The politics of fear in times of COVID-19

It seems that in these times a health crisis there is at least one broad consensus from the radical left to the extreme right: the need to develop a politics of fear as a response to the crisis, to blame the infected and especially to label young people as "irresponsible". Enough is enough!

I'll admit it: I'm fed up! Fed up with the messages of fear ("if you don't behave, we'll confine you again"), fed up with the absurd advice (have casual sex with two metres distance, don't hug, don't have close contact with people you don't live with, etc.), fed up with the messages of hate towards young people accusing them of being "irresponsible"... By this I don't mean that I don't take the health crisis and the risk of contagion by the SARS-CoV-2 virus seriously. But it seems that since the outbreak of the health crisis only epidemiologists are in charge (in public discourse almost all are men) and a broader and more holistic perspective of human health has been completely lost. A situation that has led me to a strong experience of retraumatization during confinement, which has had a great impact on my health, both physical and mental.


'Face Mask almost always'

I am fed up with absurd measures and rules. What do they want to achieve by putting fear into our bodies (in this case: of repression) so that we 'almost always' wear the face mask, even in situations where there is no risk of communal transmission (or only residual)? As Dr Agoritsa Baka, senior expert on emergency preparedness at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said: "In public health we don’t like very much the mandatory stuff. We want to persuade people to do something to change their behaviour. It has been shown that it kind of comes back as a boomerang. When you make something mandatory you need to have a way to enforce it otherwise it is ridiculed by the public and is not very effective in the end".

I would go further: measures and rules must also make sense, they must be well explained and the benefit they generate must be understood, over and above their counterparts. Repression alone will not work. Does it really make sense to wear your face mask when walking in the countryside or on empty streets? Does it make sense to wear your mask outdoors even if you can easily keep the minimum distance of 1.5m? Does it make sense to wear your mask when walking on the beach? I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, but I doubt that the benefit that this rule could generate (the possible reduction of contagion) is really worth it, because of the suffering it causes to so many people (myself included, but I don't wear it, full stop!). This assessment could probably be different in Lleida or Barcelona or other areas where we have to assume that there is already - again - a community transmission (due to the failure of the contact tracing system). Another thing is to wear the mask on public transport or in closed spaces where distance cannot be maintained. In these cases the benefit is obvious, the suffering is limited, and the rule is easily explained by the risk, so here it is worth the sacrifice of wearing the mask.

With these absurd measures (accompanied by threats of fines) our governments are putting on a show (to tell us that they are doing something, that they are very concerned...), mainly to blame the behaviour of citizens and to hide their irresponsibility for not taking adequate measures to ensure effective tracing of contacts of infected people, or for not taking measures to ensure decent working and housing conditions for temporary workers in agriculture, to give a couple of significant examples.


Absurd advice and recommendations

The same goes for official recommendations and advice in the media. For example, the Order of the Ministry of Health and Families of the Andalusian Regional Government of 14 July, in addition to making the face mask compulsory 'almost always', recommends that it should also be worn in private meetings (family or other). Really? I think it's ridiculous and far from reality to recommend putting on a mask when I visit a friend in their home, or not hugging, or not staying with friends, or not flirting (or doing so at a distance of 2m, as recommended in an article in

I think we have to assume that zero risk does not exist in life, and neither does it exist in the health crisis. And as this is going to last (another year? two years?) we have to balance the risk with other human needs: of affection, of contact and intimacy (even physical), of having fun, of living. We cannot stop our lives for a year or more (and much less for young people, in an important phase of their life that requires contact with other young people). Research on the widespread trauma caused by the health crisis already shows the worrying impact that the health crisis has already had on the general population, and especially on young people. I find it unrealistic to recommend not meeting friends or family, or doing so without hugging or keeping your distance and wearing a mask. It may be easier for people who live in a heteronormative family, but many of us live other lives, and we need non-virtual affection, we need hugs, we need intimacy. Does this put us at risk? Yes, it is true, but there is no life without risk. Each person should be able to make their own evaluation of their needs and what risk they are willing to take. And if not: it would be more appropriate to develop educational programmes and awareness campaigns to enable us to make our own decisions, and not to threaten us with fines and new confinement. As we cannot avoid some risk, we need an effective contact tracing system, we need PCR testing, we need a strong public health system.


Blaming 'irresponsible' youth

In recent weeks, almost every day articles are published blaming young people, their nightlife or their 'botellones' (meeting up on a public space and drinking). First of all, it is not the most important source of the outbreaks (it is the family reunions). I don't want to defend a leisure culture based on consumption and alcohol (although I admit that I also like to have a few glasses of wine with friends), but I doubt that this culture will be changed in the short term. Young people need these encounters between equals, they need affection and intimacy with other young people instead of with their family (and I'm not just referring to queer or transgendered young people in queer/transphobic families, or young people with authoritarian or abusive families, who don't understand them). Have you forgotten about your youth? Banning drinking bottles in public spaces will do nothing but move them to other more hidden spaces, even less controllable, as many young people cannot afford to sit in the terrace of a bar, nor do they feel like doing so.

A more realistic way would be to take on board the needs of young people and, again, empower them to make conscious and responsible decisions to balance risk with their needs and desires. When you are 18, 19 or 20 years old, losing a year (or two) of your youth seems like an eternity, it seems unbearable (and you have already lost three months of your youth). Therefore, a policy of guilt and repression will not work, and will most probably leave many young people even more traumatized and infected.


Managing risk with a strong public health policy

Life involves risk - always. When I leave home I could be hit by a car. By not taking this risk and staying home I could die from a house fire, or some other accident. These risks are real, and we take them, we manage them.

Not taking risks during a health crisis is not a realistic position, because it completely ignores the fact that we cannot park our other needs for an indefinite period of time. Therefore, rules and recommendations that require us to ignore these other needs are useless. Many of us are going to break these rules and recommendations, and many are likely to feel guilty or ashamed (I admit I don't feel guilty or irresponsible), which is not healthy in the long run either.

We urgently need a health policy that sees and treats us as human beings, recognising that we have a multitude of needs (not just the need for protection, although that is important), we need a public health policy that is not dominated almost exclusively by epidemiologists, but with a broader health perspective, including mental health.

We need education campaigns that empower us to take responsibility without ceasing to live. We need to strengthen the public health system, primary care and contact tracing to manage risk (which is always there) and control outbreaks (which are inevitable) to avoid community transmission. A policy of fear and blame does not work for us. And I'm fed up. Enough!