Kindness as an antidote to the dangers of mutual surveillance during COVID-19

Be kind road signs in NZ
Mike Clare/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Cite this article as: Jesse Pirini, "Kindness as an antidote to the dangers of mutual surveillance during COVID-19," in PanMeMic, 18/06/2020, https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/498.

In March 2020 New Zealand instigated one of the most aggressive and decisive lockdowns in the world to tackle COVID-19. So far that decision has paid off, and there are currently no active cases in NZ. However, an aggressive lockdown comes with social risks, especially from people watching each other while they figure out what behaviour is now appropriate. This watching can easily lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and competitiveness, driving a wedge between different members of communities. In this brief discussion I want to explore how the NZ government framed the lockdown, in a way that highlighted the value of kindness, and went some way to mitigating these risks. 

The Government’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated a balance of strength and kindness. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has led a full lockdown, followed by levels of lowered restrictions. The call to ‘Go hard and go early’ found us confined to our home bubbles at a time when NZ only had small number of confirmed cases of COVID-19. The aggressiveness of the lockdown has been balanced out by directives to ‘be kind’ (notably at this press conference announcing the lockdown) and to take care of each other. 

A picture containing an image of a Kiwi as a heart and the words ‘Be kind, stay home, save lives’
Figure 1: Some of the government messaging around being kind

Coupled with calls to be kind, Arden set a strong tone for the lockdown in another early press conference. A reporter was fishing for controversy, claiming to have seen people breaking restrictions and drinking coffee in a cafe. Ardern’s response was simply to ask ‘What’s the name of the cafe?’ as she planned to send public health officers to close the cafe, until the reporter balked and backed down. The message Ardern sent to the country was clear: The lockdown is serious and will be enforced.   

The video of the press conference is a lesson in when to enforce and when to empathise, and through striking a balance of the two the New Zealand public has begun to emerge from lockdown in relatively good physical and mental health. 

 The enforcement challenge with a lockdown is a real one. We aren’t used to being told by the government that we must stay home. Upon first hearing about the lockdown I assumed I would still visit my parents. Instead, my partner and our kids spent four weeks in our home bubble. An obvious police presence emerged on the streets, and police boats were stationed off popular beaches. Several communities put checkpoints in place to ensure outsiders weren’t coming in for a social visit.

Community and police checkpoints in NZ
Figure 2: A police checkpoint (left) and a community checkpoint (right) set up to support limits on travel and protect at risk communities.

A sense of watching and being watched developed. Typical top-down surveillance from police was present, as they monitored people to ensure they were staying home and only making essential trips. I wasn’t surprised by this, and under the circumstances it felt warranted (although the legality of the lockdown was challenged, and I think everyone should question increased government powers no matter what the situation). 

The second type of surveillance that emerged was a kind of horizontal surveillance, where everyone was watching everyone else. It’s this type of watching that I think holds more risk of isolating people, encouraging competitive behaviour like panic buying, and causing stress and anxiety. 

Picture of a minister’s van parked by a mountain biking track
Figure 3: A member of the public snapped this picture of Health Minister David Clark’s van parked at a local mountain biking trail during lockdown. He was heavily reprimanded for breaking lockdown to go biking. He is likely to lose his ministerial portfolio as a result.

After lockdown had been announced to start in 24hrs I met a friend on the street and he immediately shook my hand. It felt almost like a challenge – will you shake my hand? I did but it felt uncomfortable. I had a few similar interactions where I found myself examining others and trying to work out what kinds of behaviour were appropriate.

In these moments the virus inserts itself into interactions. Our lives were seeded with a set of values associated with eliminating the virus, by doing our bit, and staying home – behaving as if we had the virus in order to protect others. We became obsessed with the number of infected people, how many people were in hospital, how many had recovered, and sadly how many had died. People became armchair epidemiologists, discussing R-values and incubation times. 

But the values that came with the virus were new, and so were the associated behaviours. Through washing our hands, social distancing, and staying home, we were told that we could ‘beat’ the virus. 

But because the situation was so novel, people didn’t quite know how we as a community were going to respond. How serious are we taking things? What is now appropriate? The extent to which rules are followed is socially negotiated. And all the accepted norms were out the window. Actions that we didn’t notice before became conscious. Should I press the lift button with my finger or my elbow? Would that be weird? Would it be weird not to? 

As a natural consequence people began to assess the behaviour of others against these government directives to figure out what is appropriate now. The result is a type of horizontal surveillance, where everyone is watching everyone else. In a stressful situation, there are risks to this kind of surveillance. Some negatives I have seen include:

  • More strongly drawing lines between people, and establishing in-groups and out-groups. 
    • I saw this with communities closing off roads to anyone from outside. These checkpoints were mostly positive, but there were reports of people being threatened at checkpoints and questioned inappropriately. I also heard reports of racist comments directed at Chinese people, or anyone who looked Chinese, due to the origin of the virus. 
  • Competition for resources.
    • I saw this with panic buying, even for resources that weren’t going to run out like flour and toilet paper. I must admit I have a 5kg bag of rice taking up a lot of space in the cupboard. 
  • Anxiety and a sense of isolation.
    • I felt this when going to the supermarket during lockdown. I wasn’t sure how to behave, and what expectations were about social distancing. Apparently, people who have experienced stress can be more likely to identify facial expressions as threat related. So now we don’t know how to behave appropriately, and everyone looks threatening. 

