Leper Islands: Coronavirus and the homeless other




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Peer reviewed



This chapter theorises the discourses around the homeless prior to, during and after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. It begins by examining how their vulnerability to the virus was communicated through Covid-19 Government Press Conferences, which emphasised the emergency provision of accommodation for rough sleepers. The chapter goes on to explore the prevalence, pre-Covid-19, of hostile strategies mobilised in response to the problem of homelessness, to show how homelessness in ‘normal’ circumstances was not considered an emergency. I use the idea of Foucault’s regulatory power to explain the predominance of punishing dispersal methods, and George Bataille’s work on taboo, to elucidate the homeless othering which encouraged such an approach.

This provokes us to then ask what is it that makes street homelessness an emergency now? The answer I propose, in the shadow of Foucault’s biopolitics, is the public health threat they currently present, rather than any lasting commitment to ending homelessness. The offer of emergency accommodation seems at first sight to contradict previous dispersal methods and signal a potential shift in policy and prejudice. When, however, we apply this biopolitical framework, the Government’s approach appears more consistent with past attitudes, because it used accommodation as a means of securing the general population against a ‘homeless bio-hazard’. I end the chapter, therefore, questioning any real long-term commitment to solving homelessness postCovid-19, utilising Machiavelli’s concepts of Fortuna, Virtu and Accidente.



Homelessness, Covid-19, Political theory, Biopolitics


Stevens, S. (2021) Leper Islands: Coronavirus and the homeless other. In: Price, S. and Harbisher, B. (Eds.). Power, Media and the Covid-19 Pandemic: Framing Public Discourse (1st ed.). Routledge.


Research Institute

Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA)