COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the ways in which the physical dimensions of place intersect with power structures to perpetuate and deepen disproportional impacts on the wellbeing of people in particular areas and places. To explore these interacting dynamics, we begin at the center of private life, the home, to consider the ways that COVID-19 has complicated the meaning of home in people’s daily lives. Zooming out, we then consider how the pandemic has shifted understandings and experiences of places of public life, including neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. The impacts of the pandemic have at once contributed to a greater need for the services typically tied to these places and limited access to them. In the context of heightened risk, there have also been instances of notable creativity. This dimensionality underscores the importance of attention to the complex interactions among place, health, and wellbeing, and related responses.
Home as “castle and cage”
Scholarship on “home” and its implications is inherently dualistic. Place scholars have described “at-home-ness” as the unique sense of comfort and safety that people derive from their domestic spaces (Seamon 1979, p. 70). At the same time, feminist and other critical scholars have exposed the home as a site of oppression, highlighting the endless drudgery of housework and the violence that women and children may experience in the home (Manzo 2003). Scholarship exploring these co-existing realities has included research on the meaning of home for people who were victims of domestic or political violence (Meth 2003; Sousa et al. 2014); unhoused people with mental illnesses (Padgett 2007); and children facing adversities, including war and disabilities (Akesson 2014; Yantzi and Rosenberg 2008). This body of work highlights the complex ways we construct and experience home places, illustrating the dynamic nature of places we seek refuge within but may also experience as sites of discomfort, fear, relentless caretaking, or isolation: the reality, indeed, of home as simultaneously “castle and cage” (Akesson 2014).
The pandemic has underscored these insights. Even in less-crowded conditions, privacy and ease—critical emotional and practical dimensions of home (Young 2005)—could not be taken for granted in the context of stay-at-home orders. In crowded and impoverished housing conditions, the impacts of these have been significantly more dire (Hu et al. 2021). For example, for those living in multi-unit housing in the United States (disproportionately non-white populations), the economic and structural constraints of inadequate housing resulted in higher risk of disease exposure. Shared entries, laundry facilities, narrow hallways, and communal mail pick-up contributed to increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 when people were attempting to fulfill daily tasks (Williams and Cooper 2020). Meanwhile, the open spaces (e.g., parks) that people might use to alleviate isolation and crowding are not equitably accessible to marginalized groups, further limiting options for sustaining physical and mental health amid the pandemic (Hoover and Lim 2021).
For people in all strata of society, containment at home with little outside assistance exacerbated gender inequities, as caretaking responsibilities, which disproportionately fell on women, consumed even more time and energy (Yavorsky et al. 2021). As schools and family care centers closed, home-based caretakers had to step in to meet the multiple practical and emotional needs of family members. Furthermore, as people were isolated in their homes and displaced from the public spaces of their neighborhoods and cities, an array of typically external activities (e.g., work, school, socializing, exercise, mourning) moved into the domestic space. Without breaks or access to quiet, restorative spaces and practices, these additional responsibilities have led to increased exhaustion and mental health issues (Almeida et al. 2020; Thibaut and van Wijngaarden-Cremers 2020).
For adults and children experiencing abuse in the home, orders that forced them to stay at home posed considerable additional risks, as violence increased and lockdowns and quarantines compromised possibilities for escape (Boserup et al. 2020; Herrenkohl et al. 2021). Pandemic-related stressors, both individual-level (insecurity, confusion, isolation, and stigma) and community-level (economic loss, work and school closures, inadequate medical resources, scarcity of food and other necessities), exacerbated substance use and mental health conditions (Czeisler et al. 2020; Ettman et al. 2020).
Findings on the impacts of containment measures in terms of everyday hassles, physical and mental health crises, escalating violence, and diminished social support affirm prior scholarship questioning assumptions that homes are a one-dimensional source of safety, comfort, and ease (Mallett 2004). Yet scholars have also pointed to the protective effects of being anchored to home during the pandemic (Ahrens et al. 2021; Shoshani and Kor 2021). Even (or especially) amid a global crisis, homes still offer peace, comfort, recreation, learning, social support, communication, and positive identity formation (Ahrens et al. 2021; Panchal et al. 2021; Shoshani and Kor 2021). The pandemic has thus not entirely shifted our understandings of home. Rather, it has brought into sharp relief the complex and dynamic relationships between wellness and stress, belonging and isolation, ease and threat, that homes represent.
