By Bicram Rijal, Simon Fraser University
We are living in extremely uncertain times. With the global takeover by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become humans that we are not used to, because our behavioural responses to the crisis are quite unlike what we have experienced before. Many are calling it a “new reality.” Certainly, it is a new reality characterized by tectonic shifts in the ways of our being and becoming. It’s a new reality in which an invisible, unpredictable virus has gone on a global trip—knocking on each of our doors—while keeping us essentially confined within a curtailed spatial boundary. It is globalization against its familiar form. Or disjuncture of globalization, if you will.
The virus has challenged the stability and authority of science or scientific expertise, particularly the ones related to biomedicine. The pathological and biomedical knowledge forms related to the virus are still very loose and only in the phase of preliminary assumptions. Yet in the absence of “stable” medical “truth” on COVID-19, speculations often prevail. The knowledge gap between medical experts of the Global South and those of the Global North seems blurred, if not erased. The fluidity of knowledge about the global pandemic has also blurred the distinction between biomedical expertise and the layperson’s common sense understanding. In the context of this limited knowledge of the emergent virus, the focus thus far has been less on cure or recovery from it, and more on the social, political, and bodily measures to stop or limit its spread.
This is not to dismiss the vast amount of ongoing and emergent scientific work, research and information coming from our respective countries, the World Health Organization, and research and academic institutions like John Hopkins University. They all are keeping us informed about the current situation, new and evolving trajectories of the virus outbreaks, mitigation measures, and projection models. But as Dr. Anthony Fauci of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, “You can’t really rely upon models.” He also noted that “the virus determines what the timetable is, not us.” And these words are enough to remind us about the unpredictability of the pandemic and uncertainties of predictions modeling.
Disciplinary questions during the pandemic times
During this global crisis, there are many things happening all at once and at an incredible speed. How do the rapidly evolving circumstances of the pandemic shape our ethnographic practices and anthropological engagements? In what ways can ethnography—known as a slow methodology—be able to document the rapidly emergent contexts, meanings and consequences of the pandemic? The reflections by medical anthropologists on the swine flu pandemic offer some interesting insights in addressing these questions. They inform us that outbreaks can play out in different ways, ranging from being an “opportunity for knowledge production” (Briggs and Nichter 2009), to offering us a context to critically assess the “strictly biological and epidemiological approach” embedded in public health response system (Atlani-Duault and Kendall 2009). There is also another pertinent question facing our discipline: How does anthropology and its research practices that depend so much on face-to-face interactions and close contacts cope with the emergent moments of physical or social distancing? Amid this COVID-19 crisis, anthropologists worldwide have already started sharing their unique perspectives and experiences by writing about how the impacts of ongoing uncertainty in our being and thinking—as individuals and as anthropologists—are varied based on our diverse lived realities.
Living on edge as an international student
As an international graduate student in Canada, for example, I am experiencing the pandemic in my own way. My uncertainties are manifold ranging from economics and immigration, to health and livelihood. I am on a study permit and my wife is on a work permit. We have a 6-year old daughter in grade one. During this crisis—more than ever—we have become invisible “others.” We don’t fit in the state categories of citizens or permanent residents or family members of any of those two. We are ineligible for almost all of the emergency benefit packages announced by the Canadian government or by the province of British Columbia. At the time of this writing, our permits have expired. We had applied for permit extensions back in January, but the decision has not yet been made by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Until the decisions are made on our applications, our BC medical insurance coverage is inactive, our Canada Child Benefit payments have stopped, and we are anxious about whether our applications for temporary permit extension will be approved or not. On top of dealing with the difficulties that COVID-19 has brought about, I and my family have to sort out the uncertainty that comes with our “implied status”—a category of temporary residents under the Canadian immigration system.
While I and my immediate family are concerned about our own circumstances here in Canada, our hearts and minds also go out to Nepal, where our other family members, relatives, and many friends live. With still a low number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in Nepal (only 9 as of April 4, 2020), we have a temporary sigh of relief. But what if the situation becomes worse? What if the inadequate healthcare infrastructure gets overwhelmed? What will happen to my 87-year old grandma? How will my mother with preexisting health problems recover if/when the virus catches her? It is this unpredictability that is painful to be in. While our bodies are present in Canada, our worries and thoughts travel to Nepal. And it feels very much like living on edge.
Shared experiences of uncertainty and disruption
Besides and beyond our own unique personal experiences, there are also uncertainties and disruptions that we—humans as a whole—are living through in a collective, shared manner. We cannot go to parks now fenced and taped off, visit playgrounds, have playdates for our children, or have picnics with friends. We cannot invite our family or relatives to our homes for dinner. We are discouraged to talk to new people, let alone people we already know. We as humans are becoming nervous about our tactile experience with a fear that any touch (with humans and nonhumans) can cause us to become infected by the virus. Tactility forms the most essential part of our daily life. It is hard to imagine life beyond touch, so to speak. Whether it is hugging, kissing, hand shaking, bathroom practice, groceries, driving, typing, eating, or cooking, each involves touch. Yet, this pandemic has forced us to refrain from touch as much as possible. One of the most mobile creatures on the earth, we are forced to lock ourselves inside homes or apartments. Worse, we are not able to give the most essential final company to our friend or relative during the time of their dying. For both those who are leaving and those left behind, deaths have become a solitary and extremely painful experience. Collective, in-person sociality is on hold. And we don’t know for how long. Uncertainty has become a new normal as the old normalcy seems already long gone.
As much as the pandemic is a global health crisis, it is also a world-shifting drive toward new kinds of subjectivity and habitus formation. In a globalized world, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of vulnerability of human existence and indeterminacy of social structures. No matter how richly or poorly we live, how powerful or weak our subject positions are, how highly or lowly we think of ourselves, in the face of the global pandemic, we are just vulnerable human beings. But, as Paul Stoller informs us, we can strengthen our social bonds now more than ever before to fight this precarious human condition.
Featured image caption: My daughter doing artwork in her school’s playground in Burnaby, BC, on March 30, 2020. Photo by Bicram Rijal.
Atlani-Duault, Laëtitia and Carl Kendall. 2009. “Influenza, Anthropology, and Global Uncertainties.” Medical Anthropology, 28, no. 3: 207-211.
Briggs, Charles L. and Mark Nichter. 2009. “Biocommunicability and the Biopolitics of Pandemic Threats.” Medical Anthropology, 28, no 3: 189-198.