Thursday, November 12, 2020

[Roundtable] Raising Our Voices 2020 - Anthropological Insights for Rapid Mobilization During COVID-19 and Other Health Emergencies

As part of the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association that have been reconstituted as 'Raising Our Voices' - a series of virtual events - I joined a roundtable discussion entitled "Anthropological Insights for Rapid Mobilization During COVID-19 and Other Health Emergencies", organized by Kristin Hedges (Grand Valley State University) and Michael Ennis-McMillan.

Held in November 6, 2020 (November 7, 6 AM! in Manila), The panel featured people working in medical anthropology and global health: Claudia Ordonez (Emory University), Jorge Benavides-Rawson (George Washington University), James Pfeiffer (University of Washington, Mark Nichter (University of Arizona), Monica Schoch-Spana (Johns Hopkins), and Robert Hahn (Centers for Disease Control), and touched on topics like systemic racism, health disparities, trust, biocommunicability, medical populism, and health care workers. 

Here is the transcript of my prepared remarks for the roundtable discussion, offering my thoughts about what's happening in the Philippines:

Cut off from physical fieldwork, the pandemic has pushed me, like many anthropologists in the Philippines, to embrace methods that allow me to do research at home - or within my own community. Foremost of this of course is monitoring what people are thinking and experiencing during the pandemic; how they negotiate rules like mask wearing and distancing,  how social and health inequities impact people’s experiences, and how local concepts of immunity and contagion are influencing the way people imagine the virus.

Speaking of the virus, I’ve also been reflecting on the pandemic from a multi-species perspective not just in terms of microbes but non-human animals and house plants that people are embracing to an astounding extent here. I have also been looking at the ways political leaders from Rodrigo Duterte to Donald Trump respond to the pandemic in various - often noxious - ways. 

What we are seeing the Philippines, and what I have also been virtually observing, around the world are the familiar patterns or styles with which political leaders - from the  local to national level - respond to the pandemic - in what we term ‘ medical populism’. Foremost of this is the resort to spectacle and simplification, whether it is Brazil’s Bolsonaro denying the magnitude of the pandemic to Donald Trump touting cures like chloroquine - or dramatically taking off his mask after going home to the White House. As the pandemic drags on,  we see leaders shifting to vaccine messianism, vaccine nationalism, or the promise of forthcoming vaccines to end the pandemic. This embrace of simple solutions naturally pit leaders against public health experts, so we see tension, even as we also see how science is invoked for political ends. 

Another component of medical populism is the forging of divisions between the people and dangerous or infectious others. Especially during the early phase of the pandemic, it was heavily linked to China and leaders were happy to perpetuate this racialization of the virus. Donald. Trump’s antagonism towards the WHO is another example, and all over the world we see leaders turning against critics, media, and other groups, some even using the “fog of COVID-19” to gain more political power. This brings us to the discursive use of pandemics as “states of exception” that justify exceptional measures, allowing for the suspension of human rights.

The anthropological dimension to all of this of course is how people respond to this political responses, and how medical populism resonates with them. There is much we do not understand and one challenge is how we can engage with our communities in ways that transcend physical and social distance. Here in the Philippines we are beginning to see a sense of conspiracy among rural communities who think that the virus is a ploy by hospitals and politicians to make money. There’s also a sense from within poor communities that they are more resistant to the virus given that they’re already exposed to all kinds of bacteria. These are evolving views and I will end for now by emphasizing the evolving nature of the pandemic which requires our constant vigilance and engagement. 

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