The RAI held a series of virtual research seminars on Covid-19 in June and July 2020.

The following RAI lectures have been recorded and are available online to listen to or download. Videos of other RAI events are available on our YouTube channel here.

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (6/6): Borgstrom, Cohn and Driessen & Árnason

End-of-life care in England during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Dr Erica Borgstrom, Open University
Prof Simon Cohn, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Dr Annelieke Driessen, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The pandemic is inescapably foregrounding questions relating to death and dying. The number and time-concentration of COVID-19 patients requiring end-of-life care is stretching NHS resources in the UK, while the care of other patients is in danger of being displaced. Professionals are having to make rapid and often very difficult decisions, concerning who is appropriate for specialist care, the need for planning in advance, and the urgency to talk with patients and relatives about these issues, often despite physical distancing. This seminar will explore the ways in which end-of-life care has been foregrounded and changed, examining what the consequences of this arising from urgency of the pandemic are rather than more ecological changes across the NHS and society more generally.

Good death, bad deaths and the subject with/without care
Dr Arnar Árnason, University of Aberdeen

The Covid-19 crisis is, among other things, a crisis of death. It is a crisis of death not only because of the number of deaths or the very uneven way in which its mortality is distributed, but also in the way in which people die of Covid-19. Anthropologists have long noted the culturally variable and widely important notion of a ‘good death’ while the interdisciplinary death studies have detailed what kind of deaths are marked as ‘good’ in broadly speaking contemporary western cultural contexts. Drawing on insights from these fields, I propose to discuss ‘good death’ and bad deaths in Iceland and the UK during Covid-19, and what they reveal about everyday politics of subjects of care.

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (5/6): Maruška Svašek

Lockdown: Sociality, Materiality and Placemaking
Dr Maruška Svašek, Queen’s University Belfast

Drawing on previous research into human mobility, emotional interaction and material mediation (Svašek 2018; 2016; 2012a; 2012b; Svašek and Komarova 2018), this talk explores how the current Coronavirus Crisis is influencing relations between people, places and things. How do people, many of them self-isolating, (fail to) create and negotiate sociality and well-being? In the process, how do material objects, including consumption goods, communication devices, and travel documents afford and mediate movements within, between and beyond people’s dwellings?

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (4/6): Heady and Pieta & Bullen

Strong Families and Infection – European Kinship and the Corona Virus
Dr Patrick Heady, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Ms Barbara Pieta, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Comparative research in the last two decades has transformed our understanding of the geographical distribution of European family systems. There is now broad agreement that parents and adult children are more likely to share the same dwelling – and to help and interact with close relatives in other households – in the so-called “strong family” systems of Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, than in the “weak family” systems of the northwest.

Drawing on data from two comparative studies, we argue that “strong family” systems are likely to increase the risk of infection for older people during the early stages of the epidemic – and are also associated with highly localised patterns of social interaction which increase the risk of transmission within local communities, but decrease the risk of transmission between them.

We argue that these features help to explain the early emergence of Italy and Spain as centres of the European epidemic, and throw light on the geographically scattered pattern of infection within northern Italy. There are also implications for government policies designed to contain and manage the spread of the virus.

Basque Balcony Culture during Confinement
Dr Margaret Bullen, University of the Basque Country

It is 8 in the evening. From my balcony, I can hear the clapping has already started from the blocks of flats down the road. I join in. Clapping for the frontline health workers. For my neighbor, whose balcony joins mine, a doctor who is probably on the job now. Clapping for each other. Those of us who are confined to our homes. Some of us with gardens. Others with only the pots of geraniums that bloom through the dark green or red painted wood of the Basque balconies. The clapping ends and an accordion strikes up. The Basque triki-trixa button accordion. A woman plays and a little girl accompanies with the traditional tambourine. A man and another child dance up and down the balcony to the music. We applaud again. Over the way, from behind a copse of trees and canes, a man’s baritone reaches us with his chosen song of the evening. We clap once more.

During these two months of confinement in the Basque Country, balconies have provided an open space, a breath of air, a miniature garden for many. They have been the stage for social contact and communication, for daily interaction, social comment and political protest. But also a viewpoint onto the outside world, a point of control and observation of others.
I would like to present and reflect upon my own ethnographical observations from the balcony onto Basque culture in confinement.

