Covid-19 RGS-IBG Book Series

Stay home, stay safe? A political geography of home in Covid-times

By Katherine Brickell, Royal Holloway, University of London

The home has become ground zero of the fight against the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. Never have so many people been ordered to ‘stay at home’ globally. And never has the health of so many been contingent on grounding billions of people. Staying at home became the temporary antidote, the best vaccine we have against the global Coronavirus crisis, for now. It is a political act of collective solidarity and care, supported of course by the vital workers that enable this survival sedentarism. As Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has written, ‘Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation’. 

Yet this situation, this halting of the hyper-mobility so synonymous with the twenty-first century, is not possible for everyone. Nor can the safety of staying at home be assumed. The protection that home is expected to offer is not experienced equally. The home, like the pandemic, is politically polarising. How can you stay at home without a home? What if staying at home is more likely to cause more harm than leaving it? 

In my new book Home SOS: Gender, Violence and Survival in Crisis Ordinary Cambodia I argue that the home is where the protection and destruction of life is most regularly and intensely expressed, yet it remains systematically overlooked writing in political geography and international relations. Based on over 300 interviews conducted over 15 years, the book focuses on Cambodian women’s experiences of domestic violence and forced eviction to show the importance of addressing these routine violences. Both are forms of displacement from home in metaphorical and/or physical forms which inflict ongoing harm and trauma. While ‘crisis-affected’ and ‘crisis-prone’ descriptors tend to be limited to countries and regions experiencing war, conflict, and natural disasters, I contend that domestic violence and forced eviction bring to the fore home as a crisis-affected and crisis-prone space, worthy of more dedicated study.

Photo Credit: Ben Woods

The Covid-19 crisis shows this clearly. The pandemic is not only a crisis in itself. It is spotlighting as well as exacerbating other ‘slow crises’, which have not received the same attention as sensational or high-profile crises at the global scale. These slow crises are deeply rooted. They are ongoing and unrelenting deteriorations of ordinary life. And they have become all too ordinary in Britain today. Housing insecurity, the shortage of affordable decent housingreductions in home size, the rise of family homelessness, financial precarity and punitive welfare reformsfood poverty and hunger, a broken social care system, deepening generational divides, cuts to women’s domestic violence refuges and other vital local services. These have all undermined the possibility of a durable home for so many. The pandemic has made their existence, and the objectionable political choices that have led to them, all the more visible. To dwell with the pandemic, is to dwell with these slow crises. 

The pandemic graphically illuminates how the slow crises which preceded it are being amplified and felt through peoples’ contrasting experiences of the shutdown. This is because inequality and violence push certain populations away from a liveable life, of which the home is its intimate core. In this sense, the pandemic home does not necessarily offer a nourishing, stabilising and comforting inoculation against uncertainty that might normatively be expected. Any notion that the home, be this institutional or non-institutional, could ever have been equated with the benign and unharmful is a misnomer. The exceptional pandemic event shows, in the starkest of terms, how without the right to home, other rights such as living safely, or living at all, are much harder to achieve. 

A visual of the pandemic, a house hermetically sealed within a snow globe, is a fallacy. As is the narrative trope of families ‘marooned’ at home. Isolation at home is not the same as being isolated from the world outside of it. While home in pandemic discourse is situated as a space of safety, privacy, and retreat away from the virus, it is the dangers and insecurities of home life which have been rendered all the more raw. Across the world, incidences of domestic violence, homicides, and suicides of women isolated in their homes with their perpetrator have spiralled. As I explain in my new book, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime even before the pandemic, the home is  statistically the number one place where murders take place globally. It is therefore as much site of danger as it is of safety. The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrates, once again, how the home can be deadly for women who are isolated at home with their perpetrator. 

In this sense, the promise that the snow globe offers, of guaranteed protection, is only ever available to certain homes and populaces. Slow crises, including domestic violence, have entered public consciousness and debate in COVID-times precisely, yet perversely, because the world was told to stay at home. Once politically obscured from sight, and eclipsed by more urgent crises, they have entered into greater and more contentious public view. 

What the pandemic, and my book Home SOS impresses, is the inexhaustible importance of working towards a world in which all can claim the benefits of a safe and secure home. At its most basic, the current pandemic shows how we all live in relation to each other. Staying at home to save lives, is a radical act of solidarity. The collective responsibility shared for life during the pandemic shows the political power of home to organise and build a stronger ethos and network of care for the future.

About the author: Katherine Brickell is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), UK. She is editor of the journal Gender, Place and Culture and is former Chair of the RGS-IBG Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group. Her feminist-oriented research crosscuts social, political, development, and legal geography, with a long-standing focus on the domestic sphere as a precarious space of contemporary everyday life. 

Katherine’s book, Home SOS: Gender, Violence and Survival in Crisis Ordinary Cambodia is published in the RGS-IBG Book Series this week. It is available to order here. There is a 35% discount available to members of the RGS-IBG.

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