Governments across the world differently invoked citizen responsibility for responding to the risk of COVID-19 infection. Approaches which focused on changing social practices served to reinforce distinctions between ‘sanitary’ and ‘unsanitary’ citizenship. This paper examines citizens’ responses to public health policy messaging, exploring as a case study the reception of UK Government messaging about responsible behaviour during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. We examine the public responses to such messaging from narrative interviews with 43 people who became ill with COVID-19. These interviews were with people who identified as members of the minoritised religious and racialised groups, who were most heavily burdened by the impact of COVID-19. Interviewees challenged assumptions that they were ‘irresponsible’ for having caught COVID-19, and instead directed attention towards the ways in which pandemic guidance was unworkable. Some actively critiqued government messaging, questioning the problematic racialisation of pandemic messaging and challenging individual responsibilisation for the management of the pandemic. Through this analysis we demonstrate the active role of citizens in enacting, and at times resisting, health policy.


This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The terms on which this article has been published allow the posting of the Accepted Manuscript in a repository by the author(s) or with their consent.

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Dowrick, A., Qureshi, K. & Rai, T. 2024, 'Negotiating (un)sanitary citizenship: The reception of UK government COVID-19 public health messaging by most-affected, minoritised people', Anthropology and Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1080/13648470.2023.2274710

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Last updated: 15 March 2024
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