Coronavirus Crime and Punishment Narratives: Disgust and the Politics of Offence

Dr Hannah Graham1

1University Of Stirling, Stirling, United Kingdom

This paper critically analyses news media narratives and official statistics of how ‘coronavirus coughing’ incidents and threats are criminalised, sentenced, punished, and politicised in England and Wales. Alongside consideration of literature and official statistics, data analysis was carried out on a sample of news media stories using content analysis and narrative analysis. Narrative criminology asks what stories do for their tellers and their listeners, why some stories are told and others untold, and how this telling may impact patterns of crime and justice, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (Sandberg and Fondevila, 2020; Maruna and Liem, 2021). Narratives of disgust and offensiveness saturate this study sample, and this subset of research findings form the focus of this paper. The accusation or offence becomes a master status, an identity, as ‘coughers and spitters’ are stigmatised as ‘coronavile!’ and their humanity, and in some notable cases vulnerability and distress, is obscured. Some news media stories include names and mugshot images of individuals. Powerful actors and decision-makers (police, judiciary, prosecutors, politicians) tend to evoke disgust in combination with other kindred affective responses in how they condemn these crimes, with similarities emerging across the sample. Disgust is also prominent in responses to individuals being sentenced to anything other than prison, with police most vocal in condemning ‘lenient’ sentencing where they have been the targets of coughing and spitting, categorised as assaults against emergency workers. Paradoxically, imprisonment does not necessarily effectively address or deter the harms of coronavirus crimes, but adds additional consideration of potential harms for individuals and staff as swollen and strained prisons struggle with COVID in confined spaces. The research findings presented in this paper accentuate a salient need for more sophisticated empirical analyses and theorisations of disgust in criminology and penology.


Dr Hannah Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Hannah is an Editor of the European Journal of Probation (SAGE). Outside the university, Hannah is a member of the Scottish Sentencing Council, a public appointment to an independent advisory body. She is also a member of the National Council of the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending (SASO). Hannah previously studied and worked as an academic in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Twitter: @DrHannahGraham.


Dec 08 2021