Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

In a pandemic, science and humanities work side by side

COMMENT

As an anthropologist, the Covid-19 pandemic is a Janus-faced muse. On the one hand, the humanitarian crisis is so extreme that no one has quite yet got a handle on the short- or long-term social consequences of all this. On the other, it presents a plethora of research avenues. For “hard” sciences, this is less of an issue. Finding direct solutions, such as a vaccine, has a direct and immediate effect. For social sciences, such as anthropology, the situation is not so clear-cut. 

Yet, now, possibly more than ever, is the time for anthropological questions to be asked, and insights to be offered. Anthropologists have a long history of trying to make sense of the ways in which societies respond to medical emergencies. From Ebola, HIV, cancer and SARS, anthropologists have been at the forefront of asking the difficult questions and, more importantly, offering difficult answers. 

For example, Paul Richard’s work on Ebola in West Africa demonstrated how biomedical interventions were ineffective, and argued that a “‘people’s science” helped to end the epidemic more effectively than internationally sponsored projects. My own work on HIV/AIDS in the Vhembe region of South Africa demonstrated that behavioural interventions were often counter-productive, leading many people on the ground to suspect that condoms might actually cause HIV, as opposed to helping reduce infections. 

This raises a series of anthropological questions which speak directly to the contemporary crisis we find ourselves in. 

There are logical reasons why people think biomedical experts hold the keys to a cure in any epidemic. Far from promoting “conspiracy theories”, anthropological approaches to this would look at the complex relationships between knowledge and experience which are central to understanding why some people think what they think. 

The idea that condoms cause AIDS, or that Covid-19 tests are infected with the virus have clear parallels. Yet responses have thus far been blind to the historical anthropological record on societal responses to medical emergencies. Behavioural interventions can only be implemented in an effective manner, in any pandemic scenario, by taking the relevant anthropological research seriously. 

The need for “anthropologising” is an essential component in the global response to Covid-19. We must ask the difficult questions, and try to articulate the difficult answers in ways that policy makers can implement effectively.

“Hard” science is charged with the responsibility of finding a biological way out of this pandemic. But let’s not assume that knowledge changes behaviour. Indeed, if anthropology has taught us anything, it is that humans can be fickle beasts. Risk can become alluring. As a recent master’s student in our department (who graduated with distinction) wrote about a workers’ hostel in Mamelodi: “Germs make us stronger”. 

The humanities may yet share centre stage in global and local responses to this crisis.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Fraser McNeill
Fraser G McNeill is associate professor and section head of anthropology at the University of Pretoria

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

‘Exciting’ ramp-up for Covid jabs

As more vaccines arrive in the country, South Africa could administer 420 000 doses a day

Mokgoro was party to talks of his resignation

The North West premier has defied the interim provincial committee’s decision

More top stories

Grocers reap tidy profits from liquor

Covid-19 bans on alcohol and the recent violence have exposed just how important booze sales are to retailers that once only filled trolleys with food

Riots leave the dead unburied and the living at risk

Crematoriums, funeral parlours and cemeteries were forced to close, leaving the families of those who died during the unrest to live with their bodies.

‘Exciting’ ramp-up for Covid jabs

As more vaccines arrive in the country, South Africa could administer 420 000 doses a day

Mokgoro was party to talks of his resignation

The North West premier has defied the interim provincial committee’s decision
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×