Executive Summary: What do we know (and not know) from a review of the evidence base? The paper reports on a number of recent evidence reviews on the impacts of quarantine and isolation in previous epidemics. Findings included a wide range of substantial and long term negative psychological effects, including: post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional disturbance, depression, insomnia and feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, anxiety, isolation and loneliness to which people with pre-existing mental health conditions are at greater risk. Notably, none of the studies in the evidence reviews focused specifically on the meaning of home, none of the measures reported were undertaken for more than 21 days and none were on the scale of the Covid-19 response. Questions concerning the meaning of home. The paper notes the unprecedented disruption caused by the Covid-19 social distancing measures and asks whether the widely reported psycho-social benefits of home will be compromised by them. The academic literature on the meaning of home has focused on the banal, taken for granted ordinariness of home and how, for many, it offers an ontological security; a feeling state which allows people to keep calm and carry on. The period of social distancing represents an uncomfortable quasi-experiment for researchers with an interest in the meaning of home. The paper outlines four questions which merit further consideration: First, in the light of the negative psychological effects reported in other studies, how might attitudes towards home be mediated by housing conditions, including the amount of living space or the presence/absence of gardens and balconies, fitness for habitation and the presence/absence of hazards, security of tenure, household types, shared living arrangements (Houses in Multiple Occupation, purpose-built student accommodation etc.) and the propinquity or fragility of the relationships within households? Second, how might the meaning of home change for people with no secure home? This would include those at risk of homelessness, in supported accommodation, experiencing visible street homelessness, in coercive/ controlling relationships or who are experiencing, at risk of, or fleeing from situations of intimate partner violence/ domestic violence? Third, we do not know how the intersection of mental and physical health risks (excessive consumption of alcohol, dietary restrictions, lack of exercise, feelings of anxiety, isolation and loneliness) experienced during the social distancing measures might result in a change in attitudes towards home. Finally, in addition to (but not completely separate from) social class inequalities, we do not know how or if the experience of being able to work from home versus the experience of being furloughed from work or a permanent loss of employment will transform previously held ideas of what home means. Harm from home: a research agenda. The paper sets out an agenda for further research which challenges the taken for granted association between home and its positive attributes to reveal a dark side of home as a place of harm. The paper draws on recent research on social harm to propose a geography of harm approach. Three distinctive categories of harm: physical and mental health harms; autonomy and liberty harms; and relational and reputational harms are identified. Harms from home during Covid-19 measures. Using the geography of harm framework, the paper identifies eleven harms which may emerge during the Covid-19 social distancing measures, and in particular the instruction to stay at home and stay away from others: 1. Loneliness is associated with excess morbidity. The risk of physical harm at home as a direct result of loneliness experienced during social distancing measures is significant. 2. Poor mental health, depression, anxiety and suicide. Far from offering a respite against ontological insecurity, for many people, home is a space of mental health crisis and suicidal ideation. These risks are likely to increase during social distancing measures. 3. Intimate partner violence/Domestic violence (IPV/DV) and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) most frequently occur in the home environment. Increased exposure to these harms will occur as a result of social distancing measures. 4. Most unintentional injuries take place at home. Home is where those most at risk of death by unintentional injury; that is the very old and the very young, spend most of their time. The risks of harm from trips/falls and poisoning will increase in direct proportion to the length of time spent there. 5. Most health harming behaviours (excess alcohol consumption, smoking poor diet and lack of exercise) which are the prime cause of excess morbidity occur at home. The risks of these harms will also increase in direct proportion to the length of time spent there. 6. Loss of liberty. The paper reports on the negative effects of harms for liberty from the literature on home detention and the limited work on “folk” ideas of cabin fever. It seems the consequences of liberty harms are significant. 7. Although coercive control is a form of form domestic violence and is discussed above it also represents an liberty/autonomy harm and so is discussed separately in the paper. Under the current circumstances, prolonged exposure to controlling and coercive behaviour is likely to amplify victims’ pre-existing feelings of fear and alienation from home. 8. Household-based harms may occur as a result of power relationships within the household. Thus younger people in family-based households or economically weaker people in non-familial settings may be able to exert less control and thus will experience greater autonomy/liberty harms. 9. Harms surrounding borders. There is likely to be a struggle for space between home/work, and caring/ professional spaces in those households where home-working is taking place. The paper notes that there is a long standing tradition of geographical research which considers borders as places of danger. 10. Relational harms associated with sexuality and identity may be experienced during lockdown for people who are forced to conceal their sexuality. 11. The absence of emotional security for people living alone, in a couple, or in other household forms can have profound psychological impacts which are likely to be amplified under conditions of lockdown. Conclusion. During the Covid-19 pandemic, home might not offer the nourishing, stabilizing and comforting inoculation against uncertainty that we would ordinarily expect. People experiencing housing insecurity, economic precarity and lack of access to decent housing will experience the Covid-19 lockdown in very different ways to those people with access to a decent home with a garden, with more rooms than people living there, with internet access, in a mutually respectful, stable and nourishing relationship and with a pre-existing history of good physical health and wellbeing.


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Gurney, C. 2020, Out of Harm’s Way. Critical remarks on harm and the meaning of home during the 2020 COVID-19 social distancing measures, UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. Available at: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/257096/

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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