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Letter from the president

Anthropology and Covid-19: What might anthropologists do?

That virus


I wrote the last President’s letter in mid-December 2019, before anyone had heard of a new coronavirus which causes an intensely infectious illness in humans that the World Health Organization (WHO) eventually named COVID-19 in early February 2020. The virus itself was named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) at around the same time. It already existed in December 2019, and was already making some people sick, but very few knew it was there, let alone anything about it. Now we know, and the pandemic has once again proven the importance of both different forms of knowing, and different ways of making use of that knowledge. The stark diversity of responses to, and experiences of, this disease across the world has repeatedly demonstrated that point. At the time of writing, people, governments and institutions in some areas are beginning the process of trying to pick up the pieces, to work through the radically altered conditions that the pandemic will leave in its wake; others are all still in the thick of it.

Anthropology and COVID-19

What might anthropologists do? So much is happening simultaneously that it is difficult to know where to focus: the enormous levels of illness and death; the economic, financial and fiscal implications; the social disruption; the amplification and exposure of so many hierarchies around the world; the logistical nightmare that is preventing materials and equipment getting to where they need to be; the environmental and climate implications of pulling the breaks on constant travel; the intervention this virus is making into the already highly tense political conditions around the world – potentially altering geopolitics as we know it; the potential transformation in relations between people and nonhuman animals; the exposure of tensions between different forms of power – religious, economic, political, scientific, and grassroots even. No doubt, many of our members are turning their gaze to COVID-19’s engagement with life, the universe and everything, to try and understand – while at the same time attempting to hold our own lives together, working out new ways to do things – while living under the daily stress of not being quite sure what will happen next. We are all doing what we can.

At EASA, we are working with the EASA Network for Applied Anthropology to see if we can help in putting our skills to work to assist in this most intense period of the COVID-19 emergency. We are also keeping an eye on issues that might be pushed out of the headlines as everyone focuses on the virus. For example, EASA announced its support for demands that migrants and asylum seekers should be given equal treatment during Covid-19 pandemic. We will still be there in the months and years ahead, as the fallout becomes less headline-grabbing, but still profoundly important for so many people.

This is important, for anthropology can add something here: currently, the media are filled with statistical and global descriptions, mostly relying on methodological nationalism, interspersed with occasional individual stories – the emergency room nurse, the elderly patient who recovered, the person thrown out of a job, the biography of someone who died. The digital capacity to generate constant images, graphs and numbers, 24 hours a day, has been almost as dazzling as the speed with which COVID-19 upended everything. Frequently missing from these accounts is an understanding of the way these statistical descriptions of patterns across the globe are unequally produced, highly diversely received, and conceal a multiplicity of social and cultural relations. There is something for us to do there.

EASA 2020 conference and Covid-19

Most of you will know by now that the biggest direct effect of the COVID-19 emergency for EASA as an association was our decision on what to do about the biennial conference that was scheduled to take place in July 2020 in Lisbon. After a long, hard look at all the options, we decided to go for a mixed solution: an online conference on the original planned dates, combined with a small number of one-day events to be held in Lisbon during 2021. The letter we sent about that (reproduced in this newsletter) speaks for itself. I will just add one additional point here: one advantage of going online is that it makes it possible for many people who would not normally be able to attend, either because of visa restrictions, or costs, or both. We are working hard with our conference administrators and software designers to make the online conference accessible, distinctive and different, and we are both anxious but also enthusiastic about that process. We will do our best to make it as good an experience as we possibly can. The smaller in-person events (probably four) that will be held in Lisbon during 2021 are still being planned and they will be announced in due course; they will be an opportunity to have somewhat more intimate events than the original conference would have provided, and the stretch the celebration of the 30th anniversary of EASA across a longer period, rather than the original four-day firework display in Lisbon that we had originally planned.

The journal Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale to appear only in digital form during the COVID-19 emergency

One of the other effects of the current emergency is that EASA’s journal, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, is going to be produced only online for the time being, as there are limited printing facilities at the moment. We do not yet know when the print copies will begin again; we will be keeping members posted.

Other News

EASA was deeply saddened to learn of the death of two of its members over the last period: Florin Faje (1984-2020) who passed away in January 2020, and Vintilă Mihăilescu (1951-2020) who passed away in March of this year. Along with CNRS and a range of other learned societies, EASA marked the 300th day of the detention in Iran of Fariba Adelkhah on April 7th 2020.

On behalf of the EASA executive, I do hope you all keep safe.
Sarah Green, EASA President, 16th April 2020