An Anthropology of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Rylan Higgins, Emily Martin and Maria D. Vesperi

To cite this article: Rylan Higgins, Emily Martin & Maria D. Vesperi (2020) An Anthropology of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 2-6, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1760627

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Scholars from many disciplines, including anthropology, recognize a new epoch related to human impact on the planet. The recently coined term “Anthropocene” con- notes that our species has been responsible for increased carbon emissions, global temperature rise, a mind-boggling degree of habit destruction and the direct elimination of a staggering number of the planet’s fauna— to name just the most noteworthy results of  human-driven   planetary-level   change. A visitor from Mars would almost certainly, and immediately, notice that humans  have garnered disproportionate control and power compared with other earthlings. And yet, as of April 2020, the situation we find ourselves in would appear to counterbalance such imaginary alien observations. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the global human population with a one-two punch like perhaps no other entity ever has, at least with regard to the scale and scope that April 2020 patterns and projections portend. Although this disease has not rendered humans powerless, it certainly seems to have shifted  the balance of power. The “Coronacene” might well be as worthy of attention as the “Anthropocene.”

No one can predict the future in the face of today’s  thorough uncertainty. But anthropologists are well placed to wonder about possible future directions: Will populism fade as the need for strong governmental infra- structure becomes more evident? Will scientific evidence and expert knowledge return to a place of authority in some countries where it has been denigrated? Will nationalist xenophobia lose its appeal in the face of   a virus that respects no borders and demands a global response? Will the fissures in populations revealing different and worse con- sequences from the epidemic along lines of ethnicity, gender, racialization or age compel countries to address the deep causes of such inequities? Or will voices newly expressing   a version of social Darwinism win the day?

Amid these uncertainties it is clear that anthropologists can make uniquely valuable contributions to illuminating the myriad intertwined biological and social complexities of COVID-19. In articulating the stages of ritual put forth in his slim but enduring 1909 treatise, Les Rites de Passage, Arnold van Gennep drew on the history of behavioral and architectural efforts to quarantine the stranger. “The length and intricacy of each stage through which foreigners and natives move toward each other vary with different people,” he observed. “The basic procedure is always the same, however, for either a company or an individual: they must stop, wait, go through a transitional period, enter, be incorporated.” More than a cen- tury of subsequent anthropological observations about human and biological boundaries, borders, intersections and mergers of all kinds have prepared anthropologists for what may be — to adapt a phrase from the late Robert Mapplethorpe — the perfect moment for a new understanding of humans in relation to their social and ecological  worlds, and to each other.

With what is clearly one of the most important episodes in modern human history unfolding in front of our eyes, Anthropology Now has responded by inviting scholars to take part in documenting and reflecting on the early months of the outbreak. The response from writers, in turn, was truly impressive. Our “call to action” resulted in 13 intriguing and insightful essays, written by anthropologists situated across the globe. Each essay has its own style and messages, yet all have the common goal of providing anthropological reflections, in real time, so to speak, on the rapidly evolving changes resulting from the pandemic.

This special issue starts with an essay by Linda M. Whiteford describing a view from her balcony, one that produced, in her, a strongly felt sense of being both in limbo and off-balance. This deeply personal essay also draws on Whiteford’s expertise studying disease and includes comparisons to the cholera epidemic of the 1990s. These insights result in a set of lessons that people and governments could carry forward, including giving people “something to become vested in” and avoiding “amorphous and abstract” policy decisions.

Eben Kirksey has been tracing relations between humans and other species since his early field trips to West Papua as an under- graduate in the 1990s. Firsthand exposure to the legacies of colonialism, time spent in Central American biological field stations and the influence of mentors including Donna J. Haraway and Anna Sing have helped to shape his understanding of con- temporary ontology and his ongoing development of multispecies ethnographic field- work as a primary research tool. In bringing both his cultural and biological background  to bear on an understanding of COVID-19, Kirksey urges a focus on emergence rather than origins, thus avoiding a truncated quest for solutions in favor of a rhizomatic exploration of multiple pathways.

Aalyia Feroz Ali Sadruddin and Marcia C. Inhorn help readers think about the impact of COVID-19 on issues of aging. Drawing on personal experience and ethnography in the United States, Kenya and the postconflict setting of Rwanda, they provide compelling comparative benchmarks. While some in the United States seem willing to dehumanize the aging and call for them to be “sacrificed,” medical anthropologists have countered such thinking and instead assert that caring for elders is an important part of being human.  A model of caring for the elderly comes from Rwanda, where the elderly are treated with special care through “small things,” every- day intimate support, such as neighbors who share food or carry needed supplies to people on the periphery of their community.

Agustín Fuentes provides a captivating and, at times, sobering biosocial perspective on both the pandemic and what it means to social distance (or physical distance). Fuentes observes, for example, that for humans, “not being social is not an option” and that when people are isolated, “bad things hap- pen.” These  bad  things  include  physical and psychological harms that are essential for readers to consider. In explicating the nature of the current coronavirus pandemic, this biosocial perspective also emphasizes human-nonhuman relationships, the role of Homo sapiens in reshaping Earth’s ecosystems, and the need to understand both the biology of the virus and the social context of the pandemic.