Neighborhoods are geographically small, bounded, symbolically influential spaces that are meaningful to residents and remain relatively stable over time. Sinha (2006) describes neighborhoods as a “shared locality [that] gives rise to strong sentimental bonds between residents who are linked through neighborhood-based systems of activity and organization” (pp. 14–15). The stability and social bonds offered by neighborhoods have been both challenged and in some ways invigorated by the pandemic. Research in several different communities in the United States and Canada, for example, demonstrates that at the neighborhood level, people have felt isolated within their homes yet nervous when approached by neighbors outside the home (Bateman et al. 2021; Herron et al. 2021), increasing fear, social insecurity, and social isolation (Zetterberg et al. 2021). For many people, the pandemic has disrupted the daily activities and routines that build connections in the context of proximity, weakening social bonds between neighbors and underscoring the need for social distancing. At the same time, the pandemic has also seen a flourishing of neighborhood-level outreach, caretaking and mutual aid, as community members have sought to bridge gaps in resources and services and take care of vulnerable community members (Bell 2021; Lofton et al. 2022).
High-density neighborhoods present particular complexities. In these settings, the pandemic highlights both the risks of population density related to disease transmission (Carrión et al. 2020; Sy et al. 2020) and the potential benefits of this density regarding increased availability of services, such as healthcare and the delivery of food and other items. One major study of more than 900 urban centers in the United States found that while there was a relationship between higher population density and increased infection, the relationship dissipates with intervening factors such as access to healthcare and maintenance of social distancing (Hamidi et al. 2020). In one qualitative study, participants suggested that it was difficult to enact social distancing in crowded housing communities (Bateman et al. 2021). Studies describe neighborhood housing quality and social disadvantage as pathways to increased COVID-19 infections, specifically via the inability of residents in high-density housing situations to adequately social distance and quarantine to prevent viral spread (Carrión et al. 2020). In addition, many residents in poor, socially disadvantaged communities are more likely to be considered essential workers in low-status professions such as delivery, factory, and supermarket workers. These employees have been at the forefront of viral transmission, infection, and fatalities, further deepening health risks in neighborhoods already at high risk due to population density and poor access to healthcare and services (Cole et al. 2020).
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people worked outside the home, clearly separating work and home life (Laing 1991). Of the 38% of the workforce reporting the option to work from home, only 20% of those reported working from home all or most of the time (Parker et al. 2020). Many organizations were slowly moving to a more “flexible” workspace to better accommodate the needs of workers and reduce overhead costs (Harris 2015; Jeffrey Hill et al. 2008). The pandemic spurred employers to enact and support remote work formats.
Research on the experiences of those working from home during the pandemic presents a mixed picture. Many of those able to work remotely via video conferencing and Internet-based technologies experienced increased strain from merging workspaces and living spaces. Home-based work also introduced challenges in obtaining the technological resources to work comfortably and effectively, and in sustaining motivation given interruptions to work productivity due to family care or educational support for children (Parker et al. 2020).
Although mixing home and workplaces brought complexities—especially when schools or childcare options were less available to working parents—employees who could move their work into their home also experienced benefits. Those working at home reported increased work-life balance, work efficiency, and control over their workday (Ipsen et al. 2021). A survey of Canadians who worked from home during the pandemic found that two-thirds expected to continue remote work once the pandemic had ended (Kurl and Korzinski 2020).
However, many essential workers—not only medical personnel, but also grocery workers, teachers, cleaning professionals, transportation workers, and farmworkers, among others—were not offered the possibility of choice with regard to their location of work or even assured of any safety procedures to protect themselves (Béland et al. 2020). In the United States, workers with lower wages, lower education, and who identify as Latinx and African American disproportionately occupy these positions (Maness et al. 2021; McClure et al. 2020; St-Denis 2020). Demonstrating the complex interactions between place and power during the COVID-19 pandemic, in many of these contexts, economic interests have dictated the risks associated with where and how individuals work, earn, and live. The pandemic has illuminated the need for policies that mitigate these risks, such as affordable housing for migrant workers, who often live together in employer-provided housing, drive to work together, and work in close quarters, making social distancing precautions all but impossible and putting them at particular risk for contracting COVID-19 (Lay 2020).
