014 Ebola experience; ''Chew bitter kola"," Drink bleach ...

  17. Beyond compliance: Good citizenship during the COVID‐19 pandemic

    1. GEOGRAPHIES OF CITIZENSHIP AND RESPONSIBILITY. During the COVID‐19 pandemic, there was much discussion of good (and bad) citizenship. In the UK, until a significant proportion of the population was vaccinated, much of this discussion focused on (non‐)compliance with government rules concerning geographical behaviour (e.g., Reicher & Stott, 2020; Webster et al., 2020; Wright et al., 2021 ...

  18. Seven short essays about life during the pandemic

    My alarm sounds at 8:15 a.m. I open my eyes and take a deep breath. I wiggle my toes and move my legs. I do this religiously every morning. Today, marks day 74 of staying at home. My mornings are ...

  19. During the pandemic, students rely on solidarity

    Isolated, abandoned, depressed. Those are the words used to describe how students feel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them must study online with very little social interaction.

  20. Together, Let'S Take Responsibility Against Covid-19

    Keep up-to-date on the latest developments regarding COVID-19. Follow the advice of your doctor, national and local health authorities or your employer on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Rely only on official sources of information and avoid spreading unverified information. Be a responsible citizen and do your part.

  21. Impact of COVID-19 on people's livelihoods, their health and our food

    Reading time: 3 min (864 words) The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating: tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty ...

  22. Essay about My Life During Pandemic

    Essay about My Life During Pandemic. This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples. The world has slowed down, but tensions are starting to rise. In my early forties, when the world slowed down, I was finally able to take some time to relax, watch ...

  23. The complexity of managing COVID-19: How important is good ...

    The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of public health systems worldwide, casting a shadow that we could not have imagined even a year ago. As the fog of confusion lifts and we begin to ...