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COVID-19: can we learn from previous crises?

By Kevin Morrell - April 2020

In 2011, by sheer chance, I started a project studying policing and public order just months before the August “riots”. In the face of the unprecedented Corona crisis, I have been thinking about this research and whether there are any potential lessons. First, I’m briefly going to describe the context for that project. Second, I’m going to summarise the theoretical framework I’ve used to analyse the changes the riots brought about. Third, I will draw out some implications for how we might think about the current crisis.


In 2011, following the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, protests in Tottenham served as a flash point for widespread civil disorder and nation-wide looting which collectively became known as “the riots”. Riots began in London but were quickly copied in other English cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham and elsewhere. The scale of rioting was unprecedented and part of how it spread was also entirely new: 2011 saw the first mass disorder facilitated by instant messaging technology. Indeed, these events became known as the “Blackberry riots”.

One reason this national crisis has been on my mind is because I understood the riots as – albeit temporarily – changing something fundamental about the meaning of space for contemporary society. These forced us to revise and rethink the nature of public space, to question what about our way of life was at risk and that we had taken for granted, and what things the state could control. The theoretical framework I used to understand these processes is a very general one that can also be used to understand unfolding events relating to COVID-19.

Theoretical Framework

I used a framework by a French geographer called Henri Lefebvre. It’s difficult to do justice to his work quickly, but his contribution can partly be summarised by the title of his most famous book: The Production Of Space.

What Lefebvre means by spatial “production” is that space is not something “out there” or a kind of container in which things happen, instead it is made and remade by social practices: by the actions of institutions, organisations , citizens and the state. For instance, a football stadium is a totally different space if it is empty versus full, and it becomes transformed again if it is used as a temporary refuge during crisis. Cathedral steps are very different spaces if instead of being occupied by worshippers, they are simply a site for tourists, and they shift again if used as a base by protesters.

Sometimes Lefebvre’s ideas are understood in terms of a triad: representations of space (maps, plans, models, boundaries, laws), spatial practices (the way we use different settings in daily life), and representational space (the meaning people give to different settings and spatial practices – such as whether something is seen as safe or dangerous, mundane, sacred or taboo). These three elements are interconnected.

During the riots, we saw representations of space by the state - like the boundaries of estates and the laws governing exchange and trade – quickly changed by spatial practices like barricades, arson and looting. As these state representations of space were transformed by these spatial practices, the meanings given to these spaces changed. In some places, even if only temporarily, the riots caused profound shifts in what space meant – places we previously understood as “public”, safe and controlled by the state instead temporarily became territories: possessed by certain groups. One vivid example of this was where a state representation of space – the boundary of the Pembury Estate in Hackney – was transformed by arson.

Implications for Understanding the Coronavirus Crisis

As it felt during the riots in 2011, it is difficult to comment on novel social phenomena while they are happening. Part of recalling that crazy time period is also reliving a sense of forced, surreal detachment from everyday understandings of what life in Britain and public space means. However, it does seem clear there are ways in which the coronavirus crisis can be understood in terms of spatial production.

Already we can see how representations of space – the boundaries to healthcare settings, workplaces and schools; and the laws that govern commercial and social activity – and our understandings of such space of have been changed by state, institutional, societal and organisational practices. These include social distancing policies, panic buying and quasi-rationing by supermarkets and – of course – working from home or what is effectively enforced unemployment by closure of shops and restaurants and many businesses. It also includes a very different, severe and alien assertion of territory – this time by a virus that has claimed these spaces and our air, not just nationally, but across the world.

Unlike the riots which were a very clear and flagrant symbol of just how much British society was divided, and where our politicians emphasised differences between the rioters and the rest of the public – with the virus we have a common enemy. A lot is being made of the need for a national effort and the signs are that many are rising to this challenge. Even so, it poses different risks to different parts of the public, perhaps resulting in different kinds of social fractures between the old and the young. It also requires much more of some members of our society; this includes NHS workers, but also a new front line of workers who serve the public and have been demeaned and devalued or at least taken for granted until now.

An unfortunate parallel with the riots is that in 2011, like now, many perhaps take it for granted that the emergency services will act to restore order and preserve life. For example, we expect without questioning that the police will still need to respond to domestic incidents or that they will implement powers of quarantine which would come at huge personal risk. During the riots there was perhaps a failure to acknowledge that virtues like bravery and selflessness are not automatic properties “the police” or “the emergency services” have. Instead, bravery and selflessness always take shape in the everyday choices of individuals who then, as now, lacked the resources to confront an unknown threat and who, in some situations, could have turned away but instead routinely put themselves at risk of harm.

One shocking, deeply unsettling spatial difference from the riots is that of scale. It is not only human activity remaking and colonising space during a national crisis. Instead, we have space being produced in response to a virus that is simultaneously omnipresent and invisible; it is the first pandemic under global capitalism.

There could be positive changes in time – a renewed appreciation of the value of the home and the basic social unit that is the family, greater readiness to tackle climate change, a rise in public-spiritedness – as the enormous surge in volunteers recently demonstrates. Alongside the massive economic fall-out, it will likely be a tipping point for many organisations who will realise just how much can be done remotely and which activities are really necessary to their business. In time, perhaps this will lead to greater trust of their employees as well as innovation. It may make the social costs of unemployment more visible and bring about changes in the way the unemployed are supported.

Spatial practices associated with different occupations (cleaning, working in a supermarket) may become revalued once society understands who our real keyworkers are and whose work is vital as well as whose (like some academics perhaps) is less so. Unfortunately, just as these challenges will remind us of things that can be opportunities, many vulnerable people – elderly, infirm or poor – may be forced into even more desperate circumstances and isolation.

In terms of relations between society and the government, the dramatic changes in economic policy and state support for many workers and industries were unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. This kind of central planning is perhaps the closest to communism this country has come and yet these policies were devised and implemented by a Conservative government then welcomed by the Confederation of Business Industry and Unions alike.

The vast sums being committed to by the government are as stark a contrast with austerity as imaginable and yet the chronic lack of investment in health and policing cannot be made up for in the timescale needed to combat the virus. As well as a lack of resources and infrastructure, we should not forget that many public servants were forced out of or left their jobs in despair. A collective national effort means calling disproportionately on those who already given so much to our society and whose work has been undervalued for a decade or more.

More widely than the UK, the nation state is a key actor in enforcing spatial boundaries in ways that have instantly bucked the trends underpinning decades of global capitalism. The key vector for global trade – the airline industry – is collapsing and in need of state support. The world seems less globalised by the day as variations in the course the virus takes are reported along national lines.

In terms of our politics, the unity there will be in fighting the virus will give way as this crisis passes and ideological differences reassert themselves. This may lead to far-reaching recriminations in the wake of speculation about the merits of different levels of investment in national healthcare: of how many intensive care beds the UK has in comparison to Germany for instance.

In terms of spatial production, the challenge societies face is twofold. First, there is a need to combat the virus and reclaim a common safe space – and doing so means quickly establishing new understandings of space among the public – where private liberty ends, and which things are “necessary” activities for instance. There is a second challenge, which is to work harder to discover our common humanity, remaking a collective, civic space that cherishes life and values activities that are meaningful because they are essentially human and not simply because they support production and consumption.

Finally, it is worth recalling how although the 2011 riots seemed to be a grave and unprecedented threat at the time, they now seem a very distant memory. This is at least partly because our understanding of what ‘normal’ public spaces are and should be is extremely resilient. Social distancing will not mean the death of intimacy or humanity, these things will be renewed and remade and it will take all of us to do this.