The role of the social sciences in responses to health crises is well established, given the extent to which human behavior determines how infectious diseases spread.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014 and 2016 made it even more apparent why anthropologists could help medical authorities consider local cultural and social characteristics in their response to virus outbreaks. That outbreak also provided new perspectives on the origin of social and individual attitudes during epidemics and how to assist grieving families.
Today, as the world faces yet another global health crisis, Charles L. Briggs, president of Society for Medical Anthropology, says anthropologists can help us dismantle our views of established social categories and think more deeply about things we take for granted.
A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Briggs has contributed to books and research papers about epidemics. His work explores the relationships between bodies, viruses and bacteria, and the narratives about infectious diseases that proliferate in the media and shape public views.
He spoke to Al-Fanar Media in a video call about the role of anthropologists in studying the spread of infectious diseases and how this research is changing. The following transcript of that interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What role can anthropologists play in a public health crisis like the one we are facing now with Covid-19?
We are told all the time that the epidemic is unprecedented, which means we have no frame to understand it.
Every epidemic is unique, but anthropologists can point out the parallels with other sources of epidemics and therefore suggest what made them have their particular shapes and their particular outcomes, to provide us with a basis for understanding what’s going on.
The second role is to be able to push people outside of the frame of “Now, this is Covid-19,” to be able to understand the underlying factors that helped shape the current situation.
It is not entirely by accident in the United States that right now you have massive protests against police violence that targets particularly African Americans and that Covid-19 is massively differentially killing black Americans.
It’s extremely important to ask what are the underlying factors of race, racism and unequal distribution of resources in the United States that are affecting who lives and who dies.
Otherwise, people tend to rationalize the effects of an epidemic as being dependent upon the cultural or biological characteristics of particular populations as responsible for their own differential rates of infection and death instead of asking what is it about society that renders some people more likely to get infected and more likely to die.