What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 1-Early Thoughts
Like the ducks and brants my husband and I see congregating regularly by the dozens along the shore’s edge of Narraganssett Bay near our coastal home, we humans are a social species. (Audobon’s description of the Brant: “Feeds in flocks at most times of year”),
Whether indoors or out, whether in small numbers or large, whether in person, online, or at a distance, we crave others. And not only for emotional needs. Also, for economic and survival reasons. With precious few exceptions, we modern humans haven’t survived the past ~100,000 years as hermits.
So, it’s no surprise that, when the bizarre daily habitus of “social distancing” becomes the “new normal,” we suffer. We were meant to.
Like the Leonardo da Vincis or Zora Neale Hurstons we read about in chronicles of our most creative ancestors, we humans are a clever species.
Okay, so, we’re not all Albert Einstein or Sappho. But, whether working at an easel or a computer, whether laboring alone or in a team, whether doing work of the mind, heart, or body, we specialize in problem solving. We haven’t survived the past 100,000 years as modern humans by walking over cliffs en masse as lemmings do when they run out of choices.
Yes, life and society have apportioned privileges unequally, contributing to unequal doses of resiliency at the individual level. That is a heavy burden that psychologists specialize thoughtfully in addressing, even as our politicians ignore their responsibility in producing the structural inequalities that create such unequal apportioning. Once we emerge from this global crisis, even our most heartless politicians should have greater awareness of what it takes at the structural level to sustain a compassionate community.
For now, it’s important for all of us to remember that, collectively, we are a resilient lot. Unlike every other species, we’ve figured out brilliantly how to safely move through, and even inhabit, every environment on earth, from sky to water, from arctics to tropics.
Now is not a time for despair. The tiny creatures underlying today’s global crisis will not defeat us.
The bad news:
Coping with COVID-19 won’t be fun. Some among us will suffer more than most—financially, emotionally, logistically.
Those who survive on daily coffee and lunch dates, and weekly dinner parties or movie outings, may become especially frustrated and depressed.
A very small number of those among the most vulnerable of us–especially the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those in both categories–will not survive a viral attack.
That is a potential source of collective tragedy we must all work hard to mitigate.
The good news:
We are learning to thoughtfully prioritize scarce resources, with the greater good in mind.
Face masks are for front-line health workers, and for those with disease symptoms, to prevent them from spreading disease when they must go out and about.
Some stores are limiting the amount of COVID-related items they’ll allow shoppers to buy. Hoarders of masks and toilet paper are being shamed in cartoons, and warned everywhere to change their behavior.
Individuals aren’t the only ones being monitored. Stores are, too.
New York City has already issued $275,000 in fines to stores that have charged more than 10% higher-than-usual prices on hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, and face masks. The fines will apply for at least two months.
The community spirit being promoted by this pandemic has other positive effects. For those with Internet access at home, social media offer us amazing alternatives for remaining in touch with those near and dear to us. They also help us find our way to many new communities that can offer solace.
In the U.S., for those with limited Internet and data access, new options are emerging daily to provide access. Companies are actually offering expanded smartphone data at no charge, creating new Wi-fi hot spots, and offering free international phone calls.
No doubt, these profit-oriented corporations will return to greedy practices once the pandemic subsides.
But for now, at least some of them are actually being part of the solution. Their unusual pivot reminds us that, as a species, we will survive this challenge, as we survived all known pandemics—the Black Death, HIV-AIDS, Ebola and others.
Not only that, but if we live up to our vaunted cleverness, we may actually emerge stronger.
The moment will produce many heroes.
Front-line health staff will bravely reduce the suffering of patients.
Humane politicians will offer financial supports. Germany has “promised companies ‘unlimited’ credit to keep them afloat” in an economic package . . . worth at least 550 billion euros ($614 billion) initially — the biggest in Germany’s post-war history.” Politics will even make strange bedfellows. Mitt Romney has just endorsed Andrew Yang’s proposal (at last for now) for a universal basic income.
Brilliant infectious disease specialists will analyze all available data and translate statistical and arcane knowledge into readable syntheses for ordinary readers.
Medical researchers will eventually create a vaccine. The EU has already invested an emergency $89.4 million into the project.
And those are only the headline heroes. We will have far more heroes who will never make the headlines.
On my neighborhood list-serv, someone who loves to cook has offered to bake a loaf of bread, and personally deliver it on foot, to any elderly or quarantined neighbor who requests one. To be realistic, she clarified the approximate radius of how far she might walk to deliver samples of her kitchen’s output. Another neighbor soon magnified the offer: he’ll drive to pick up the loaves and deliver them by car to anyone farther than the generous baker’s walkable zone.
And that was only Day Two since my state’s governor declared first steps of “social distancing.”
Not convinced of our species’ capacity for creative and even limitless commitment to one another, no matter how far the physical distance required? Check in soon for more encouraging ethnography, large and small.
Meanwhile, remember: As a species, we’ve got this.