A Breath of Fresh Air?

WoBy has several times recorded the shift into Worthing, a fair bit of it being ‘coastal drift’ from Brighton and another large wave of it coming via middle-class exit from London, in search of good schools and larger family houses with gardens. Something Londoners especially appreciate, coming from a city where the population lives in levels of toxicity which are actually illegal, is the air quality. Not just the subjective joy of a clean sea breeze, but the objectively recorded (by DEFRA) cleaner air. 

Air quality, then.  

In those quiet early weeks of lockdown, many of us shared our feelings of joy at the peace on the streets and in the air during our permitted daily local walk. Worthing news confirmed that here, as all over Britain, air quality had noticeably improved, with Worthing’s NO2 levels halved. 

Less planes, less cars – and less humans, too, out and about. Not quite the apotheosis of re-wilding encapsulated by wild boars roaming Spanish city centres, but still, a sense of human retreat.    

A friend walked to Lancing and sent us her video of dolphins out at sea, presumed drawn into shore-side by this new peaceful environment. 

Lee Milner is an award-winning photographer working in and around Worthing.

Climate change activists were asked not to roll out arguments which would lead them close to ecofascism, and not to present humans as somehow separate from –  and necessarily bad for –  something that would be imagined as separated from us and mythologised as pure ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ (as in this anthropologist’s post on Sapiens). 

Lebensraum, remember, was a Nazi rallying-cry and policy. Plenty of open green spaces for good healthy rambles in the clean fresh air was a plank of the lifestyle promised to the ‘Aryan nation’. The concept of hygiene under Nazism covered a deadly range of judgements about personal bodies and the social body alike. Fresh air and open space for the few. 

For public health has never been an innocent branch of practice.     

The American West, an example of settler-expansionism, and the Nazi East, with its drive for racial purging, share the romance of the open air life in a landscape far beyond the urban – and much more, as Kakel argued in 2013.  We need better frameworks for thinking about clean open space, de-linked from these dangerous histories of ‘cleansing’. Resilience blog offers some helpful thoughts. 

Across Worthing, we discussed the changing Covid-19 situation on FB Worthing chat groups, on NextDoor, and with our own contacts by phone, in a frantic economy of sharing and swapping, supporting or denying each other’s understandings. The memes and jokes were flying fast as we tried to handle a sense of fear and bewilderment with humour.

Matt Lucas whizzed around What’sApp after Boris Johnson’s confusing speech May 10th

We made comparisons of our experience in UK (of government u-turns, misdirections and lack of clarity) with the swift and clear-cut decisions being made in other places, (which led to predictable  – modellable, even –  better results). Conspiracy theories and genuine doubt flourished: was this a deliberate cull and had those old ideas about eugenics not gone away but simply gone underground? Anthropologists put national policies into socio-cultural-political context: ‘herd immunity’ was indeed a cull, the ‘eugenics of the market’ as Laterza & Romer explained. 

In the literal airless space of the London underground, the case of Belly Mujinga became emblematic for Uk’s internal differences in lockdown experience and the variation in death rates. A terrible sociology of relative privilege and deprivation began to emerge

We gratefully got out of our homes every Thursday and saw our neighbours face-to-face, albeit at distance – the clapping for carers sometimes feeling like little more than an excuse to step outside and feel good about ourselves. We were reminded that those carers – like other frontline workers – were not a sociological microcosm of Uk, but were disproportionately BAME, migrants. The poem ‘you clap for me now’ and the whitewash of the public campaigns prickled at us.  

The day before lockdown was announced, we had gone for our last in-store food shop. Waitrose was orderly, slow and careful, the distanced queue snaking three times round the car-park and the trolleys wiped down with anti-bac by employees between uses. Many in the queue wore masks. A fair few of the shoppers were older, leisurely in our pace, ready and able to spend what we needed to fill the freezer for a couple of weeks. Lidl, over the road, was terrifying. People in a rush (to get back to work, to pick up the kids, to get home after a shift) moved speedily and in groups around the crowded store, picking up what they could from the narrow aisles and watching the cost. One man kept backtracking as he remembered things the family might need in case of shortages – “sorry, sorry”, he kept apologising, unaware in those days of magic hand-sanitiser that his outbreath and loud ‘sorry’ could itself be a vector for spread. Family members who worked at Lidl and those who shop there during lockdown report that things are not much better. WoBy stayed home and turned for provisioning to Worthing’s independents, who stepped up with deliveries of everything from cupcakes to kibble. The varieties of posh foodstuffs now available to us here is index enough of how our town is flourishing.   

Covid-19 mortality figures are still to be unpicked. But it’s plain that it’s not only the fresh air and sea breeze that makes Worthing Covid-19 rates so much lower than those in inner-city areas (despite our relatively high proportion of elderly and care-home dwellers).  

Sociology and anthropology can help us link our tiny part of the story up to the bigger stories. Foucault’s analysis of the state as that which makes choices about who to ‘let live and make die’ and Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics never seemed more easy to explain – or to understand – than right now. 

This week, the quarantine was lifted even further, though in truth Worthing had jumped the gun for its freedom several days before the official go-ahead. The roads are again full of cars, green spaces are full, it feels as though everyone has been out in the open air this past week. You can’t get a parking space near Goring Gap without a five minute drive around, while the bungalows opposite Cissbury once again have their view obscured by a line of vehicles.  

We rationalise that our car trips to green spaces make sense. We’ve learned that one of the key planks of Covid-19 safety is to stay in the open air. For an aerosol-borne virus, enclosed spaces are delicious environments; our breezy outdoor space wafts it around – and then away, dispersed.

We can breathe. 

In the middle of our joy at being released into 6-person picnics on the green and by the beach, we can take a moment to think about those who cannot breathe: both those who cannot breathe on an ongoing daily basis, because a cop or a security guard or a white person with malevolent intent is breathing down their neck – and also those whose breath has literally been stolen from them. 

Breath links us as living humans to Eric Garner, whose ‘I can’t breathe’ was recorded by Ramsey Orta. 

And the week when we got outside to breathe, in our mostly-white suburban town, was the week when George Floyd’s breath was stolen.

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