Power, eroticism, healing, translanguaging and social justice: An ethnographic note from a Covid-19 testing centre
Image 1. A drive-through Covid-19 testing centre, June 2021.
Screening Practitioner: Hello, my name is Marta and I am a screening practitioner. Have you had this test done before?
Client: No, it’s my first time. I’m a bit nervous actually.
Screening Practitioner: Oh, I see; really there’s nothing to be afraid of. I will talk you through the procedure. First, I need to take a sample from the back of your throat. This will take 10 seconds, and then using the same swab, from one of your nostrils. Don’t worry, I’ll be very gentle. Have you had any nose surgeries or any nose bleeding recently?
Screening Practitioner: Ok, if you are happy for me to proceed, please lower your mask and open your mouth…
Since November 2020 until present (June 2021), I have had the enormous pleasure to work part-time as a Covid-19 screening practitioner at a local airport. I must say this enjoyment was somewhat unexpected, particularly considering the challenging context of the pandemic and the undeniably awkward nature of the job – oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal swabbing. I also happen to be a sociolinguist, and while I have never intended for this experience to be more than an additional source of income (and maybe an excuse to get out of the house after the series of prolonged lockdowns), the role has inspired a plethora of observations related to the complexity of communicative processes in this setting, which, I feel, would be a shame to keep to myself.
At this point, I would like to stress that while the reflections presented below stem from what could be described as participant observation over a seven-month period, they are not based on any formal research. Nevertheless, the potential to conduct studies on this complex, dynamic and high-pressure environment seems immense and worth pursuing, which I hope to demonstrate with this informal ethnographic note. With my heterosexual-white-Polish-female-immigrant-in-the-UK-and-a-discourse-analyst perspective, the note can constitute only a snapshot of the intricate interactive processes described below.
Where do I start? Perhaps with the most obvious asymmetrical relationship between the client and, us, as the service provider. Who has the power here? The service – a private Covid-19 test – is naturally paid for and, at least for some, is costly. The investment immediately entitles the customer to high expectations in terms of professionalism, accuracy and speed on the part of the service provider. Should we not deliver, the client has every right to complain. However, as the test is classified as a medical appointment, they are not eligible for a refund (which slightly shifts the power to us, the company). In addition, for the test to be performed correctly, a certain amount of cooperation is required from our clients, which again diverts the power towards us; here most immediately to individual screening practitioners (a.k.a. ‘swabbers’), who, as illustrated in the generic imaginary dialogue above, ask questions, explain the procedure and give out instructions throughout the test. What emerges through this script is our ‘expert’ stance – we position ourselves as fully trained screening practitioners who understand the procedure and know how to perform it.
This is where things get complicated. Our expertise is not always acknowledged. We are not doctors after all, though some of us have a medical background. Just like us, our clients come from various walks of life. On odd occasions, we will have to deal with clients who will want to override our expertise and mark their superiority by quizzing us on the nuances related to the lab procedure, which are known to our lab team but not to us, as swabbers. Now and again, someone will insist on conducting the test themselves, thus disempowering us through their denial of trust. (The company’s policy allows self-testing in special circumstances – for example, clients with certain health conditions or parents wanting to swab their children; however, if the results from a self-performed test turn out inconclusive, the customer needs to cover the cost of an additional test.)
There is more power yielding for us. Should our clients be particularly uncooperative or abusive, naturally we have the right to refuse the service. Consequently, those clients would not be able to obtain a ‘ticket’ to work, travel or quarantine-release in the form of confirmation that they have tested ‘negative’ for Covid-19, and, if applicable, in the form of a ‘fit-to-fly’ certificate, which can be issued alongside the test results for flying passengers.
