Anthropologists in Times of COVID 19

Updated: Sep 13, 2021


Dr. Rajni Lamba

Anthropologist, CEO, The REEDS, India

(The Rural Environmental Enterprises Development Society)





As a behavioural scientist any anthropologist has to merely look around to realize the significance of anthropology as a discipline for taking stock of and ameliorating human experiences of the ensuing Covid 19 pandemic. Humans are swinging between the extremes of hope and despair as they are being constantly bombarded with statistical figures of the infected, those who recovered and those who succumbed to the dreaded virus on the one hand. On the other they were receptacles for all forms of suggestions for care and cure. The hopes for new scientifically advanced cures are raised and dashed every day. The vocabulary of the day became confined to terminology of ‘quarantine’, ‘social distancing’, ‘sanitary crisis; ‘death’, ‘virus’, ‘sanitization’, ‘isolation’, ‘war’ and ‘invisible enemy’. These words continue to echo through all human habitations. Secluded in to their homes human populations have adapted variously to the sense of time‐space compression. Virtual interactions have come to occupy a large part of physical interactions. From human contacts to means of communication and social norms all have been reformulated. Anthropologists are once again challenged to chronicle the responses across countries and continents for cross-cultural comparisons of human behaviour during the relentless waves of the pandemic.


The anthropologist has been a repository of man’s progress and attainments, recording for posterity, the developments of every age, the socialization patterns, the rites de passage and the significance of all things human. Anthropology became the ready reckoner for understanding the joy, the sorrows, the aspects of national character and the bonding of a community, be it miners lumberjacks, traders or agriculturalists. The anthropologist either silently on an armchair or through action has struck the chords of human enterprises and pinpointed the discordant notes and helped resolve many of them. Thus, over time anthropology established itself as the common thread of stringing together the vital human processes of the past, present and future through its multifaceted approach to studying, promoting and even at times curbing the extent of man’s futuristic forays towards a higher or better existence. While this period saw several challenges of a terrestrial nature being braved by a bold, young world, humankind was virtually brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic. At no stage in time has an entire global crisis been faced collectively probably since the Ice Age.


Already the ameliorative process is underway. All spheres of life need attention. Basic survival and existence were at peril. There is no going back to the old ways as life can never be the same as several old practices are lost or have been shed. The burgeoning threat of carbon footprints, nuclear war, pollution of the land with chemicals besides man’s undying quest for immortally within a mortal world have brought entire humankind to the brink of annihilation. The short-term and long-term action strategy is already at the plan and take-off stage. Populations that required handholding in the past year need to get back on their feet. People in various niches of the world need to take a measure of past wrongdoings.


‘The old order changeth..’ but the way forward seems unsure.

The COVID-19 statistics rose astronomically as the death tolls increased to unprecedented highs. There were widespread tangible and intangible repercussions because evidently the virus, COVID-9, had transgressed its impact from the physical to the socio-psychological realm. The very roots of behavioural patterns were being gnawed at in solitude, isolation, despair and the doomsday call of the mental anguish was growing. A peculiar manifestation of loneliness became apparent in the grim silence of suicides when human beings were succumbing – they had given up the will to live. Anthropologists all over the world set to work stitching together the torn fabric of human endurance, struggle and perseverance. Thinkers, doers, practitioners in the discipline have begun knitting together the frayed threads of a total breakdown of the economy, health infrastructure, psychological breakdown, changing social systems in COVID times, emerging alternative social networks. Cultural responses where congregations gave way to individual chants are being studied and its long-term sustainability examined.


Anthropology is indispensable in the correction of these debilitating effects. It is a call to anthropologists to do their best to help populations rediscover the higher purpose of life. The world is ready to listen to reason as the scientists of human behaviour examine the sands of time and prepare the game plan for the future. The policy framework for further human endeavour can emanate only from the wide-angled observation prowess of the practicing anthropologists supported by numerous allied disciplines leading all to aspire to a renewed high in human existence.


Tribal communities reminiscent of the ways of their forefathers are revisiting their independence lost to commercialization. Does this indicate a resurgence of the journey to a vast haven where Nature rules supreme and Mankind harnesses only those forces, like wind, water and air to make a wonderful life for limited settlements. While automation has several benefits, the threat of its going haywire is always eminent. The human behaviour has been orchestrated by the natural and man-made phenomena witnessed down the ages.


We the students of Anthropology are equipped with our methodologies to holistically map human spaces in its temporal dimensions. The trajectory of human-nature relations is fascinating: human ethos nurtured by science control sophisticated machines and imagine that they have conquered nature’s experiments! Nature returns with frequent reminders that the humankind is still under its control. Systematically created scientific instruments begin to fall apart and the most developed of human societies start crumbling in short time.


Only a deeper understanding of anthropology can hope to engage with this new reality.

The World Pandemic Research located at the University College London, medical and digital anthropology websites, the Corona Times blog of the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town, the COVID‐19 Forum of the collaborative website, Somatosphere: Science, Medicine and Anthropology, the online Editor’s Forum of Cultural Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association and bodies like the United India Anthropology Forum (UIAF) are instruments of anthropological response to world situations today.


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