The many meanings of “stay safe” in a pandemic: Sympathy, duty, and threat

By David Shaw.

You’re out for a walk, your daily exercise since the pandemic began. You bump into someone you know (metaphorically speaking), exchange a few words about life under lockdown from the other side of the road, and then wish them well before setting off again. Chances are you wish them well with the ubiquitous coronavirus farewell: “stay safe”. Everyone is saying “stay safe”, but not everybody is thinking about everything that “stay safe” can mean.

When you say “stay safe”, you (probably) mean “I hope you don’t get the virus”, while also implying that the same applies to a person’s family and friends: “(I hope you all) stay safe.” It seems a nice thing to say; it simultaneously expresses concern and optimism, while also necessarily reminding people that there is a threat that could pose them harm. Indeed, it would be pretty strange to use “stay safe” as a typical phrase of farewell outwith the context of a pandemic or other emergency situation; if you’d had some friends round for dinner last summer and the last thing they said to you was “stay safe”, you’d wonder if they knew something you didn’t or if you’d done something to annoy them.

But “stay safe” also conveys much more than concern and hope that someone will avoid harm; the phrase also has some sinister undertones. There is a strong sense in which the phrase also suggests that its recipient should also has a duty to stay safe; not only “I hope you don’t come to harm” but also “I hope you take the necessary measures to avoid harm.” Specifically, the phrase implies that people should stay safe at home, and stay safe by respecting social distancing when out and about. As the BBC put it when the lockdown was announced, “Stay at home to stay safe.” This is good advice, but it does change the character of “stay safe” from being purely concerned for someone’s wellbeing to advising them that they have certain responsibilities in that regard.

In saying “stay safe” you are (inadvertently) advising people not only to stay away from others in case they catch the virus, but also advising them to stay safely away from you in case they give it to you. And this shifts us even further away from mere concern for their health; we have moved through giving them advice about how to protect their health to expressing concern for our own as well. And if we are concerned about our own health, we are also concerned about that of our community, and stay safe can also be read as implying that. “Stay safe” can also imply “obey the rules or I’ll tell the authorities you’re breaking them” – essentially “stay safe or else”. This might seem hyberbolic, but you only need to look at a government website to see that it is not. “#StayAtHome and stay safe” proclaims the UK Government: “New policing powers are now in force across the country to encourage people to stay at home, protect the NHS [National Health Service] and save lives.” It seemed that the government’s main coronavirus slogan was to change from “stay at home” to “stay safe”; instead, the new phrase is “stay alert”, which has even stronger connotations of blaming those who fail to obey the slogan.

Of course, “obey government policy” is not what most people mean when they say “stay safe”, but the phrase is nonetheless not as wholesome and supportive as might be imagined given the frequency with which it is used. By saying stay safe, you are tacitly endorsing the government’s message about enforcement of lockdown measures. Many citizens will be happy to do so; others will not.

‘Stay safe’ also has another sinister side, which is that home is simply not a safe space for many. People suffering from depression may have their condition worsen through lack of social contact; those who live alone will have feelings of loneliness reinforced; and victims of domestic or sexual abuse are trapped with even fewer options for aid or escape; in the UK the number of domestic murders has doubled since the pandemic began. And even those who do not fall into any of these categories might not be safe because the lockdown is denying them care for existing or emerging health conditions.

Telling people to stay safe may seem a nice thing to do, but it assumes that they can stay safe at home, and it also implies that they have a duty to do so. They may indeed have such a duty, but “stay safe” is a rather stealthy way of conveying that. This is an unavoidable truth given its appropriation by the government, police and NHS. We should all endeavour to stay safe, but it would be even safer if we kept in mind the darker implications of the phrase. Not everyone is safe at home, and saying “stay safe” can convey a lot more than mere concern for someone’s welfare.

A Postscript Poem – Stay Safe

While writing this blog I realised that all these concerns about the darker aspects of what should be a simple message of hope and concern can be summarised in the style of Renton’s famous monologue from Trainspotting:

Stay safe

Stay at home

Stay worried about not getting your chemo

Stay locked up with your abusive husband

Stay still alone at home with the silence

Stay away from your family and friends

Stay safely away from me and cover your face up with a mask

Stay safe or I’ll report you to the authorities

Stay safe and obey the rules and hope one day it will be safe for this to end

Stay safe or you might die

Stay safe or you might kill me

Stay safe even if it kills you

Keep saying stay safe

Stay safe

Stay safe


Author: David Shaw

Affiliations: Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, and Assistant Professor, Care and Public Health Research Institute, Maastricht University

Competing Interests: None

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