In general, from my own observations and those of my colleagues, our clients tend to cooperate with us. More so, evoking the ‘clap for NHS’ ritual, they will often compliment us on being at the frontline of the fight against this pandemic while additionally persevering all weather conditions (in the case of our drive-through facilities). This collaboration can also emerge through clients’ uptake of our jovial ‘key’ (Hymes, 1974: 57), i.e. ‘tone, manner or spirit’ of what we say. While remaining professional, we do aim to establish positive relationships with our customer through small talk and humour. Again, most of the time this will be accepted, enabling common-ground building and thus downplaying the potential asymmetry between us, the service providers, and our customers. However, similarly to trust, this joviality can be denied. Once, my attempt to bring light-heartedness to this encounter – and thus to release potential tension stemming from its awkwardness – was met with a stone-faced comment:
‘One does not do it for entertainment’
through which the client reclaimed their power and discursively delineated a borderline between our different group memberships.
These complex power dynamics of the client-service provider relationship are further intricated by gender, age, status, social class, cultural background, linguistic repertoires or even by the very physical set-up (airport car park), including the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by the screening centre workers: high visibility vests, aprons, visors, goggles, sleeve protectors and gloves. More on this below.
Image 2. Personal protective equipment (PPE).
Image 3. A Covid-19 screening practitioner in PPE, June 2021.
Throughout my experience of working as a Covid-19 tester, I have repeatedly recalled Kira Hall’s (1995) article entitled ‘Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines’. Hall describes how the fantasy-line operators in her study skilfully manipulate the stereotypical feminine speech when pleasing their customers on the phone, achieving not only economic gains but also, paradoxically for this sex service context, a sense of empowerment and enjoyment through their linguistic agency and creativity. As argued by Hall, what has been traditionally perceived as ‘powerless’ women’s language, becomes commodified as a powerful sex tool on the lips of these fantasy providers.
I think it is fair to say that oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal swabbing evokes sexuality. This is stimulated semiotically – for example, the action of inserting an object (a swab stick) into body orifices (nose and mouth). It is also evoked linguistically through the act of communicating the testing procedure, which abounds in expressions that may bring to mind sexual connotations – for example, in the imaginary dialogue above:
- ‘it’s my first time’,
- ‘I’ll be very gentle’,
- ‘lower your mask and open your mouth’.
If this dialogue were to continue, I would be asking the customer to ‘breathe as I’m inserting the swab’ into their nostrils and saying that I need to ‘find the cavity’ and ‘go a bit deeper in’. At the end, I would probably ask ‘how it was’ and, now and again, I would hear that it was ‘the best ever’. If you look further into the semiotics of this encounter, the customer will be sitting on a chair (or in a drive-through scenario, in their car) and I will be towering above them (well, I am only 5 feet tall; should it be a van, I will be climbing on my toes) with a swab stick, all geared up in my apron, visor, sleeve protectors and gloves. On one occasion, having donned my PPE in a swabbing booth, I heard from a customer:
Cringe. Sometimes the only answer is nervous laughter. But then the swab stick is in my hands, empowering me again.
Image 4. A Covid-19 screening practitioner taking a test sample. Source: Freepik.
Naturally, gender is at play here, too, and from my female and heterosexual perspective, I have noticed that men tend to get more uncomfortable in this reversed role of having their bodily cavities penetrated (with a swab stick), especially by a female swabber. This is somewhat analogous to Hall’s article above – this potential temporary shift of power through the erotic, here realised both linguistically and semiotically. Of course, we are a LGBT-friendly environment and our staff members with different sexual orientations may have other observations, which remains to be explored.
Recurrently, these short test appointments turn into informal ‘counselling’ sessions. Our customers, in particular air passengers testing before their flights, will share with us the nuisance of travel in the times of pandemic, complaining about the additional hassle related to Covid-19 testing, the difficulty of calculating the timings, the strict rules, and ongoing changes that are hard to follow. Occasionally, we will have to offer our listening ear to distraught clients desperately trying to reach their relatives abroad due to a family emergency or bereavement. We always try to walk the extra mile and offer as much empathy as possible during these challenging times.
