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Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 – Research Project

Under the umbrella of the Shame and Medicine project, we received funding from the UKRI-AHRC “Ideas to Address COVID” rapid response funding call. A collaboration with Co-Investigators Luna Dolezal (Exeter, PI Shame & Medicine), Arthur Rose (Exeter) and Fred Cooper (Exeter), Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 identified and investigated, through philosophical, cultural studies and historical analyses, the sites and circumstances of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination during the first 12 months (January-December 2020) of the COVID-19 health crisis. The project was particularly concerned with investigating (1) how stigma and shame are related to uneven distributions of social power and (2) how digital technologies, social media, neoliberal ideologies and rapid global information exchange have conditioned the ‘scenes of shame and stigma’ when compared to previous respiratory pandemics.

Stigma and shame are pressing concerns of the on-going COVID-19 health crisis. Public Health England called for further research into stigma and discrimination, especially in relation to BAME communities (Beyond the Data, June 2020). Stigma regarding COVID-19 has been identified as an urgent issue by the NHS, Public Health England, WHO, CDC and other health bodies globally. In the UK, shame and stigma have been created and exacerbated by public health interventions (e.g., the first local lockdown produced the stigmatised “lepers of Leicester”; face mask use/non-use has led to both stigma and shaming). Shaming is often the affective vector in public health messaging, both intentionally and inadvertently, and ‘pandemic shaming’ has been repeatedly identified as a powerful and ubiquitous phenomenon. There is an urgent need to understand how social, political and technological features that are unique to the contemporary moment (e.g., social media, rapid global information exchange, neoliberal ideologies) are shaping the ways in which these phenomena are produced, manifested and experienced. This research has produced rigorous scholarly evidence, along with short term evidence-led recommendations to policy makers to assist with clarifying public health messaging, in order to minimize the harms associated with shame and stigma. It has drawn out the implications of the direct and indirect consequences that health policies and practices have for individuals, especially among marginal groups.

UKRI referenced the Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 project, via Pandemic and Beyond, for their submission to Module 4 of the COVID-19 inquiry.

The Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 project wrapped up on the 10th July 2022.

Outputs from the Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 Research Team is listed in Our Work, and below:

The COVID-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the UK Book

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in 2020, interventions by the UK government maximised rather than minimized experiences of shame. From healthcare workers insulted in the streets to the online shaming of ‘Covidiots’ and the ‘Lepers of Leiceister’, public animus about the pandemic found scapegoats for its frustrations. Rather than intervene with robust strategies to sensitize people about the effects of this behaviour, however, the government’s healthcare policies and rhetoric seemed to exacerbate experiences of shame, relying on a language that intensified oppositional, antagonistic thinking, while dissimulating about its own responsibilities.

In this book, we consider how shame came to shape and structure the UK’s response to COVID-19, through the format of six thematic chapters. Across our six case studies – on pandemic language and the use of the neologism ‘Covidiot’; on the online shaming of healthcare professionals; on racism, shame, and health inequalities; on shaming public health interventions over obesity; on a rhetoric of ‘common sense’ which made unnecessary space for shame; and on ‘Operation Moonshot’, the mass testing programme deployed as a means of saving face – we explore how shame has been explicitly and tacitly produced and encouraged. We conclude that there is an urgent need for public health interventions that are ‘shame sensitive,’ addressing the experience of shame as a crucial, if often overlooked, consequence of such interventions.

Press Releases and Book Reviews:


  • Dolezal, L., and Cooper, F. ‘COVID Vaccine Hesitancy and Death Shaming’ at ‘Affect, the Clinic and the spectre of Death’, Tampere University, Finland, 28-29 Nov 2023.*~
  • Cooper, F. and Dolezal, L., ‘Shame-Sensitive Public Health’, Medical Humanities and Covid/Post-Covid Challenges Conference, Linköping University, 19-21 Sept 2022.*~
  • Rose, A. ‘Shame, Stigma and COVID-19’. Futures Ahead Conference, Linköping University, 15-17 June, 2022*~
  • Dolezal, L. and Fischer, C. “Losing the Body-as-Home?: Nostalgia, Embodiment and the Phenomenology of Illness” Nostalgia Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis Workshop, University of Vienna, 20 May 2022.*~
  • Dolezal, L. ‘A Sartrean Analysis of Pandemic Shaming’, at the Philosophy Department Seminar Series, University of York, 16 March 2022.*~
  • Dolezal, L. ‘Healthcare Workers and Online Shaming During COVID-19’, at the Media, Communication & COVID-19 Speaker Series, Bournemouth University, 27 October 2021.*~ Watch recording.
  • Dolezal, L. ‘Pandemic Shaming and Healthcare Workers’, at the Humanities and Medicine Seminar Series, University of Limerick, 9 March 2022.*~ Watch recording


  • Cooper, F., Dolezal, L., & Rose, A. (2024). “The shameful dead: Vaccine hesitancy, shame and necropolitics during COVID-19”. In Knowing COVID- 19. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. Open Access.
  • Cooper, F., Dolezal and, L., & Rose, A. (2023). COVID-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the Uk (Critical Interventions in the Medical and Health Humanities). London,: Bloomsbury Academic. Open Access.*~
  • Dolezal, L., Spratt, T. ‘Fat Shaming’ under Neoliberalism and COVID-19: Examining the UK’s ‘Tackling Obesity’ Campaign. Sociology of Health & Illness. 2022 Sep 30. *~ Open Access.
  • Rose, A. Closure and the Critical Epidemic Ending. Centaurus: Journal of the European Society for the History of Science. Vol. 1. No. 1. 2022. 1-12.*~ Open Access.
  • Stanier, J., Miglio, N. and Dolezal, L. Pandemic Politics and Phenomenology: Editors’ Introduction. Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology Vol. 5, No. 1, 1-12.*~ Open Access.
  • Dolezal, L. and Lucas, G. Differential Experiences of Social Distancing: Considering Alienated Embodied Communication and Racism. Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology Vol. 5, No. 1, 97-105. *~ Open Access.
  • Dolezal, L., Rose, A., and Cooper, F.  COVID-19, Online Shaming and Healthcare Professionals. The Lancet. Vol 398. August 2021: 482-483*~ Open Access.
  • Rose, A. Imagining Breath, Imagining 9/11 in Indra Singha’S Animal People. Studies In the Novel. Vol. 53, No. 4, Spring 2021: 69-85~ Open Access.


Seminar Series:

  • ‘Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19’ interdisciplinary seminar series, for more details and recordings of each seminar click here.

Podcast Series:

Blog Posts:


Useful Links:

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council grant number: AH/V013483/1