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (3/6): Grotti, Quagliariello & Guslini

Lockdown Babies: Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Shadow of Covid-19 in Italy
Prof Vanessa Grotti, University of Bologna
Dr Chiara Quagliariello, European University Institute

Since the end of February 2020, when the first cases of Covid-19 with no connection to international travel started to be hospitalised in the Lombardy and Veneto regions of northern Italy, Italian healthcare infrastructures underwent profound social and material transformations. One of the first consequences was the immediate suspension or cancellation of most non-urgent medical procedures and check-ups unrelated to Covid-19, with two notable exceptions: pregnancy and childbirth. Expecting mothers are among the few 'patients' admitted into hospitals for checks and interventions not related to the coronavirus emergency; yet the latter has transformed pregnant women's lives and the care they receive in and around the clinic: their bodies have become the object of exceptional treatment, both as vulnerable patients to protect and potential viral carriers to isolate and control. This paper is based on ethnographic research conducted remotely in the past few months with both patients (local and migrant women) and medical personnel living across Italy, from the northern regions worst hit by the pandemic, such as Lombardy and Veneto, to southern regions such as Sicily. We will offer a first critical examination of the transformation of maternity care infrastructure across the territory (highlighting how the coronavirus emergency has deepened existing health inequities), as well as an analysis of the body, reproduction and relatedness in the shadow of Covid-19 in Italy.

Distance learning in Italy during the Covid-19 emergency: an unwanted but healthy leap forward for the future of education
Prof Giovanna Guslini

This paper offers, through significant images, an overview of the use of distance learning technologies, in Italy, during the Covid-19 crisis. By detecting light and shadow, it outlines future developments taking into account also the monitoring of national pilot projects promoted in the past. At the end, it examines the particular case of e-twinning, cultural exchanges with other countries. These distance learning projects, experimental in the past years, have now made a remarkable leap forward. In the post-emergency period, they will certainly leave a legacy of a more innovative teaching and learning: a more open education, closer to young people.

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (2/6): Miller & Adepegba

Smartphones and the fine line between care and surveillance
Prof Daniel Miller, University College London

Two recent developments have made the fine line between care and surveillance central not only to anthropology but to politics and popular morality: the rise of smartphones and the response to Covid-19. Smartphone based apps are being considered globally for documenting every social interaction of an individual, to find and test those contacts and thereby suppress Covid-19. Books such as Surveillance Capitalism, however, have made us alert to how smartphones take personal surveillance by companies and states to a whole new level. The balance between care and surveillance is ultimately a moral and political decision. I will argue based on finding from our ASSA project that populations are surprisingly well qualified to take such decisions.

Covid-19: Visual Expressions of Social Demands of Coronavirus in Nigeria
Dr Kehinde Adepegba, Lagos State Polytechnic, Ikorodu

COVID-19 also known as coronavirus is a scourge that has ravaged the entire world. Thousands of people, world over, have contracted the disease leaving many dead. Since the coronavirus does not have a cure nor a vaccine, keeping social distance, regular washing of hands with soap or/and alcoholic-based sanitizer have been overtly recommended to curb its spread. Lockdown has been employed to effect stay-at-home and compulsory use of face mask during ease of lockdown. In Nigeria, the social change as result of the demands posed by the pandemic was visually expressed in many ways by artists and people. Therefore, the paper aims at examining the creative expressions of Nigerians in textual and visual forms. This will be limited to selected Facebook posts by my friends on the subject matter. This will be analysed using formal and contextual analysis. Freud’s psychoanalysis theory of art will be used to interrogate the subject to underscore how the expressions provide considerable relief from COVID-19 tension by the discharge of energy through socially acceptable channel like Facebook, and how they offer opportunities for sublimation of impulses of various kinds.

Anthropological Contributions to the Covid-19 Crisis (1/6): Roundtable

Roundtable discussion with:

Prof Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford

Friendship is turning out to be the single most important factor influencing our mental and physical health. Because friendships are very demanding in terms of the time we have to invest in them to keep them going, prolonged lockdown is bound to have adverse consequences for the quality of our friendships.

Prof Melissa Parker, London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine
Dr Hayley MacGregor, Institute of Development Studies

Preparedness’ and ‘Response’ to COVID-19: some anthropological reflections from afar

COVID-19 is challenging epidemiological approaches promoting standardised responses to epidemics and also prompting scrutiny of outbreak ‘preparedness’ plans. Calls are frequently made to follow ‘the science’ through set plans and phases as if there are off- the-peg, apolitical and technical solutions which can be followed in a straightforward and linear manner. Our talk reflects on these developments in the light of on-going research in diverse socio-political spaces in parts of Uganda, South Africa and Sierra Leone. In particular, we highlight the inequalities revealed by COVID-19, the overt politicisation of the virus by formal, hybrid and informal public authorities, and the multiple ways in which past experiences of epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola influence current responses to the virus, both from governments and from people on the ground. The challenges of productively altering dominant discourses are discussed in the light of our work with the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform, the Social Science Humanitarian Action Platform and contributions to a Global Commission to build a health risk framework for the future as well as the WHO Roadmap process for COVID-19.