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Society Through the Lens of a Pandemic: What Anthropologists Are Learning

In March, a video that went viral showed an Egyptian taxi driver expelling a Chinese passenger from his car on a highway in Cairo because of fears the man might have the novel coronavirus.

The incident reflected the stigmatization of people from China or those perceived to be Chinese in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within days of the news of the first confirmed cases of the virus in China, social media was bustling with theories about its origin, mostly relating it to the Chinese food culture.

The Narrative vs. the Reality

To scientists who study human societies, behavior and cultures, these attitudes didn’t come as a surprise.

“Epidemics exist in such a scale and complicated ways biologically, clinically, socially and geographically, that it is very hard for anyone to be able to grasp them,” said Charles L. Briggs, president of the Society for Medical Anthropology in the United States and a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. So people “tend to very quickly form a particular narrative of the epidemic that often revolves around a projected point of origin.”

Although these narratives seldom reflect epidemiological knowledge, they become widespread and often define a particular epidemic. One example is cholera in the 19th century, which was called “Asiatic cholera.” The association of the disease with India stigmatized the country for years. In the same way, when a new flu virus, Influenza A (H2N2), emerged in East Asia in 1957, the pandemic it caused was called the “Asian flu.”

A Manifestation of Existing Inequalities 

Stigmatization is not the only outcome of such accounts. Briggs explains that these narratives create a frame that can make people dismiss the underlying factors that help shape the way an epidemic is unfolding, such as populations, distribution of health care and the resources that people have.

“Epidemics X-ray inequalities in society,” Briggs said. “Just as these inequalities seem to be a normal part of society, all of a sudden, in an epidemic, such inequalities often lead to massively different rates of infection and death.”

As Covid-19 continues to impact the Gulf countries, Amnesty International warned that migrant workers in the region are increasingly vulnerable and exposed to significant health risks because of overcrowded residential units and inadequate water and sanitation.

“Epidemics exist in such a scale and complicated ways biologically, clinically, socially and geographically, that it is very hard for anyone to be able to grasp them.”

Charles L. Briggs  
President of the Society for Medical Anthropology

In a survey about the outbreak, the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute of Qatar University noted that while all respondents mentioned washing hands regularly and using hand sanitizers as precautionary measures against the spread of the virus, blue-collars were the least likely to report using hand sanitizers. “This is, presumably, because they have less access to hand sanitizers,” the institute concluded in a press release.

Blaming Vulnerable Populations

Gulf countries host the majority of the 23 million migrant workers living in Arab states. At the beginning of the outbreak, most cases in the region were reported among blue-collar workers. Rather than looking into factors that make them more vulnerable to the virus, the migrant workers were often blamed for spreading the virus.

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In Kuwait, a famous actress, Hayat Al-Fahad, called for the deportation of migrant workers or to “put them in the desert” as a solution to a shortage of beds at Kuwaiti hospitals during the Covid-19 outbreak.

In an attempt to defend the actress and explain her comments, the Emirati poet Tariq Al-Mehyas said on a video: “When we say migrants we mean Asians [not Arabs].” He went on to say that Asians in the Gulf are never treated equally with Arabs.

Emirati authorities arrested Al-Mehyas later on charges of “inciting hatred.” However, such comments reflect pre-existing perceptions of migrant laborers in Gulf countries.

Farah Hallaba, a master’s degree student in anthropology at the University of Kent and founder of a popular Facebook page called “Anthropology in Arabic,” says that this tendency to divide the community into “them” and “us” is a human coping mechanism that is often exacerbated by a sense of superiority.

Religious practice is unlikely to become more individualistic in the long term. “For that to happen, there should be a deeper shift among the believers to give less value to community and authority, and more to individual spirituality and ethics.”

Samuli Schielke  
A research fellow at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies, in Berlin

“When death becomes so close and present in our lives, people start to direct their hatred to others and blame them for their problems as a coping mechanism with the idea of extinction,” said Hallaba. “Then, when there is a sense of superiority in the culture and a preparedness for racist attitudes in general before the pandemic, like in the Gulf, we get such attitudes.”

Virtual Social Interaction 

The restrictions on individuals’ mobility and social gathering imposed in the wake of the virus have dramatically changed lifestyles for many. While some social activities managed to continue in the cyber sphere through audio and video calls, online games, watch parties and similar tools, other activities, such as worship, took an unprecedented individual form.

With the closure of mosques and other houses of worship and the prevention of religious gatherings in several Arab countries, worshippers had to give up congregational prayers.

Samuli Schielke, a research fellow at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, doesn’t expect religious practice to become more individualistic in the long term due to these restrictions.

“For that to happen, there should be a deeper shift among the believers to give less value to community and authority, and more to individual spirituality and ethics,” he said by email. “For such a shift to occur, people would need to find the individual experience more fulfilling than communal connectedness.”

Schielke, who is a social and cultural anthropologist who primarily studies contemporary Egypt, said that most people he has been in contact with experience the pandemic-related restrictions as a painful deprivation from good and valuable things in their lives, including communal religious practice.

The Way Forward for Research

While anthropology is helping make sense of social behaviors during the pandemic, its researchers are experiencing their own challenges as a result of social distancing and lockdown measures.

“Anthropological knowledge is usually based on a long-term engagement and living together with people,” Schielke said. “The pandemic has made this temporarily difficult or impossible, and many anthropologists are devising new ways to do research.”

Relying on online tools might be part of the answer, but the unequal access to the Internet among different social groups might affect the application of this research method in some countries.

Schielke says it’s too early to say if the disruptions caused by the pandemic will have a long-term effect on anthropology research.

“This will certainly enrich the discipline,” he said. “And yet, like the believers who are waiting for mosques and churches to open again, also most anthropologists will be eager to do traditional fieldwork in immediate long-term contact with people as soon as it will be possible again.”


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