‘Struggles and morality’ – Summaries of Responses

Question Six: Struggles and Morality

‘Anthropological Responses to COVID-19’ has collected contributions seeking to answer six questions, with each question lasting a fortnight. These are posted on a website created by University College London’s Centre for Digital Anthropology.

The responses to the sixth topic (‘Struggles and Morality’) can be found by clicking on the map at https://anthrocovid.com/6-2/

Some of the key points and themes emerging from these posts are as follows:

Several of these posts highlight issues from countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the pandemic is initially brought in by the most affluent groups living in the diaspora or politicians going abroad but then spreads amongst lower-income groups, who are likely to be poorly protected. Similar observations can be made for Brazil and other states, while in Kenya, the pandemic is associated with increasing dependency upon China.

This, in turn, leads to other instances, where inequalities are exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic. In South-East Asia, for example, there have been cases of migrant workers being sequestered by the state in Singapore or Rohingya refugees being demonised in Malaysia.

One of the intractable problems is the moral conundrum of both protecting people from the virus but also recognising the contribution this response makes to economic decline often in places that have undergone significant economic crises, such as Argentina. Certain communities may also face contradictory moralities, as with the health risks of public protest in the US.

In many places, people respond by trying to make sense of events within their own cosmologies, which range from conspiracy thinking in the US to attempts to draw from well-established thinking about how one deals with confinement in a Catholic monastery or, in Cameroon, reigniting the debate around traditional African medicines, or the cosmology of roads in Kenya

People in such situations try to establish a new normal, for example, by circulating daily schedules created by mothers in England and Japan but also bring a wider moral compass to bear, as we have seen in Ireland, with the criteria of fairness as a judgement on the regulations being imposed to combat the virus.

Anthropological posts that are not directed to these questions can also be found at https://anthrocovid.com/digital-ethnographies/ and from posts from UCL Medical Anthropology at https://medanthucl.com/.

What are individual contributions telling us about struggles and morality?

ArgentinaXimena Díaz Alarcón concludes with local fears that flattening the curve has also flattened the economy. They situate this within their own recent history which feels like an endless succession of such downturns. What then is the balance between health and income? The answer lies in the expression that life has no price.

Brazil Daniela Calvo notes the common trajectory that this plague started with the affluent but spread among poorer segments of society. It exacerbated class differences between those who could do their job online and those unable to work of gain access to basic necessities like water. Bolsonaro’s supporters express anger at having to follow social isolation measures recommended by the WHO but suffer the consequences. The favelas, as well as indigenous and marginalised groups, have organised local responses and Afro-Brazilian religions provide spiritual support and critique the racist consequences that follow from their vulnerability. Messages calling for “Umbuntu”, an African expression of unity, have been circulated on the social networks of those who follow these religions.

Cameroon Patrick Awondo notes the sensitivity of people to media coverage predicting an African catastrophe, which reflects decades of Afro-pessimism and the fear that the continent would again be used as guinea pigs for testing vaccines and medicines. They too blamed the wealthy diaspora for bringing the pandemic to spread amongst lower-income people. In response, popular circulations on social media in Cameroon championed the opportunity for an African-based solution as a return to African values.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo Katrien Pype reveals another case where the pandemic was imported through the more affluent diaspora and politicians who spend time abroad. Covid-19 quickly became stigmatised as a cause of death. It was assumed that the wealthy or best-funded institutions would benefit from these events and their public shows of philanthropy were mocked. Meanwhile, low-income people simply couldn’t comply with regulations designed for the rich. Overall, there is an intense atmosphere of distrust based on the perception of Congolese political culture as corrupt, while people added humour to discussions about arrogant and incompetent leaders and discussed the spiritual dimensions of the pandemic.

Ireland – Daniel Miller considers the contribution of anthropologists represented by anthrocovid.com and the accelerated shift to online. In terms of morality, he notes that while there are very different regional arguments about morality such as care versus surveillance, there also seems to be a criterion of fairness that cuts through many of these. Fairness is expressed in shared memes, which evaluate new regulations and try and assert cultural values against the claims of structural powers to stand as proxy for the populations they rule.

Kenya (1) – Nick Rahier starts with the global gaze that assumes Africans are doomed because they cannot practice social distancing. Kenyans feared this would be just one more toxic import revealing the increasing dependency upon China which extends to the import of unhealthy ‘fake’ foods such as Chinese fish or plastic rice. We need a more nuanced understanding of how ordinary people responded using already established protocols of social distancing, maintaining both boundaries and strong and authentic bodies but while also having to deal with new forms of digital distancing.

Kenya (2) – In a second post, Nick Rahier notes how people in Nakuru, one of Kenya’s fastest-growing towns who have lost their work respond by informal marketing of produce from the boots of their cars. People admire their ingenuity but may also condemn the health risks they may pose. The road itself had strong moral connotations with blackspots noted for immoral activities associated with truck drivers seen as infectious nodes, as well as this being a space where people looked for lucrative opportunities. So, there was already a discourse that has been transferred to the pandemic.

Japan (and the UK) –  Abigail Connolly asks why it became so popular to circulate daily schedules on Facebook, for example, by mothers. In these exceptional circumstances, people in Japan or England need new ways of determining what should now be understood as normal, which helps ease the tensions of uncertainty. People felt it was important to have routines but ones which also expressed the difficulties for women now supposed to simultaneously work and parent, exposing continued gender inequalities in taking responsibility for this.

Malaysia Nursyazani worked with Rohingya refugee camps where people struggle with racist and xenophobic attitudes in the host community and a call for a Malaysian-first prioritisation of care by the government as against helping these stateless refugees who would spread the virus. The argument is that a state has a primary responsibility to its own citizens. The result is that refugees are even more afraid and fragile. One counter-response was the appeal to charity within Islam and the duty to help others but generally, these events have only worsened the plight of stateless refugees who are not allowed to be citizens of anywhere.

SingaporeAndrew Lee notes that it was no surprise that it was the low-waged migrant population of Singapore that were hit the hardest, given their more cramped conditions. NGOs and activists tried to organise support but struggled with a lack of knowledge of Tamil language. The worst-infected areas these were also the most heavily policed and subject to the most surveillance. The result included a realisation that better conditions would be healthier for all but mostly there is a continued moral exclusion that keeps these workers outside the new normal of national life.

United Kingdom Richard Irvine reflects again upon the Catholic monks he has studied and their attempts to counter social isolation, using digital media to bring to the wider world their own well-established history of linking confinement with a sense of religious community and presence. These were conditions discussed as ‘acedia’ in a fourth-century text and are now a recognisable struggle. Within this, social media is understood in its dual aspect as the blessing of connection and the curse of servitude to the screen.

United States (1)– Julia Nagai documents an example of conspiracy thinking, such as the idea that the virus extends the Chinese technologies of population control. This arises alongside the growing sense of the reality of the treat COVID-19 poses. Julia also illustrates the problem of trying to enforce the wearing of masks in a restaurant where diners have their own theories as to what is going on and what works as a response. There is a need to engage with these diverse views in a way that seeks answers, rather than simply to dismiss them.

United States (2) – Asad El Malik looks at the intersection between the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the virus – both are based on becoming unable to breathe. The result is the feeling of the necessity of protest around Black Lives Matter but also the dangers to health that street protest represents and the internal conflicts and contradictions of trying to do the right thing in this difficult time. Asad documents the gathering of hundreds of people to protest police brutality near the City Hall in New Orleans while trying to practice social distancing and mask-wearing.

For more information about this project, please contact g.murariu@ucl.ac.uk

Please feel free to contact individual authors on the site or create your own summary of the project if you wish.