How do you avoid, or diminish, the negative aspects of this kind of lockdown directive? People feel unsafe, and distant from one another. Life becomes precarious. It causes us to watch each other, to see who is behaving appropriately and who isn’t. This kind of surveillance of our neighbours raises a risk that we gravitate towards in-groups defined by things like socioeconomics, age, or ethnicity. We start enforcing ‘the rules’ on people outside of our perceived in-groups. 

How did the government deal with this risk? The signage shared by the government, and the language in Ardern’s press conferences offer insight into the government’s use of kindness as a sweetener to the bitter pill of isolation. 

Being kind offers social connection between people when we are being driven apart by the invisible virus. The messaging around kindness throughout the pandemic has brought us together as a ‘team of 5 million’. The government has communicated the message of kindness through official materials and the languaging during press conferences. 

Official directives to ‘Be kind’ from the government’s COVID response website and an official poster.
Figure 4: Official directives to ‘Be kind’ from the government’s COVID response website and an official poster.

The field of disaster studies provides some insight into the emergence of co-operation and kindness. When we might expect conflict, hysteria and panic after disasters like earthquakes, usually the opposite is true. Ad hoc groups of citizens emerge and start dealing with problems, and people end up with a stronger sense of kinship and purpose. The extent to which a pandemic is different is unclear, but a multimodal semiotic approach such as we explore with our posts here might help us to understand how people respond to an invisible and enduring threat. 

The emphasis on being kind steers our surveillance of fellow citizens away from aggression towards compassion. Businesses like Pak n’ Save, a large supermarket chain, have taken up the mantra of be kind, asking people to be kind to staff and fellow shoppers, and to avoid panic buying. 

Signs from a local supermarket urging people to be kind.
Figure 5: Signs from my local supermarket urging people to be kind.

Be kind has even been taken up by artists like in this billboard space usually used for advertising. The writer of this chalk board sign for the local Botanic Gardens also takes up the mantra. 

A message from a chalkboard at the botanic gardens, and an artists drawing in a billboard space.
Figure 6: An artists drawing replaces advertising space, and a message of kindness in a chalkboard at the botanic gardens.

Kindness has been, and continues to be, everywhere throughout the COVID-19 response. We know from research into surveillance at work, in prisons and other institutions, that being watched and watching can lead to feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’, a sense of isolation, power imbalance, and even unexpectedly violent behaviour and mental illness. The lockdown in New Zealand has been a success in terms of saving lives. Its effect on the economy remains to be seen, and there have been other negatives like the increase in family violence as people are forced to lockdown with abusive family members. 

However, despite the challenges around such an extensive and strong lockdown, the tone of teamwork, caring and compassion resonates. This application of values to the action of surveillence has helped to avoid those negatives that come when we as the public end up supervising each other. I’ve shared some brief examples of imagery and talk here that I have seen about how the call for kindness has spread. It feels real somehow, and it shows in the signs and the smiles we see in the street. 


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5 Responses

  1. Najma Al Zidjaly says:

    Thank you Jesse for this kind post 🙂 It is funny that kindness in the New Zealand context meant tough love mixed with gentleness. In the Omani context, kindness meant giving the first few cases and their families the benefit of the doubt. Our cases are surging.

    • Jesse Pirini says:

      So interesting. We have had a few instances where kindness has gone out the window. A couple arrived from overseas, and were given early leave from quarantine to attend a funeral…but then one of them had the virus and travelled around the country with it. Luckily it didn’t seem to spread. But there hasn’t been much kindness shown towards them!

  2. Emilia says:

    Thanks for a very engaging post, Jesse! Such a stark difference there seems to be between Ardern’s focus on kindness and empathy (central to her image as a leader and the image of her government; e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruDJp64prhc) and the Italian leaders’ approach that Maria Grazia describes. It’d be interesting to consider also how kindness is multimodally enacted and represented.

  3. Maria Grazia Sindoni says:

    Thanks Jesse, this is super interesting, especially seen now that the situation is under control here in Italy and we can have at least some degree of retrospective view at what has happened here and the completely different approaches taken at a local level. The Italian national government has adopted a model that I’d define as appealing to individual responsibility, especially in terms of what one had to do and the #stayhome mantra was obsessively repeated over and over again in every national media outlet. However, at a local level, Italian mayors lost patience with lockdown dodgers (and this is a euphemism) and their ranting were filmed and published – my own mayor landing in a video posted by the New York Times.
    The content of their ranting was outrageous, funny, and the mayors shouting and using local colour swear terms to people not heeding instructions. These videos have become viral and many mayors started to have their ranting filmed by their “media advisors”. This violent and abusive approach against the most popular COVID-19 culprits (e.g. runners and people walking dogs) is diametrically opposed to what you discuss in your post about kindness. I post a link to a video that was published when the outbreak was expected to hit southwards to give an idea of their tone and language (my mayor is the second, for the record).
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32HVHFJdT6Y&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3MkONp_xkybEXkh_LVd4Vu6iebCxCtsXztYCqglvTFGxjvPXKwsXlOQ6I

    • Jesse Pirini says:

      Great videos thanks Maria. It would be very interesting to look at the different values that people expressed alongside the ‘stay at home’ decree in different countries. I think consistent leadership is really important for a successful lockdown. Without clear leadership I suspect it’s harder for people to settle on accepted behaviours. The semiotics of this is fascinating – how do you display a set of values, and what makes these displays successful or not..

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