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Cultural Anthropologist Explores How to Create Community in the Pandemic

Governors State Professor Reflects on the Impact COVID-19 on Society

Governors State University Anthropology and Sociology Professor and Cultural anthropologist Jelena Radovic-Fanta is also an affiliated faculty member with the university’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. She speculates on the potential impact the COVID-19 pandemic could have on society.

Drawing on the country's past, Radovic-Fanta offers a glimpse into a post-pandemic U.S.

GSU Newsroom: What impact will social distancing and quarantining have on culture? Will this create stronger cultural ties to technology?

Radovic-Fanta: An underlying question to examine, which lies at the heart of what I study as an anthropologist, is this: What does community mean? How are our definitions of community shifting in light of social distancing, quarantine, and shelter-in-place guidelines? While social distancing in a very large part requires physical distancing, we also observe how connection is sought after. This ties to technology, whether it is a kindergarten teacher having Zoom meetings with their students, Skype birthday celebrations, or video messages to family and friends.

These issues of community are just starting to be explored in context of COVID-19. Archaeological evidence points to a correlation between bi-pedalism, to walk on two feet, with increasing cooperation and social support among early hominids, the classification of great apes that includes humans. Cooperation is part of who we are as humans. How, then, do we create new forms of sociality and community in context of the COVID-19 pandemic? In social media we find heartwarming videos showing people singing and playing music from their balconies, performing a concert via Zoom, celebrating birthdays, or sharing dance challenges. Technology does play a significant role in sustaining and cultivating a sense of community and providing services such as tele-counseling when physical proximity is not possible.

Finally, there is the question of what community means at a global level. Globalization includes not only flows of people, services, goods, and ideas, but also disease. Countries and regions are making decisions on what regulations are adequate and necessary when facing an outbreak of such a global scale.

Not only does the concept and practice of community take on new meanings, but so do new practices such as risk assessment and hygiene. How do we assess risk? This presents a difficulty because the virus we are tackling is, in fact, invisible. At what point do individuals decide to leave the house only for essentials? Wear a mask for a walk around the neighborhood? Or decide that a walk is too risky and opt to stay home? One might project that there will be an impact on risk assessment and practices of hygiene as it pertains to perceived contamination.

While there is a celebratory nod toward the promises and possibilities of technology in times of the pandemic, we have many jobs that essentially cannot move to a remote format. Many of these are highly represented by low-wage jobs such as agricultural laborers, retail, and other services, who are also at high risk of contracting COVID-19. The deep-rooted socioeconomic inequalities have now become more visible and there is an urgent need for conversations about healthcare, paid time, and precarious employment.

GSU Newsroom:There have been pandemics throughout history? How does our reaction to the current pandemic compare to society’s reactions in the past? 

Radovic-Fanta: It is very interesting as a social scientist to examine the various approaches to this pandemic taken on by countries worldwide. For instance, some countries have had a strong centralized governmental response with nationwide guidelines of quarantining and widespread testing, seen in East Asia. Others are carrying out a balancing act of quarantining specific counties with high numbers of infections and forming sanitary cordons, while providing social distancing or voluntary quarantine guidelines to less affected counties, as is the case of Chile. Countries like Sweden and Denmark are providing looser directives with a focus on individual responsibility to the community and a sense of trust with each other and the government.

The United States has relied heavily on state and local governments to enforce guidelines, to close non-essential businesses, services, and industry, and/or declare shelter-in-place. Yet there is gaping lack of leadership by the current administration in providing a clear national guidance and strategy. This must be examined in the current political milieu of an administration that has time and time again expressed suspicion and outright disregard for evidence-based scientific research. Coupled with contradictory messages about the danger posed by the viral outbreak, this has left local and state governments scrambling for resources and medical supplies. The United States has had systems in place to deal with a viral outbreak, which has been predicted by epidemiologists to be a grave threat to our health, economy, and infrastructure. In fact, following the Ebola outbreak, the National Security Council under President Obama’s administration created a playbook with detailed federal response to an outbreak of this magnitude. Yet the high turnover rate of White House officials, initial mixed messages of COVID-19’s threat, and dismissal of Obama-era guidelines and policies, resulted in poorly informed and deficient responses.

GSU Newsroom: Even the worst disasters have a silver lining. Do you see one for this pandemic?

Radovic-Fanta: One of things that I anticipate will come out of this is are urgent conversations and action around healthcare and care related issues, such as paid time, family leave, etc.

Healthcare has been at the forefront of recent political debates. However, healthcare access (or lack thereof) is becoming tangible in light of the coronavirus outbreak. This is magnified by the skyrocketing unemployment, since health insurance is often tied to employment. Hopefully, this will lead to much-needed structural changes in the healthcare system in the United States. Related to this is the topic of paid family leave, which seems to be have gained traction, albeit slowly.

Overall, this pandemic is laying bare deep structural faults in our healthcare system, precarious labor, and family-friendly work environments. Although no one is immune to COVID-19, we are seeing race and class inequalities are leaving some communities at higher risk than others.

In Chicago alone, for example, a reported 70 percent of all COVID-19 deaths are African American residents, while making up 29 percent of the population. My hope is that the numerous tragedies we see in this pandemic will result in structural changes that address deep-seeded social inequalities.