Working in small, alternating teams of two and three creates a lot of opportunity for us, staff members, to get to know one another, which introduces a therapeutic element to our workmate interactions. The times between appointments give us a chance to chat, banter and share our life experiences, often those brought about by the pandemic. What we all gain through this is the much missed face-to-face (alas masked) interaction, which I think gives us a sense of healing post the lockdowns and a sharing of the related stress we have all endured. In no other work setting had I before met such a vibrant team, with people of various sociocultural backgrounds, professions and of so many different talents. And without a doubt, while there have been times of moaning and friction, I have never laughed that much in any other job.
Bearing in mind the array of sociocultural backgrounds of staff and clients, it is unsurprising that the Covid-19 testing centre creates what Wei Li (2011) describes as a ‘translanguaging space’ – a zone in which multiple sociocultural resources come into play. This manifests most obviously through multiple linguistic repertoires, which we and our customers use to maximise the communicative potential of our interactions.
To illustrate, should clients not speak English fluently, we will try to communicate in their first language, or our lingua franca, using the multilingual skills of our staff members. Hearing us speak their first language always puts a smile on our customers’ faces. I regularly hear from Polish clients:
‘O jak dobrze, że pani mówi po polsku’/ ’How good that you speak Polish’
and on a few occasions I have surprised French customers with my rusty Français. Translanguaging not only allows us to communicate; it is also a display of our linguistic competence, though often symbolic, through which we achieve a positive self-presentation, both in front of our customers and colleagues.
When necessary, we will employ modern technologies for translation, such as apps and online translation tools. Common and helpful is also ‘language brokering’ (Tse, 1995) – interpreting provided by young members of immigrant families for their parents and other adults who are less able to understand the dominant language; in this case, English. Occasionally, we will resort to non-verbal communication, using gestures and body language to demonstrate to our customers what the testing procedure involves and what actions they need to perform for it to be conducted (e.g. facing us, opening their mouths wide and tilting their heads backwards for the throat swab, breathing in and out during the nasal swab). Our traffic marshals will likewise often communicate non-verbally, directing the cars in and around the testing centre, instructing the drivers which testing cabin to head for, asking them to turn off the engine for the duration of the test and guiding them out of the site.
Image 5. Traffic marshals at a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre, June 2021.
It could be argued that this joint effort to deploy diverse linguistic and semiotic resources opposes the hegemony of English language. By recognising that not all of our clients speak English and accommodating their communication needs, we address the issue of linguistic disadvantage which, as Ingrid Piller (2016: 6) claims, ‘must be the central facet of the social justice agenda of our time’. There is a way forward and provision of multilingual resources during the testing procedure – for example, brochures translated into the key minority languages in the area, as well as other accessible formats (audio, braille, sign language, easy read and visuals) – would further address the communicative requirements of some of our clients.
What comes with our translanguaging is reflexivity: we recurrently deliberate on the discursive repertoires at our disposal. This results in meta-talk, i.e. talk about communicative practices, during which we exchange our observations in relation to our interactions with clients and colleagues, and in relation to various messages we are exposed to as part of the job. There is a lot to reflect on: not only do we use multiple linguistic resources but also various channels.
Image 6. The linguistic landscape at a Covid-19 screening centre: health and safety posters, a notice board and stickers gifted to tested children.
Apart from face-to-face interactions, we will communicate via radio, through apps, email, text messages and notice boards. Naturally, the linguistic landscape speaks to us and customers, too: the signposting related to traffic, health and safety – road signs and markings, cones, the pandemic-related messages and PPE; as well as the commercial information in the form of banners, posters, leaflets and uniform, all featuring the company’s motto and logo.
The setting has also opened to us novel or unused before terminology (e.g. visor, vial/buffer, Ct value, lateral flow/antigen test) and attached new meanings to the words we knew in other contexts – a cassette is no longer an old-school analogue reel-to-reel audio recording, but a plastic panel for a lateral flow/antigen type of Covid-19 test (Image 7); and goggles are not for diving or skiing anymore, but a part of our PPE shielding our eyes from the virus (Image 8).
