The Greater Confinement: Survival Cells, the Survival City and how COVID-19 evolves protective sequestration

“Although cities and city dwellers are vulnerable to assaults on their biotope, however crude or sophisticated, they are resilient and not easily wiped from the map. The defensive reflex that has beset the Western world, including Europe, in recent years merits some critical scrutiny. Historically, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. We may view the current syndrome in the light of the earliest attempts at national risk management, namely the defensive measures taken against air raids and when we do so, a striking continuity emerges.”
Koos Bosma (2012) Shelter City, p. 7.

fal out
The Cellar

Do you remember the rain? In February this year, at the height of this winter’s heavy downpours, I stood in a dark, dank cellar ankle deep in water. An emergency pump had cleared most of the floodwater accumulated there. But as we started to pack up, the water level slowly started to rise again. Then I saw it, bubbling, over at the base of one of the subterranean walls: a small steady trickle.

We gave up and called in a damp specialist. And he diagnosed the Second World War as the likely reason for this insistent water ingress. The cellar, he explained, would have been the best place in the house to hide from falling bombs. But it would also have been an especially deadly place: a tomb in the event of a bomb’s direct hit. So, as a precaution against entombment, residents commonly knocked an escape passage through into their neighbour’s cellar.

After the war, when the desire for territorial integrity of the home reasserted itself, such passages were quickly filled in. But the rough rubble fill material would have left voids, and this was how the water was finding its preferential pathway into the cellar.

Survival Cell

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown this prosaic encounter with past sheltering and its womb/tomb duality got me thinking about how across history we see home confinement (or ‘protective sequestration’ as it is styled in contemporary public health discourse) operating as a base unit of action: as what Silvia Berger Ziauddin has styled a bio-political “survival cell”. In her 2017 article on the Swiss authorities’ (not entirely successful) attempt to foster a culture of sheltering from nuclear attack within each household, she shows how even in a country where the apparatus of the state (and all associated building ordinances) were geared towards ensuring that every new house or apartment was built with a fall out shelter, attempts to ensure preparedness and respectful maintenance of these facilities increasingly faltered as time went on (and no attack came). These purpose-built shelter-rooms instead became absorbed into the ‘peacetime’ household practices and/or subverted for illicit uses. Thus, neither physically creating these special rooms, nor attempts to impose respectful and prepared norms for them seemed to have worked.

But, Berger Ziauddin’s work is helpful in identifying this attempt by the Swiss authorities to fix the home, and the family unit, as the scale, or unit of action. What the policy did above all was to repurpose the home as potential shelter. We see something similar in Shapiro & Bird-David’s 2017 study of Israeli mamad rooms (domestic bomb shelters), and in studies of US Cold War shelter policy and culture (of which there are quite a few, including Rose (2001)).

We also find it in UK guidance on nuclear sheltering – think of Protect and Survive (written 1976; published 1980) and its focus on adapting suitable spaces within the home, to make an inner refuge from dismantled doors, sandbags and suchlike.


Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

The Hydrogen Bomb (1957), HMSO

Or the 1940s – in each era their air raid guidance is emphasising the shelter-taking potential of the home, and of the importance of withdrawal into its protective depths.

Survival City

But this image of the enclosed, self-contained survival cell is a myth. First because a survival cell cannot ever be fully self-contained and secondly because there is nothing necessarily benign about its enclosure. Its comforts are also not equally available to all.
A survival cell exists (can only exist) within a system of relations stretching across time and space. Take current COVID-19 isolation: the ability to withdraw depends (for most) upon others’ continuing to make and deliver power, water, sewerage, food. Those who shelter are dependent upon others who do not, and the infrastructural systems that sustain (and collectivise) individual life. Here we start to glimpse survival cells as necessarily interconnected (just as my cellar was with my neighbours) and forming a network, and it is the network that is truly the author of survival. Thus we witness what Bosma (2012) has (also in the context of Second World War air raid sheltering) termed “Shelter City” – sheltering as a collaborative urban infrastructural project, in which the city (acting as a defensive organism) is the real base unit of survival.

As I encountered in my cellar. A shelter without an assured means of escape is a tomb. Just as a home can be made a place of protection, so can it be made a place of confinement: the walls of a home just as easily be made into a prison. In short, a shelter cannot shelter unless it connects to life-sustaining networks that extend beyond its walls.

Protective Sequestration.

As an organism, the city seeks to perpetuate human life in general (i.e. society). Its survival instinct can see the home become a containment vessel. But the oddity of the COVID-19 situation is that it is both the healthy and the sick who are sequestered at home. Looking back at previous outbreaks, it has more often tended to be the infected who have found themselves in confinement in their homes. Thus, as Newman (2012) shows, the Plague Orders deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the UK saw the forced quarantine of infected households by ‘shutting up’ whole families for a period of 40 days. The rules provided for provision of a live-in nurse and food (for the poor) – and a guard outside to make sure that the confinement was enforced. No one could leave the ‘shut-up’ houses (for any reason) until the infection there had run its course.

As Moote and Moote (2004) show, following the Great Plague (which centred around London in 1665), the practice of forced whole-family house confinement started to fade, and the idea of taking the sick into purpose-built places of isolation and treatment gathered relative force. Such places had existed at a rudimentary level since the Middle Ages. During the Crusades, isolation camps for pilgrims infected by leprosy had been created in Mediterranean islands. In Italy this provision had progressed to ornate Lazarettos (proto-isolation hospitals). But in England this sophistication had not been attained, instead ad hoc, and small-scale pesthouses were sometimes established on a local basis in the face of infectious outbreaks. Pesthouses were often little more than shacks at the edge of a settlement, either left to fall into dereliction following an outbreak or systematically erased from the urban scene.

