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On the basis of an ongoing and long-running ethnographic panel study of parents with young children which is part of Sarphati Amsterdam, a team of sociologists of the University of Amsterdam explored how these families reacted to Covid-19 threats and policy measures. Their findings are now drafted in a paper that has been published Open Access.

Although Covid-19 has spread all over the globe, most of us have little experiential knowledge of the virus. Most of what we know comes from others, from public debate, from professionals and scientists, and from public health policy interventions. How did parents of young children digest the information and cope with Covid-19? They could be particularly sensitive to both the health risks and mitigation measures due to the vulnerability of their infant children and the balancing act between labour market and care demands.

Through a longitudinal study among young families in the Netherlands a team of sociologists from the University of Amsterdam documented and analysed how these families managed health risks and dealt with Covid-19 policy measures. They find that in just ten weeks, this changed markedly. The policy reverberated almost literally through the daily lives of the families. They adopted the words and themes of the public and policy discourse and they reproduced and related to the tensions in the public discourse.

The perspective shifted from danger to risk

Negative emotions were initially managed by conforming to the call for solidarity in light of the construction of Covid-19 as a danger. The easing of restrictions gave parents justification for managing their emotions differently. Rather than bringing a sense of calm, the gradual policy change led to different uncertainties: about the usefulness and necessity of specific measures, about the effect of measures, or about the duration of the crisis. During this process, the perspective shifted from danger to risk and solidarity began to crumble.

Pragmatic interpretation of Covid19 policies

Like the managing of emotion, families’ risk management also diversified. The parents in the panel pragmatically interpreted Covid-19 policies to fit their healthcare needs. From the beginning, parents stretched the rules and modified risk assessments to accommodate the things they considered important for their families. Parents used the uncertainty in risk knowledge and the changing scope offered by the Dutch Covid-19 policies to interpret the social distancing rules to better suit their lives.

The authors conclude that it is evident that Covid-19 policies and the construction of risk deeply and dynamically impinged on people’s healthcare practices and experiences, but that this happened in different ways, gradually moving from acceptance and solidarity to increasing debate and fragmentation. This fragmentation then entered into policy measures to which citizens reacted anew in the Netherlands and many other countries.

Publication details

Christian Bröer, Gerlieke Veltkamp, Carolien Bouw, Noa Vlaar, Femke Borst, Rein de Sauvage Nolting (2020), ‘From danger to uncertainty: changing healthcare practices, everyday experiences, and temporalities in dealing with COVID-19 policies in the Netherlands’.  This is the draft version of October 16, 2020. The paper has been submitted to Qualitative Health Research

This ethnographic panel study is embedded in Sarphati Amsterdam and ongoing. This part is co-financed by ZonMW and part of the Social Isolation consortium (see coronatijden.nl).