Reporting from Canada’s capital city, Jen Pylypa offers an autoethnographic account of grocery shopping just as the pandemic was starting to impact her both personally and professionally. Pylypa then takes readers on  a tour of the Health and Globalization course she was teaching when  the  virus  closed  her university. This essay includes insights gleaned from comparing COVID-19 to other recent disease outbreaks. This pandemic is noteworthy because it is directly affecting the West to a degree other outbreaks have not. She suggests that the Canadian public might actually be gaining greater awareness of geo- graphic specificity while she highlights the presence of conspiracy theories and panic shopping.

In focusing on a consummately cultural gesture — the handshake — Bjarke Oxlund lends his voice to a refrain echoed throughout this special issue: Biology and culture cannot be separated when examining COVID-19. Like many of his fellow researchers he has studied contagion before: His experiences include research on HIV/AIDS in Uganda and South Africa and applied work on acquired immune deficiency with Save the Children. In this essay he complicates the social distancing mandate widely promoted as a front- line defense against COVID-19, pointing out that while the venerable embodied practice of shaking hands may transport disease it also can convey meanings vital to the survival of interpersonal and even state-level relations.

Tram Luong writes about life in the time of COVID-19 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where normally intense air pollution appeared to be lessening in the wake of the pandemic and social media were playing an especially important role in shaping people’s understanding of the disease. On one hand, the deluge of text messages in Vietnam’s largest city was creating hysteria around the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, the government was also using cell phone communication in an effort to both calm people’s fears and control behaviors such as panic buying and hoarding. Luong suggests that one possible outcome could be renewed trust in the Vietnamese state.

Eric S. Henry brings his knowledge of both China and Chinese people living in Canada  to bear on the question of how the pandemic is reshaping Chineseness. Pointing to China’s long-standing efforts to actively cultivate “an imagined collective identity for its citizens,” he suggests that the pandemic represents an important episode in defining what it means to be Chinese and how the Chinese government is perceived. For Chinese communities in Canada, these developments have exposed pre-existing fragmentations that are likely being exaggerated by the  pandemic and varying beliefs about the merits of the Chinese state’s response to it.

Describing how the pandemic interrupted their doctoral research, Stephanie Love and Liang Wu use nautical metaphors to explain how changes in mobility have revealed the paradoxes of globalization. Wu’s research on seafarers, while clearly impacted by the virus, nonetheless shows that seafarer work has always involved considerable isolation; yet this sense of “imprisonment has only intensified  since the COVID-19 outbreak.” Meanwhile, Love writes about her experience of “abandoning ship” as she boarded one of the last flights out of Algeria, her research site, relying on her “privileged documents” to leave while her Algerian friends had no  choice but to “shelter in place.” Both writers give examples of how this time of containment  is impacting people and reflects a “strong unevenness of intensity and experience.”

It is telling that Carolyn M. Rouse, a prominent medical anthropologist, has focused her essay with razor-sharp precision on the political and structural issues that seed fertile terrain for the spread of COVID-19 rather than the biological properties of the virus itself. Drawing on her own field research and her firsthand experience with absolutist efforts to quash scholarly knowledge, she explains how ideology and policymaking choices have shifted the situation from a quotidian game of dominance and manipulation to a life-or-death struggle in the context of long- standing structural inequality. An enduring confidence in her voice as a scientist shines through, reminding readers that knowledge is real and clear-headed paths to action remain. Rijul Kochhar invites readers to consider the assumption of able-bodiedness in the “essential” steps recommended to avoid COVID-19 infection. Not all bodies are capable of carrying out “essential measures,” and little has been articulated to suggest more broadly accessible strategies. Similarly, edicts to shelter in place or stay at home assume material resources not everyone has. By assuming the individual as the basis of wise and healthy choices, the common response to the epidemic misses the chance to envision social responses instead of individual ones. COVID-19 responses demand care for all bodies on a global scale, just as do coexisting emergencies involving universal health care, climate change and civil liberties.

Leigh Bloch opens up the question of whether the pandemic might allow people  to imagine a different economic  order  in the future. COVID-19 lays bare the need for everyone to have reliable shelter, health care and income — and the lack of those basic resources for so many. Inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian vision in The Dispossessed, Bloch encourages readers to think of a radically different future for academia, one in which education to any level is free and accessible for all, and in which the universal provision of a living wage would enable any- one to engage in creative thinking and scholarly engagement.

David Eric Troolin brings an important perspective from his vantage point as an anthropology consultant, teacher and longtime resident of Papua New Guinea. News from this region about COVID-19 is spare, and information about how residents of Papua New Guinea are interpreting and responding to the pandemic has been all but unavailable to our readers. This essay provides contextualized insights about local “ways of knowing,” beliefs and practices “formed within a complex social milieu and, importantly, in the wake of direct colonialism.” As elsewhere, epidemiological advice about social distancing is deeply at odds with values of community, leading to dissonance between received government directives and local understandings about vulnerability and protection from harm.

Producing any issue of Anthropology Now is a team effort involving a host of characters. There is always a flurry of activity as dead- lines approach, culminating in a crescendo of accomplishment when final manuscripts are submitted. All of this has been intensified significantly for this special issue. Writers had much less time than they normally would, and they composed these thoughtful essays under various degrees of duress. The Anthropology Now team recognizes and greatly appreciates their effort and commitment under these unusual circumstances. Our team also recognizes something novel— dare we use the word — about what it meant for us to complete this issue. It has never felt more worthwhile and important to be involved in disseminating the work of anthropologists to a broad readership. The sense of accomplishment that always comes with such efforts has been amplified considerably. Again, we thank contributors for making this special issue, An Anthropology of the COVID-19 Pandemic, possible.

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