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A pandemic of fear and changing social behaviour

  • Published at 01:51 pm May 11th, 2020
sanitizer spray shop dhaka
How we interact with people might change forever REUTERS

Covid-19 has resulted in the evolution of long-existing social norms

In the last few weeks, we have seen how the fear of endemic, pandemic, and infodemic of Covid-19 has created a panic situation among different sections of people, resulting in a huge shortage of food, masks, hand sanitizers, soaps, and a huge number of deaths.

We have also observed how people of different ages and social groups have shown their sympathy and empathy towards poor people, their friends, and families. Parallel to that, hate crimes towards returnee migrants in the name of “isolation,” “quarantine,” and “social distancing” have also been reported.

In some cases, such hate crimes have resulted in many migrants hiding from their near and dear ones. Ronald Rogge, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester expressed his concerns about such psychological consequences of the required “social distance” for preventing the spread of the virus.

But at the same time, we have also heard about local ways of care and support that have significant impacts on successful isolation, quarantine, and social distancing. Such practices are termed by Seth Holmes of Sydney University of Australia as “social solidarity in the time of physical distancing.”

According to Robert Foster, a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, “‘isolation’ or ‘social distance’ considered as ‘selfish behaviour’ can also be an indication of personal attachment -- even affection.” In Bengali, what we say: “Boro prem shudhu kache e tane na, uha dure o theliya dey.”

Beside these two opposite situations of “sympathy” and “hate crime,” we have also observed the psycho-social trauma and insecurity of both patients and health-service providers. The worst case is considering any normal patient with symptoms of cold or fever as a corona patient without any test and rejecting treatment at the hospital. There are also some cases of deaths of non-corona patients due to such avoidance.

Rapidly changing social behaviour

As anthropologists, we are also trying to see with much concern how the global Covid-19 pandemic has multiplied the rhythms and paces of our own lives, as many of our parents and siblings are living in other parts of the world where the crisis has hit harder than us.

Many of us are also under restrictions imposed by the countries we are residing in, but at the same time we are also continuously tracking the latest statistics, updates, and regulations of the faraway places where some of our families, siblings, children, and friends are living. Many of us are making much more frequent and regular use of social media to communicate with our faraway kin -- through daily WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype calls, meme-sharing, and more.

So, for anthropologists, it is also important to see how people in this hyper-media based society are using different forms of social media, electronic and other digital devices, and to learn what impacts all this has on spreading rumours, giving real-time data, creating panic or giving mental support, and helping to stay connected even during lockdown situations.

They can also see how quickly people have adapted to situations, changing every moment and how quickly the “highest level of globalization” has contributed to the travel of the “highest level of destructive virus Covid-19” across the world within three months’ time only. 

In connection with these changing behaviours, Robin Wright, a writer for The New Yorker mentions the change that happened with long-standing traditions about dealing with the dead, including touching a corpse before burial. He has also observed that some evolution of rituals has already begun in small ways -- not congregating, not travelling, or attending meetings virtually.

Around the world, many people have stopped shaking hands, a tradition that originated as a sign of trust but is now the most common way of transmitting the disease. Over time, the impact of the novel coronavirus may be so sweeping that it alters human rituals and behaviours that have evolved over millennia.

“This could change everything from the way we conduct our economy to our greeting and grieving rituals,” Agustín Fuentes, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame said.

Anthropology’s eyes on Covid-19

For a deeper understanding about any pandemic disease, in both anthropology and medical anthropology, the first point is the “quality.” The training on qualitative methods is a must. Numbers, cases, statistics, sharing of experiences, uniqueness of environment, or prevalence have a face, trajectory, and biography in its research.

Each experience counts, makes history. And we follow the stories and learn from them. The second point is to keep in mind that global phenomena are always acted on from local contexts. The global is realized from materiality and situated practices.

As anthropologist Anna Tsing mentions in her book Friction, “converting local data on a global scale is a perverse way of pretending universality.” Jean Segata, a professor of Social Anthropology in Brazil has been of the opinion that “there is no doubt that China has a pioneering experience with Covid-19 and we have a lot to learn from the knowledge it has accumulated, including numbers and statistics. But the disease, its numbers, and life in China is a unique experience and cannot be used as a global parameter without criticism.”

We can think of some broad, but local, particular characteristics of certain populations, such as being a child, young or old, rich or poor. Not only these, but we can also think about what people eat, what their work routines are, how much they smoke, including their emerging precariousness.

Environmental situations are also a factor, such as exposure to pollution and the local effects of climate change, as it is known that many economically vulnerable communities do not have safe water. Soap is a luxury item for many. Practising isolation at home implies having a home, and having enough separate rooms for its residents.

It is also important to know more about how “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “isolation” are working in densely populated slums or poor villages of developing countries like Bangladesh, where 5-10 people live in a small room or house, and to see if the combination of “isolation” and “other stresses” has any compounded impacts.

Living heritage practices and learning from locals

In the last few weeks, many of the assumptions, predictions, analyses, and expert opinions have become either wrong or partly different. From this, we have learned that both people’s conceptions and the assessments of experts made today can be outdated tomorrow. Many will now experience that the situation continuously catches up with and overruns their plans.

It is because epidemics like Covid-19 fundamentally change the order of time. The present moves faster, the past seems further removed, and the future appears completely unpredictable. For anthropology, it is always important to remember: “What is right for us may not be right for others, and what is right for today may not be right for tomorrow.”

Differences in time, environment, and context are very important to draw any decision from. To see the future effect of coronavirus in our country, we need to compare ourselves with other countries that lie “ahead of us” in the epidemic time, like China, Iran, Italy, Spain, France, the USA, the UK, and many other countries.

From this, we have to synchronize the epidemic trajectory across all the different countries.  

Closer observation and continuous learning about the impacts of the living heritage of each of the countries in isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and other social practices, show that beliefs and rituals are very important for drawing any line of interpretation about Covid-19.

It is important to undertake more field observations to see how the living heritage of different groups in different countries or in different regions such as Asia, Africa, the Middle-East, Latin America, North America, and Europe can be a source of resilience in such difficult circumstances, as people continue to draw inspiration and solidarity from practicing their living heritage.

More stories, narratives, and cases from anthropologists will help enhance our learning about safeguarding living heritage in the context of Covid-19 and inspire communities to learn from each other and exchange experiences. 

According to Dutch researcher Erik de Maaker, “the social construction of ‘expertise’ can’t always go without scrutiny.” Adopting Geertz’ “distinction between a ‘model of’ and ‘model for’ the world,” Erik shows that it is not only our common people’s models of the world that are shaped by expert theories -- increasingly our experts and policy-makers are also taking into account how they may engage with the theories of the common people in different ways. 

Saifur Rashid teaches Anthropology at Dhaka University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]

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