What the Coronavirus Crisis Needs From Anthropology

There is much to say on what the COVID-19 crisis tells us about our current human condition, the efficacy of governance by nation-states, the effectiveness and inevitability of global institutions, and significantly the implication of all this for anthropology.

In previous publications, I stressed the need for taking a “whole system” or integrated approach of balance and harmony, whether though worldviews or actual governance, situated in cultural context to meet today’s needs, and moving away from abstract dichotomous polarities in our thinking and analyses. What the coronavirus crisis tells us today is that we are a global world, interconnected and interdependent through governance by nation-states (some tribal-based), and in critical need of world organizations (such as the World Health Organization), and should be informed by a scientific education aiming at building minds. It also demonstrates the possibilities of solidarity, assistance, and exchange even along “enemy” lines.

Anthropology can add comparative, knowledgeable comments about why “rich” countries suffer the most, and why we humans are all in this together.

The very notion of leadership is being tested. Capital is posed against human welfare. Governance cannot continue with business as usual, prioritizing the global economy over human welfare. People want to be sure knowledge about the disease is scientific. They want their governments to take measures to protect them not to protect capital. Is this possible when the two are now so interconnected by globalization processes? During grave global crises of the kind the spread of coronavirus is producing, the people are demanding protection based on scientific knowledge. Anthropology is in the best position to provide a global cross-cultural perspective.

There are sober calls for leadership mastering scientific knowledge to inform the regular folk about the nature of this medical calamity and how to intelligently deal with it. Will governance protect capital over human survival or can we protect both? The usual approach assuming that dominant, industrialized nations are immune to such pandemics by comparison with developing countries must be questioned. This is the moment in which anthropology can produce comparative understanding using “even terrain” approaches. Why is it that the most dominant and strongest nations are now showing the worst record? How is it that a country like Egypt is having small numbers of cases?

All predictions suggest that developing systems with so-called weaker public health services will have the largest number of cases. So far it is the industrialized “Global North” that is showing the highest numbers. Why? Perhaps we can learn about medical, social-cultural practices from the lower number nations instead of waiting until they “catch up.” Worldwide fear about the threat of the virus is turning into demands for “scientific-based” data, facts, and medically sound treatments. But anthropology can add comparative, knowledgeable comments about why “rich” countries suffer the most, and why we humans are all in this together.

The model of dominance and power has shifted, as the infection is not limited by borders, frontiers, or military dominance. The global field is level. Instead, the current coronavirus crisis uncovered a real need for scientific knowledge in our world, integrated with society and culture, and linking elements of governance—global, nation-state, media and social media, local groups and communities, and education—that is based on data, analytical rigor, and the anthropological gaze.

Fadwa El Guindi is a retired four-field sociocultural anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who writes widely and lectures internationally. She also is a trustee at the World Academy of Art & Science, a think tank for generating ideas and insights about global affairs.

Cite as: El Guindi, Fadwa. 2020. “What the Coronavirus Crisis Needs From Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, April 27, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1394

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