Children and youth spend most of their time away from home in school. Schools are places that educate and socialize children and where many of those with social, economic, physical, or behavioral challenges obtain critical supports and services. In school settings, children and young people also form important peer friendships and relationships with adult mentors, receive essential social, nutritional, and health care resources, and access behavioral or educational supports (Brener et al. 2007; Helseth and Frazier 2018).
In March 2020, schools across the United States closed their doors, scrambling to move learning to online platforms and still provide critically important school meal programs to millions of children in low-income households (Dunn et al. 2020). These changes placed children at increased risk of family violence (Usher et al. 2020). With fewer mandated reporters observing the physical or emotional wellbeing of children, reports of child abuse and neglect dropped sharply in the months following school shut-downs, alarming child welfare researchers and administrators (Herrenkohl et al. 2021; Masonbrink and Hurley 2020). Children with special needs suffered from decreased or eliminated provision of critical educational accommodations or supports (Grooms and Childs 2021), while caregivers’ stress and mental health concerns increased as they struggled to fill gaps left by the loss of formal supports (Chan and Fung 2021). All children suffered from lack of social interaction and decreased physical activity (Racine et al. 2020), resulting in spikes in child psychiatric emergency room visits (Krass et al. 2021) and rates of childhood obesity (Browne et al. 2021). However, children in lower-income families experienced greater educational impacts due to reduced access to high-speed Internet and appropriate technology, and (with many caregivers working outside the home) a lack of adult support or supervision for online schooling (Domina et al. 2021; Dorn et al. 2020; Kraft et al. 2020). These disproportionate educational impacts may contribute to continuing economic disparities resulting from the pandemic, making it harder for affected groups to recover in years to come (Snowden and Graaf 2021).
Health and human services
The shrinking parameters of home, school, and work in the context of the pandemic have created challenges in both providing and accessing needed services and resources. In this context, the extent to which existing health and welfare interventions rely on place-based services has become increasingly apparent. Policies restricting mobility have destabilized social and human services, limiting access to mental and physical healthcare, childcare and employment, and safe and supportive resources. Closure of childcare centers has disproportionately impacted women, as mandates forced parents to stay home with young children, a task that disproportionally impacts mothers (Alon et al. 2020). Providers of physical or occupational therapy, personal care services (e.g., assistance with hygiene or grooming, meal preparation, toileting), and paraprofessional behavioral support continued to provide in-person services, often at increased risk to both service recipients and service providers (Guerrero et al. 2020; Shang et al. 2020). When service supply was insufficient for public need, or when risk was deemed too high, family members often provided this care (Chan et al. 2020; Phillips et al. 2020), increasing individual and family stress and caregiver-burnout (Czeisler 2021; Greenberg et al. 2020).
Many health and social services shifted to virtual or hybrid formats for service delivery (Carlo et al. 2021; Font 2021), raising questions about effectiveness and equity. Where possible, individuals and families accessed virtual support, such as health and mental health care services through telehealth formats. Yet the accessibility of such services is dependent on multiple factors, including knowing who to contact for help, having a reliable Internet connection and sufficient data access, having the ability to speak freely and privately about one’s experiences and needs within one’s current setting, and the extent to which virtual services are regarded as culturally safe, or not. All of these factors raise the likelihood that extant disparities in access to and provision of needed services will be deepened further, even though virtual services may have other benefits.
Other place-based service settings were also extremely challenged by the pandemic. In the United States, residents in congregate settings (e.g., jails, prisons, residential group homes, and nursing homes), who are disproportionately non-white, faced additional risk of exposure to COVID-19. These communal places became hotspots for the spread of COVID-19 (Barnett and Grabowski 2020). Due to challenges in managing spread unique to congregate settings (Rubin 2020; Shippee et al. 2020), both residents and workers were at risk of becoming ill and dying at greater rates than those in non-congregate settings, further stretching already over-burdened services.
Across these varied contexts, COVID-19 has brought to the fore the centrality of place in disparities in health outcomes, risks, and access to resources and services. At the same time, it has raised awareness of the importance of homes and local places in human safety and security, and stimulated a range of creative and perhaps durable place-centered responses. In what follows, we explore the implications of this dual reality for social relationships, direct services, and the realignment of policies going forward, focusing on areas where responses to the pandemic open fresh perspectives on place and its role in sustaining or undermining wellbeing. We do so in the spirit of critical place inquiry, which confronts “critical questions…informed by the embeddedness of social life in and with places, and… seeks to be a form of action in responding to critical place issues” (Tuck and McKenzie 2015, p. 2).