Risk, Disaster, and COVID-19

Conversations in Anthropology

Jennifer Trivedi
Thomas Hanson
Mei Johnson

The cancelation of the SfAA annual meetings due to COVID-19 and Coronavirus concerns left the Risk and Disaster Topical Interest Group (R&D TIG) in a rather unusual space. While we fully understood and supported the SfAA’s decision to cancel the meetings, the nature of our research and interests left us with a keen desire to have some conversation regardless. We wanted to talk about the work we had produced for the meetings, larger issues of risk and disasters, as well as to initiate conversations about COVID-19 and the Coronavirus. We reached out to our membership via our listserv and social media. 

We are taking a multipronged approach to life during COVID-19. First, we created a digital conference on March 20th. We are having biweekly meetings with researchers, practitioners, and others from the risk and disaster and anthropology communities, which anyone is welcome to join. We are producing a COVID-19 research agenda from the perspective of the anthropology of disasters, a statement on global research ethics and methodology in the time of COVID-19, and an op-ed discussing the main insights from disaster social science disaster social science that provide perspective in the time of COVID-19. 

On March 20 we spent nearly three hours on Zoom with several dozen R&D TIG members in three sessions: (1) presentations from the SfAA program; (2) a Late Breaking session; and (3) a larger conversation about COVID-19 issues. In the first session, we heard from Christopher Tharp on “Rethinking Postcolonial Sovereignty through Mouffean ‘Artivism’ in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Diaspora” and Irena L. C. Connon on “Disabling Categorisations and Rethinking Vulnerability in Hazard Mitigation and Response.” Jennifer Trivedi presented “’Get a Game Plan’: The Role of Football in Disasters,” incorporating research from her initial SfAA paper and ongoing COVID-19 research. In the second session, Ilan Kelman presented on the question “Is COVID-19 a Natural Disaster?,” Charis Ford Morrison Boke on “Plants and Solidarity: Herbalist Mutual Aid Practices in a Time of COVID-19,” and Eric Kennedy on a “Rapid Summary of the Canadian Context in Terms of Social Dimensions of COVID-19.” 

After the presentations, we opened up the conversation to everyone to discuss the ongoing situation with COVID-19 and responses to it. As an applied anthropology organization, we were able to have input from people in academia, practice, and both, giving us a unique perspective on the situation as a whole. Being able to share findings, ideas, and questions with one another via Zoom was not as ideal as being able to meet in person, but it also made the conversation accessible to people who would not have been able to go to the SfAA meetings. The diverse array of perspectives from researchers raised different ideas about risk, disaster, and health, different anthropological approaches, and different potential problems and solutions. 

The initial Zoom call was successful enough that we are planning on continuing the calls moving forward in the spring. We had a meeting on April 3, have a call set for Friday, April 17 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time, and hope to have a call every two weeks on Fridays. All are welcome to join us – see our listserv at bit.ly/JoinRDTIG, our Twitter account at @RiskDisasterTIG, or our Facebook group “Risk and Disasters TIG @ Society for Applied Anthropology” for more information and updates. 

In addition to the digital conference, we have been sharing information and sources on anthropological research on risk, disaster, and COVID-19 specifically via our listserv and social media platforms. We are working to update the list moving forward and are open to adding additional materials people may have to recommend. The list can be accessed at bit.ly/DisasterAnthroMaterials. We have been discussing a variety of COVID-19 related issues – in research, teaching, and practice – in those spaces as well and encourage interested researchers to join in.  

With the immense impact of COVID-19 on cultures around the world, the variety of responses to the pandemic, and questions of lived experiences and perceptions, intertwined with the illness and responses to it, engaging in conversations about these issues in anthropology is critical to our wider understanding of the ever-changing situation and to informed responses to the situation, including in arenas like academia, policy making, health care, and risk and disaster response. Knowing the importance of the concepts and realities of things like culture, power, health, age, ability, gender, race, ethnicity, and a myriad of other key issues is a deeply rooted and valued commodity both in anthropology and in risk and disaster studies, making conversations at the intersection of those fields all the more crucial to our fully understanding and addressing this new and changing situation. 

In the midst of all of this, work to continue the forward progress of the TIG continues. Thomas Hanson and Mei Johnson have done excellent work as co-chairs over the last year and are working on a plan to move forward where Mei Johnson will continue as co-chair and Noémie Gonzalez Bautista will join her as our newest co-chair. Jennifer Trivedi will continue as Social Media Manager and Thomas Hanson will be continuing to help guide and shape the TIG and it’s COVID-19 discussion spaces. 

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