As a medical anthropologist, I think about sickness (or health) as significantly a social and cultural experience. My perception at this moment is that while we are rightly concerned with addressing the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (COVID-19), we have almost no control over the virus or over the course of the disease. Meanwhile, we are overlooking what we can do. We have the power to change our own behaviors, and I wish we as a public might turn our attention now to directing our efforts to reinventing our habits (and the conditions that enable or disable them) with the same urgency. That is the other part of what we need to do in order to “resume” lives that bear some resemblance to what we considered normal and ordinary before.
So many people have become armchair epidemiologists. I invite us to become medical anthropologists now 🙂
First, let’s start by valuing what we actively already have done: Those of us who have the privilege of doing so have made extraordinary changes by living in “lockdown” and “shelter in place” and adapting our activities to enable work and school from home. However, I think we all recognize this is only a temporary “stop” or “pause”–and at some point later I want to dwell on the language and metaphors of this moment.
Next, let’s recognize that culture and social change are as important and necessary to live through and beyond this moment as a vaccine against the virus and medical therapies for the disease. I’ve been thinking the responses around the AIDS pandemic might provide models for what needs to happen next. Obviously, HIV and SARS-CoV-2 are quite different—and in fact, SARS-CoV-2 is much more contagious! Consider, however, that we have no vaccine for HIV, but we have widespread availability of (free) testing; safe and efficacious therapies that enable HIV+ individuals to live otherwise healthy; and most importantly, changes in cultural attitudes and norms and social behaviors that prevent or at least minimize the risk of infection. These required a lot of activism and campaigning, but they happened. We have not eradicated HIV/AIDS, and infection is still a threat, but we have made considerable strides to contain it, and it is not the plague and death sentence it once was.
A quick note for now: Changing our habits is likely as hard (or even harder) than controlling the virus–I’m not suggesting culture change is easier than virology because I think there’s a lot of evidence that people themselves are as stubborn as their sicknesses–but at least it’s in our power to do it.