Political Responsibility in Responses to an Unconceivable Threat. By Karsten Lehmann.
Throughout the world, the corona-pandemic has created new social realities. Some aspects of these new realties are highly visible – such as the shutdown of inner cities and many small businesses. Others are almost invisible – such as the situation in hospitals under quarantine, in religious communities or within families. And yet others are just about to emerge – such as potential economic or political crises.
In such a situation we have to understand the rationale that shapes these new social realities, by inter alia answering three questions: How do people construct the pandemic? How do they frame the challenges caused by it? And how do they construct their own responses to the new situation? The following post by Karsten Lehmann wants to contribute to this endeavour having a look at what the author describes as ‘shutdown notes’. That is, the small initial notes put into the display-windows of shops immediately after the formal shutdown of most Austrian businesses on March 16th 2020.
Karsten Lehmann will argue that an analysis of these notes contributes two interesting dimensions to the understanding of the new social realities caused by the corona-pandemic: On the one hand, the ‘shutdown-notes’ document how businessmen and –women have initially constructed the corona-virus-induced shutdown as an unconceivable threat that has been triggered by politics. On the other hand, they raise the question what might be the consequences of such a construction of the pandemic for socio-cultural discourses in general and for political action in particular.
Shutdown-Notes as a communicative Genre
Immediately after the formal shutdown of most Austrian businesses (on March, 16th 2020) I was puzzled by the multiple forms of shutdown-notes in the business-street that is leading up to the small park closest to my apartment in one of the urban, multi-cultural, single-digit districts (‘Bezirke’) of Vienna (between the ‘Ring’ and the ‘Gürtel’). I have never seen so many of these notes before, and I wondered what they might have to say about the present situation.
Generally speaking, shutdown-notes are a frequently used communicative genre. Throughout the years, businesswomen and –men use this type of notes during holiday seasons indicating the closure of (primarily) small businesses for a certain period of time. In addition, they are used – particularly within the display-windows of family businesses – to indicate closure due to illness and / or family-festivities.
As far as I know, this genre has not been systematically analysed, yet. If my memory serves me right, however, most of the shutdown-notes have so far been rather short, providing the readers preferably (but not always) with three bits of information:
- The time period of the closure,
- The reason for the closure, and
- A personal note (such as a salutation or a closing formula).
With the present shutdown in the context of the corona-pandemic, this genre of the shutdown-note has, however, gained a surprising degree of dissemination as well as significant new dimensions. At least, within the street close to my apartment, shutdown-notes can be found all over the place and the pattern of information provided by those notes seems to have changed significantly.
Dissemination of Shutdown-Notes
On the 7th of April (i.e. 2 weeks after the formal shutdown and one week before the presently proposed reboot of public life), I systematically documented the ‘shutdown-notes’ in the aforementioned street. To do so, I only once went up and down the street and took pictures of all the shutdown-notes on display – of course taking all the necessary precautions.
At this occasion, I realized for the first time that there is a total of 85 businesses with display windows in the street:
- Twelve of these businesses were still open (pharmacies and grocery stores). Some of them had notes in their display-windows. These are, however, not included into the following considerations because they do not notify a shutdown of the respective businesses.
- Twenty-nine shops had no shutdown-notes in the display windows. (In seven of these twenty-nine cases, I am even not sure whether the respective businesses are still operating at all.)
- This leaves a total of forty-four shutdown-notes on display at the beginning of April. Most of them (but not all of them) seemed to be placed around the time of the shutdown.
In other words: More than 50% of the 36 closed businesses use the communicative genre of the shutdown-note to communicate with their customers. Thirty-three of these notes were rather short. Seven of the notes were more detailed. And in most cases these shutdown-notes diverge significantly from the traditional pattern presented above.
Changing Pattern of Shutdown-Notes
This high percentage of shutdown-notes is in itself an interesting observation. In the days before March 16th, the Austrian government announced that most of the businesses have to close down due to the corona-pandemic. In other words: Everybody had formally been informed by the government that there will be a shutdown. Nevertheless, a significant amount of businesswomen and –men obviously had the impression that there was a need for further information.
This can be read at least along the lines of two different types of interpretation. On the one hand, the shutdown-notes might indicate the general wish of their authors to add a personal dimension to the situation. Actually two thirds of the notes include a salutation-formula which further substantiate this reading. On the other hand, the wide usage of shutdown-notes might be triggered by the wish to confirm the closure, thus documenting an initial disbelief in the very implementation of the shutdown, or rather a confirmation that the respective business will be closed according to government regulations.
In support of the second reading, it is interesting to note that almost all the shutdown-notes that were put into the display-windows seem to diverge in two ways from the traditional format of this genre:
- First, they do not provide information on the length of the closure, documenting the fact that at the time there were no formal notifications about the end of the shutdown.
