Let’s all become armchair medical anthropologists

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.

what will my kids remember about this time?

My mother has accused me of thinking my children are pretty perfect. It isn’t that exactly, though I’d admit I’m rather a doting parent 🙂 It’s like a prayer I say every night: As I settle down to sleep, I tell my husband that I love him and then I say aloud “… and I love our two babies, too.” Lately, because I want the last utterance I make to be a little bit of a laugh, I add: “If we have to live through a global pandemic emergency, I’m glad it’s with the three of you.” He obligatorily harumphs and then I feel I can go to sleep. It isn’t that I think my children are perfect, but I certainly think the world of them, by which I mean they’re my world.

Yesterday, a friend asked me how my kids are doing at this time. At risk of confirming my mother’s accusation, I will say that they have been pretty great during this past month at home. I have two babies, as I mentioned, and my 16 year old is a 10th grader now home for the rest of the spring from boarding school, and my 12 year old is a 7th grader at our local middle school. I feel bad about what my 16 year old is missing. She was supposed to go to France for two weeks! and go “on tour” with her high school dance company! and so many other lovely plans that just have to wait now. Ditto my 12 year old, who was having a terrific year at school, hitting his stride with work and friends and everything. He was looking forward to running his first season of track, so we had ordered running shoes that arrived about two weeks before the schools closed.

Because they are 16 and 12, they can do a lot for themselves. They are conscientious students, and I do no homeschooling of them at all, and they seem to be keeping up with their work from school–and my 10th grader in particular has quite a lot of it–and staying occupied while my husband and I are working.

Most important, they are good company for each other. I do not mean to talk down on the experiences of only children–at one point or other, I think all of us in our house have wished we had been onlies–but I have to say that right now, in this moment, I am particularly glad for my children that they have each other. So, my hope is that years from now, they will look back at this time and remember not just the strangeness and sadness of this moment and spending so much time on screens and missing their friends, but also that they got to be together and enjoy having a brother/sister who would walk, ride bikes, sing along to the same songs. So, maybe that will be a happy memory from now.

i’m falling down on my ethnographic responsibilities and I need to be OK with that

To be honest, I’ve felt both like I have an ethnographer’s responsibility to document this time—and also so overwhelmed with just holding it together (with teaching, with my people at home, with all of the feelings…) that I get a little cranky and resentful about feeling this imperative to be meaningfully productive with this moment. I AM ALREADY A FULL TIME PROFESSOR, PARENT, AND SPOUSE. So, like, I’m not baking sourdough or sewing masks—much less collecting data on, say, experiences of pregnant women during COVID isolation. I don’t even wish I were someone who could do it all. Right now, I just wish the sun was shining Oneonta, but it’s Friday, April 10, and it’s snowing.