Image 7. An analogue audio-recording cassette (left) and a lateral flow/antigen Covid-19 test cassette (right).
Image 8. Skiing goggles (left) and safety goggles for Covid-19 testing (right).
This ongoing reinterpretation of our communicative practices restructures the existing sociocultural meanings and systems, marking them as ever-evolving products of human interaction – and us as agents in this communicative evolution.
Translanguaging is not limited to linguistic manifestations and is theorised to encompass other sociocultural elements. Here, in particular, backstage interactions among our staff (be it in the testing cabins in-between appointments or during breaks in the staff room) create ample opportunities to share various aspects of our diverse sociocultural backgrounds, food being one of them.
Image 9. Food sharing in the staff room at a Covid-19 testing centre.
As the topic lies at the heart of my research interests, I always prick my ears hearing my colleagues talk about their culinary preferences, national foods and their experiences of world cuisines in the contexts of their own kitchens, dining out and tourism. Unfortunately, the latter two contexts have been inaccessible due to the pandemic, so these food-related exchanges give us a chance to perform imaginary culinary travels to the spaces we once could venture and, hopefully, will be able to visit physically again in near future.
Against the unfolding ‘democratisation’ of air travel (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2006), the pandemic has necessitated strict travel restrictions, especially for air passengers. At the time of drafting this article (May 2021), in Scotland flying was restricted to special circumstances (e.g. family bereavement) and passengers had to undergo a 10-day quarantine in a hotel upon their return at £1750 for the first adult, £650 each for any other adults or children over 12 and £325 each for any children aged between 5 and 12*. Combined with the cost of multiple Covid-19 tests, these additional expenses mean that air travel is temporarily limited not only to those who have serious reasons to travel, but further or foremost to those who can afford it.
Image 10. A ‘ghost’ airport departure hall during the Covid-19 pandemic, November 2020.
Thus, in this context (and in other countries worldwide where similar measures were introduced), the democratic aspect of air travel has been temporarily suspended, marking it again as a luxury for the privileged. However, this elitism of jetting during the pandemic is somewhat tinted by obligatory Covid-19 testing – no matter what social class you think you represent and how wealthy you are, you must get tested and obtain a ‘fit to fly’ certificate.
Our Covid-19 testing facilities are not only for travelling clients and we also cater for workers from various industries (e.g. building, construction, aviation, film). While there are celebrities among our clients, we likewise test ‘ordinary’ customers who need to prove that they are free from the virus for work purposes. This is how a Covid-19 testing centre creates a liminal space of fleeting social equality, in which we are all facing this pandemic and must get swabbed regardless of our socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, gender, level of education and age. Apart from all the laughter within the team, this is what I have enjoyed the most about being a swabber.
Who would have thought that a swab stick, high-vis vest and PPE could cause so much ado in the domains of power, eros, mental health, communication and social justice?
*the Scottish government has been gradually loosening the travel restrictions; since 17th May 2021, the hotel-quarantine has been a requirement only for the passengers arriving from the ‘red list’ countries.
Hall, K. (1995) Lip service on the fantasy lines. In K. Hall and M. Bucholtz (eds), Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge, 183–216.
Hymes, D. (1974) Foundations of Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Li, W. (2011) Moment analysis and translanguaging space: Discursive construction of identities by multilingual Chinese youth in Britain. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 5: 1222–1235.
Piller, I. (2016) Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thurlow, C. and Jaworski, A. (2006) The alchemy of the upwardly mobile: Symbolic capital and the stylisation of elites in frequent-flyer programmes. Discourse & Society, 17, 131–167.
Tse, L. (1995) Language brokering among Latino adolescents: Prevalence, attitudes, and school performance. Hispanic Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 17, 2: 180–193.