- Second, the wording of the shutdown-notes underlines in most cases that the businesses have been forced to close down. Once again, this documents a significant aspect of the new social reality immediately after March 16th.
In some cases, the notes also provide contact information that enables potential customers to stay in touch – primarily via telephone and/or email / website, and sometimes via delivery services. Most of the notes do, however, display no such information – (a) reflecting the limited ways to maintain business-relations under the conditions of the shutdown and (b) indicating that the first above interpretation (the wish to stay in contact) seems to be less significant.
Accordingly, it is interesting to have a closer look at the role the authors of the shutdown-notes attributed to the government.
Government is held accountable
To better understand this dimension of the construction of new realities documented in the shutdown-notes, one has to look at the framing of the pandemic-induced shutdown. In this respect, the shutdown-notes of Mid March 2020 document six ways to frame the situation:
- In 14 cases, the notes provide nothing but the information that the respective business will be closed.
- In 11 cases, the corona-virus has been used to frame the closure of the respective business.
- In 7 cases the closure has been attributed to political decisions.
- In 5 cases the framing refers to security issues.
- In 5 other cases the notes frame the situation as being extraordinary – without further specification.
- In 2 cases the notes refer to technical reasons.
At this point, it is at first interesting to note that there is no church, synagogue mosque or any other location affiliated to a particular ‘Weltanschauung’ in the street. There is only one school with Catholic affiliation. The shutdown-note of this school resembles the general structure of all the other notes in as far as there is no explicit theological framing in that note.
Having said this, the above framings indicate that the shutdown in the context of the corona-pandemic is widely perceived as a threat that seems to be almost unconceivable to the authors of the shutdown-notes. Only one quarter of the notes make explicit references to the corona-pandemic. All the other notes document other framings of the shutdown – if any. This suggest that the corona virus has created a new social reality, many authors of the notes did not have even vocabulary to talk about.
In this context, it is necessary to keep in mind that the shutdown-notes very much underline the role of the state and the government in the present situation. In seven cases this is the only framing used in the notes. In other words: In these cases, the government is exclusively held accountable for the shutdown. If ‘security’ (5 cases) are interpreted in similar ways, almost one third of the notes highlight the role of political decision-making as the cause of the shutdown.
If this reading is correct and still valid, it documents a social reality that might have significant consequences for the ways in which we will have to deal with the consequences of the shutdown.
Political Responsibility in Responses to an Unconceivable Threat
To sum up, the above analyses provide a look at social realities formed by the corona-pandemic. In particular, they highlight two dimensions of this reality: First, they suggest that – at least as far as the shutdown notes are concerned – the corona-pandemic and the shutdown of businesses has been constructed as an unconceivable threat. The notes document very clearly that their authors are rarely in the position to explicitly reference their action to the pandemic. In Mid March 2020 the whole situation still seemed to be a new social reality, hard to be addressed in explicit terms.
Second, the above analyses propose that the corona-induced shutdown is to a high degree (but not exclusively) attributed to government activities. To a certain level, this accurately reflects the situation of March 16th, in which the state ordered a shutdown of businesses. At the same time, this construction of the new situation risks to downplay individual responsibilities as well as other actors and factors that shape the present situation. It thus distracts from an accurate understanding of the pandemic situation.
This construction of reality might gain particular significance within a situation that can be described as a social economic and/or political crisis – be it individual and/or societal. In the (rather likely) event of dramatic developments following the corona-induced shutdown, the above construction of the pandemic is prone to play into the hands of populists (in terms of a general critique of those in power) and conspiracy theorists (in terms of simplistic interpretations of reality).
To avoid this, the above interpretations suggest that we need more detailed categories to deal with the situation after the shutdown and that these categories must be based upon resilient information. Educators and journalists have to be enabled to assess the complexity of the pandemic and to convey this to their pupils and readers. Politicians and opinion leaders have to be as outspoken as possible about the challenges that lie before us. The rules that will be applied to mute the challenges of the upcoming situations have to be as transparent as possible. And last not least, (social) scientists have to support these endeavours by critically assessing the new realities we challenge.
Keeping this in mind, one has to consider, that all the above observations are in no way representative. They actually provide but a very specific case study – first, because the genre of the shutdown-note is positioned in a specific communicative context; second, because the present situation is very dynamic and the social realities documented in the shutdown-notes might no longer dominate the situation; and third, because every street in Vienna has its very own character. And of course, the situation in Vienna is different from the situation in Wuhan, New York City or Capetown. Nevertheless I hope that this post helps to further assess the present situation.
To expand the above analysis, I want to invite all the readers to also take pictures of shutdown-notes or other sets of data that help to understand the present situation. You are certainly invited to send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prof. Dr. habil. Karsten Lehmann is research professor for inter-religiousness at the Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule Vienna-Krems (KPH) and senior research fellow at the Department for Systemtic Theology and Religious Sciences. Photograph (redacted to preserve rights of shop owner) by Karsten Lehmann.