Introduction: Leiden Anthropologists Reflect on the COVID-19 Pandemic
The coronavirus outbreak raises fundamental questions about the politics and narratives of crisis, as well as about our “ordinary” everyday lives and sociality. Irene Moretti and Annemarie Samuels introduce a collection of blogposts of Leiden Anthropologists reflecting on the pandemic.
As more and more countries around the world are taking extreme measures to curb the rising numbers of corona-infections and corona-related deaths, Leiden anthropologists reflect on the politics and discourses on Covid-19 and their entanglements with everyday life. Contributors to this special collection observe how the pandemic affects the societies they study and intersects with some of what were already the most pressing social scientific questions of our times. They wonder what the pandemic, and the responses to it, may teach us about social life, politics and citizenship, and reflect on themes ranging from indigenous peoples to the production of expertise, and from globalization to religion. Together, their reflections open up a range of perspectives and possibilities to start making sense of a world in trouble.
In his blogpost on the rhetoric of crisis and normalcy, Andrew Littlejohn urges us to rethink structures of society and sociality. If the current pandemic sheds light on ongoing social inequalities, it should also, he suggests, force us to reflect on what we mean when we ask for a return to “normalcy”. How are crises discursively constructed in relation to normative orders? What if these normative orders themselves are exploiting humans and nature to such extent that they cause new and ongoing crises and disasters? In their conversation on the measures taken by the Netherlands and Italy to curb the spread of Covid-19, Irene Moretti and Erik Bähre address the theme of social inequalities from a different angle. How, they ask, do cultural differences, nationalist sentiments and ideas of care influence the way in which expert knowledge is constructed and presented?
The social construction of “expertise” is also under scrutiny in Erik de Maaker’s examination of how expert and lay knowledge influence each other in the Netherlands. Adopting Geertz’ distinction between a ‘model of’ and ‘model for’ the world to explore the policy and popular uptake of theories of social distancing and group immunity, he shows that not only are common people’s models of the world shaped by expert theories, increasingly experts and policymakers seem to take into account how ordinary people may engage with their theories in different ways. Next, Irene Moretti takes up the ethical side of social distancing, as she reflects on the ways in which Covid-19 highlights the responsibility to care and our positioning towards the Other in a globalized Europe. If the current pandemic painfully makes us aware of our profound interdependence, will this awareness stay with us once the crisis is over?
Moving beyond the Netherlands, the next two contributions, by Andrea Ragragio and Ola Gracjasz, show how the outbreak may put into question what is good citizenship, potentially strengthening powerful states (Ragragio), but also offering new possibilities for networks of solidarity (Gracjasz). Both Ragragio and Gracjasz connect online and offline observations to critically reflect on dynamics of power and solidarity, as well as state and citizenship in the Philippines and Poland, respectively. A different perspective from the Philippines is articulated by Myfel Paluga, who shares his insights on traditional modes of living of the Pantaron Manobo, who practice “neighbour-distancing” and yet welcome strangers, both as forms of risk-mitigation. What kind of models, he asks, may these social practices offer us as we reconfigure society in the wake of this crisis?
Finally, Fang-I Chu shows us how in times of crisis spiritual notions get intertwined with political debates and economic concerns. She analyzes the controversial decision to postpone one of Taiwan’s most valued religious parades, as the virus was spreading. Interestingly, in this case, spiritual arguments were mobilized by both opponents and proponents of the postponement, who argued, respectively, for the power of the goddess to protect everyone attending the parade, and for the goddess’ sure wish that people’s health come first.
Adding to a growing chorus of anthropological voices on the pandemic (such as this recent Forum on Somatosphere), these posts leave us with many questions to consider: how do we care at a distance? What is ‘good’ care, by governments for populations - and by individuals who now, through the very intimacy that is so often valued in caregiving, may endanger each other? How may we rethink our normative orders, of sociality, citizenship, distribution of care and human-nature relations? What possible models and initiatives do we already see emerging in our dynamic social worlds? Writing in the middle of the pandemic, we hope that raising these questions will urge all of us to further reflect, not only on the ethics and politics of crisis, but also on the (possible) shapes of our past, present, and future societies.