In the 19th century more institutionalised and long-standing forms of confinement of the infectious were arranged by municipal authorities: first workhouses then isolation hospitals (for diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever). Mooney (2015) notes that by 1914, in the wake of the construction boom sparked by the Isolation Hospitals Act 1893 (which permitted local Boards of Health to raise funding), 755 isolation hospitals had been constructed in England, usually in remote locations, providing 32,000 beds. This trend towards evacuation of the sick, and the mad, the poor and the deviant from the places and spaces of everyday society to purpose-built places of separation, has been termed by Foucault “the great confinement”. Foucault locates the coding of those exclusionary practices as originating in (ultimately) the Old Testament’s banishment of lepers, to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).

The Greater Confinement

To return to the home as the declared unit of survival in this present crisis feels both strange and familiar.

Berger Ziauddin’s analysis shows that the roots of the Swiss authorities’ failure to successfully colonise and condition a portion of the Swiss home as a place of ritual transition to an apocalyptic counter-reality ultimately failed because that feared state of play never happened. It was ritualistically practiced for, but with time passing it came to be taken less seriously and its grip on the domestic rituals faded. The integral bunker-in-the-basement simply became assimilated into everyday domesticity as a spare room. But the sudden COVID-19 confinement around the world, works in the opposite direction. It appropriates standard domestic space and renders it the focal point of a fight for survival. And the novelty of this bad dream is that it has actually happened, and that it came upon us with relatively little prehension or ritualised practice drills. The place-appropriating spell of “Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS” was cast (almost) overnight.


To a UK audience the bunker/stay at home parallels might seem a little far-fetched – because we lack more recent cultural cues by which to analyse confinement at home. (Fortunately) we have no culture of “house arrest” or curfew, nor do we have a discourse of emergency management which has sought to frame hiding at home as a claimed imperative of “homeland security”. In contrast, in the US, civil contingencies planning – in the wake of school shootings and terrorist attacks – has come to prominently define two forms of shelter-taking: the “lock down” and “shelter in place”. A lock down defines a situation in which in the face of a local violent aggressor a place is sealed so that that danger cannot spread. Faced with that possibility school children faced with a prospect of being locked inside their school, are trained how to hide within a normally familiar and nurturing environment which may one day turn hostile. Meanwhile, “shelter in place” usually describes a response to an environmental danger (a tornado or a chemical spill). Here the aim is to adapt the building in which you find yourself into a protective shell within which to escape from the outside world and its marauding threats (by, for example, sealing windows to keep poisoned air out).


But in the context of the COVID-19 confinement language has evolved: “shelter in place” has now been adopted by the US media as a convenient short-hand by which to describe protective sequestration of the healthy. New York New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has criticised this migration of language, arguing that “words matter” (Opam 2020) and that talk of shelter-in-place unhelpfully evokes images of active shooters and nuclear war. In contrast he chose to style New York City’s confinement measures using the infrastructural metaphor of “closing the valve”, emphasising (in effect) that protective confinement is a survival city measure, a contribution to a collective (and connected) response, rather than declaration of a everyone-for-themselves atomised foregrounding of individualised domestic survival cells.

Conclusion: The Greater Confinement

The contemporary crisis – the greater confinement – in which we find ourselves appears by turns to both to isolate us and to emphasise to us the social interconnections upon which any individual act of withdrawal actually depends. The greater confinement is only possible in a society that embodies surplus, and which is sufficiently automated and telecommunicated to enable the work of social coordination to be exercisable from within the confines of (remotely connected) survival cells. In most prior societies majority protective sequestration would have been logistically impossible. But the greater confinement still depends upon a fraction of the population being prepared (or forced by circumstances) to provide material circulation of goods and essential services between the sheltering majority.

The greater confinement also – if we scratch the surface – reveals timeless inequalities that lie within any era of sheltering. We are not (as the slogan would have it) “in this together”, if by that we mean “in this equally”. To have control over whether and where you are sequestered depends upon your resources and social connections. And it was ever thus: Newman (2012) shows how being Shut Up in a plague year was more likely a fate of the poor and the ‘middling’ classes, because the rich could afford to flee to the country (or to relocate to another of their houses). Meanwhile, Mooney flags how, 250 years later, the poor were more likely to be removed to an Isolation Hospital because their homes were viewed as too small and overcrowded to enable safe home-confinement of the infectious sick, the rich and well-connected had other options.

Over the weeks, months, years ahead we will search for ways to understand “what just happened” and what it has revealed to us as individual survivors and as social beings. My invoking parallels (and discontinuities) with bunker studies, and that form of urban sheltering,  is but one way to start to think through the new domestic uncanny.



Berger Ziauddin, Silvia (2016) ‘(De)Territorializing the home: the nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage.’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4) 674-693.

Bosma, Koos (2012) Shelter City: Protecting citizens against air raids. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Moote, A. Lloyd & Moote, Dorothy C. (2004) The Great Plague: the story of London’s most deadly year. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mooney, Graham (2015) Intrusive Investigations: Public health, domestic space and infectious disease surveillance in England 1840-1914. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester University Press.

Newman, Kira L. S. (2012) ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45(3) 809-834.

Opam, Kwame (2020) ‘It’s not ‘Shelter in Place’: what the New Coronavirus Restrictions Mean’, The New York Times, 24 March.

Rose, Kenneth (2001) One Nation Underground: The fallout shelter in American culture. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Matan & Bord-David, Nurit (2017) ‘Routinergency: Domestic securitization in contemporary Israel’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 35(4) 637-655.