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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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