‘The balance between care and surveillance’: Summaries of contributions

Question Three: Care vs. Surveillance – Summaries


‘Anthropological Responses to COVID-19’ will comprise six questions, each lasting a fortnight. These are posted on a website created by University College London’s Centre for Digital Anthropology.

The responses to this third topic can be found by clicking on the map at https://anthrocovid.com/3-2/

What have anthropological observations taught us about the balance between care and surveillance?

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/.

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

This is a highly politicised issue, whether it is reflecting the polarisation between Republicans and Democrats in the US, the suspicions African people have of the global powers, or the further extension of the paternalism of the state in Singapore. In general the debate over contact tracing maps onto the spectrum from authoritarian to more liberal states.

Surveillance doesn’t just come from the state, it is also deeply social. People in Singapore stay locked in as they fear of social embarrassment if they appear in the public domain. In Argentina, everyone watches everyone else and judges them for non-compliance. We are all part of the pandemic eye.

The effect of surveillance is often to exacerbate the much wider feeling of claustrophobia and oppression felt during lockdown. Those with less power, such as older citizens in Singapore or the children of British Asian families may feel they are even more suppressed and contained that usual.

At the same time, many people feel who have a contribution to make to this adjudication of balance between care and surveillance. People in Ireland will acquiesce in contact tracing as long as it is not extended beyond what is strictly required. Those in South Korea will accept greater individual surveillance if they trust that this is genuinely a technology of care.

New inequalities arise as groups are singled out. The elderly find they are sequestered when others can go free, foreigners in China are now the human face of the plague and non-compliant Covidiots are singled out for public shame.

What are individual contributions telling us about how people negotiate this balance between care and surveillance locally?

ArgentinaXimena Díaz Alarcón notes that in Argentina, as elsewhere, the rules that govern lockdown are complex – for example, allowing people to travel just 5 blocks from where they live. Social media provides endless comment on how people respond. They watch and they judge. Do they cheer an image of a great-grandparent being hugged by a great-granddaughter or condemn this? Should non-compliant neighbours be reported on as part of the pandemic eye? As people are watched, they also curate their online appearance.

Brazil (1)Andrea Rozenbaum shows that in Brazil, despite the presidential neglect, there is local action. In a tourist town, locals with poor health resources seek to protect themselves from wealthier visitors. With 50,000 tourists coming to their beaches, it was locals in consultation who persuaded the Mayor to close down the beaches and supported drone surveillance including taking people’s temperatures, evidently regarding surveillance more as care than from the perspective of privacy.

Brazil (2) – Marina Frid documents how the governor of Rio imposed controls, often meaning that people were without their livelihoods. The stark political differences in Brazil are reflected in inconsistent policing and people critiquing each other’s behaviour. Some just have their masks hanging loose from their ears, while others give the police anonymous tip-offs about parties. Criminal gangs may force businesses to keep open but elsewhere enforce social isolation.

ChinaJavier Garcia-Martinez reports how the Chinese population are subject to constant surveillance with their temperature checked whenever they enter most premises, and details of their ID taken. A traffic light system based on tracking everywhere they go decides whether they can travel. Foreigners may be banned from various venues, having become the face of the virus. In essence, there is a regime for guarding the purity of the nation presented as the promise of security, dividing the world into the secure and insecure.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo – Katrien Pype notes the acute awareness of global inequalities and racist stereotypes, and with regards to Kinshasa in particular, people’s sense that they are under the surveillance of global powers that will suppress their contributions to care. Opportunities are sought to assert African pride, to highlight the contribution of Cuban doctors , the potential benefits of a proposed herbal treatment, and the opposition to Afro-Pessimism. These are punctuated by periodic panics as false remedies are exposed. Some fear they will be sacrificed as guinea-pigs for Western medical testing. All of the above will then have local political consequences.

Ireland – Daniel Miller and Pauline Garvey discuss the reaction in Ireland to the potential deployment of a contact tracing app. People have plenty of experience in balancing care and surveillance, for example, as parents, and take on surveillance of neighbours as a citizen’s duty. Mostly, people would accept such an app but with clear concerns about it not collecting any more data or being used at any time that is not strictly necessary. There are also political issues such as the inclusion of Northern Ireland.

Japan – Laura Haapio-Kirk uses cartoons to illustrate the problems of care and surveillance in Japan. While in some countries, monitoring is mainly an issue of top-down surveillance, in Japan there is a long tradition of peer surveillance and people fear they will be socially ostracised for failing to take appropriate measures. Because of the distrust towards the state due to surveillance, the Japanese government is using the ubiquitous app LINE, used by pretty much everyone, as a form of informal virus tracking app.

Singapore Kellynn Wee reports on how older people in Singapore have in effect disappeared, leaving a ghostly emptiness to the streets. Fear of the virus, but also of social shaming, including being the risk of being branded as Covidiots, as well as an increasingly hostile environment covered in red and white tape with drones spying from above have conspired to keep them from the spaces they used to spend most of their time in. Shopping becomes the excuse that legitimates escape from their domestic prisons, from where they also lack digital sociality. Surveillance may represent care, but at a heavy price.

South Korea Julia Nagai notes how important surveillance has become in South Korea, and the strict rules of quarantine. While in the West lockdown is applied universally, the testing regime here allows for most places to remain open and control to be calibrated against individual risk. People here are well aware that they are more accepting of individual surveillance than populations elsewhere. Much depends on the sense of trust and care that they expect in exchange.

The United Kingdom (1)An anonymous contributor situates the surveillance of the present time within the wider culture of surveillance, especially that of children by parents within British Asian families. Parents expect children to remain tightly woven into family life, with emotional pressure and constant surveillance to pre-empt any claims to independence. Children are expected to serve parents, act for the collective good, speak their parents’ language and assume that older people know better. All of this is exacerbated by the claustrophobia of lockdown.

The United Kingdom (2) – Rina Arya takes a comparative and global perspective to show how this balance reflects the wider political ethos of governments. The dilemma has highlighted the positions of different states on the spectrum from highly authoritarian to more liberal states. Furthermore, some states have much better data protection provisions than others. Finally, not all apps are equal in terms of what they promise and are capable of achieving.

United States Asad El Malik considers New Orleans, a city that prides itself on its liberalism. Faced with proposals for contact tracing and for businesses to log visits, online comments are generally, though not unanimously, distrustful of any monitoring of their movements. Republicans oppose contract tracing, but the city won’t get federal funds without submitting their plans for tracing. The result plays into the polarisation of US politics, especially within a city that votes Democrat but is set within a Republican state.

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

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