Keep Going

Keep Going: A Call to Sustained COVID Science Among SfAA Members 

Richard_Morris.jpgRichard W.Morris, MSE, PhD
MGI Consultancy

SfAA 81 was a great success! Based on my informal poll, my colleagues agree. Yes, indeed, it's hard to argue with thenumbers, i.e., 1,200 participants, delivering 592 papers in 206 sessions.

My colleagues also share my opinion that the work at hand for professional anthropologists has just begun. Whereas the frightening public health events of last year seemed to present SfAA members with an insurmountable challenge,their ready response now has brought us face-to-face with an inexhaustible opportunity. The program at SfAA-81 was a laudable effort to apply sociocultural knowledge to address a global public health threat. But the threat persists. Humankind is still scrambling to adjust.There are still so many good questions! So many unexplored themes! So many worthy causes! So many citizens,peers and pupils to instruct!

Accordingly, I urge SfAA members to rally to the challenge at hand with sustained research, education, and problem-solving. The following points might help to guide that effort.

(1)  Work To Do. Approximately half of the papers at SfAA-81 dealt with COVID-19, in whole or in part. Much of this work was initiated in response to the pandemic and over the past 24 months. Many SfAA-81 presenters now want to refine and/or deepen this research, expand and/or diversify their study samples, re-test and/or seek to replicate their findings. Other SfAA members are inspired to dig deeper. Some themes which warrant further study are asfollows:

●      Cultural competence as a determinant of success in healthcare uptake and delivery ;

●      Disease surveillance and mitigation in urban settings, i.e., water resource management;

●      Public health communications, i.e., cultural aspects of testing, mitigation, and vaccination;

●      Alternate roles for anthropologists in applied and emergency healthcare settings; and

●      Indigenous, unconventional and under-studied aspects of community resilience.

(2)  Policy and Program Developments. Sustained research is also called for because the policy environment istaking shape both domestic and globally. Four examples pertain: (a) The Gavi / COVAX alliance which is intended to give equitable global access to vaccines and therapeutics is still in its formative stages. This initiative will set global policy far beyond the current COVID pandemic. Policy affecting disease surveillance is also in a formativestage. (b)

According to The Economist, the US President’s latest budget includes funds for high-resolution global surveillance ofinfectious disease on a scale comparable to our national weather system1.

(c) In March, 2021, the World Health Organization launched a global pandemic treaty effort to unite nations to overcome infectious disease pandemics, dispel harmful isolationism and nationalism, and address challenges to international cooperation. The WHO global pandemic treaty will foster an all-of-society approach, enhance international research; and enable international cooperation that stretches beyond the current crisis. (d) These policy developments will shape the design and funding of future programs in the broader science and engineering communities. Anthropologists traditionally benefit from the innovations and data generated by these other scienceand technology developments.

(3)  Social Change. An even more obvious reason for sustained scientific interest in COVID is that the pandemic is not over. Societal adjustment to the pandemic is still underway. ‘Herd immunity’ remains elusive even for the developed world, incidence is still increasing globally in the majority of nations, and some experts predict another public health crisis in the near future. Participation by anthropology becomes imperative when one views the pandemic as a cause of broad-based societal change. The study of social change and human adaptation (bothindividual and collective) are themes that have always been central to the discipline of anthropology. It seems imperative, therefore, that SfAA organize to study societal adjustment to persistent public health threats in asustainable, ongoing manner and at a scale comparable to the pandemic.

(4)  Emerging Requirements. Societal adjustment, laboratory research, and technological innovation will continue at an escalated level around the pandemic for the foreseeable future. Anthropologists have a role to play in this research. They will benefit from and need to adjust to these other ongoing sources, if only because most aspects of the pandemic have a global and cross-cultural dimension. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a “greater than average” demand for anthropologists in the coming decade, through 2030. Yet, the details of the role to beplayed by anthropologists in the future is still emerging. The greater the involvement by SfAA members at this formative stage, the more likely they will be to prepare students and faculty to satisfy these emerging requirements.

1 “Science After the Pandemic: Bright Side of the Moonshots”. In The Economist, March 27th, 2021, New York, New York.

(5)  Nature of the Craft. Perhaps the most compelling reason for sustained involvement in COVID research stems from the nature or the craft itself. By nature, anthropology is a ‘relational’ discipline which focuses holistically on the structural and functional relationship between components within complex systems. Before the pandemic, peers, policy makers and the general public were unlikely to consider the inter-relationships between trans-speciesdisease transmission, migration, and deforestation. Today, in contrast, these core anthropological themes arebeing routinely investigated as they relate to the spread of disease. It seems predictable that the holistic and relational outlook of anthropology, as well as its core concepts -- e.g., Rural-Urban Continuum -- will receive increased attention. Anthropologists must prepare in earnest to play a more prominent role in disease surveillance and intervention in the future.

Richard W. Morris, MSE, PhD MGI  (global innovation support TMEMail:

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The following individuals graciously offered suggestions which informed this essay: Matthew Artz, Emily Brunson, Grace Cooper, Elizabeth Rodwell, Stephen Schensul, Valentina Spadea. Despite these good inputs, however, Richard W. Morris is solely responsible for any and all errors and insufficiencies in this essay.

Bibliography. This piece was informed by the following sources. The Economist

2021 “Science After the Pandemic: Bright Side of the Moonshots”. In The Economist, March 27th, 2021, New York,New York.

World Health Organization

2021 “COVID-19 shows why united action is needed in healthcare”. Date: 30 March 2021 .URL: ction-is-needed-for-more-robust-international-health-architecture

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

2019 Exploring Lessons Learned from a Century of Outbreaks: Readiness for 2030: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. .

National Academy of Medicine

2016 The Neglected Dimension of Global Security: A Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. .

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

2020 Public–Private Partnership Responses to COVID-19 and Future Pandemics: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. .

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