Counting Invisible Populations

The precariousness of urban life is brought into full perspective by those who are otherwise invisible. As the coronavirus spread across the United States this past spring, New York City became the epicenter of the global pandemic. At the heart of the epicenter was Jackson Heights in the borough of Queens, said to be the most diverse neighborhood in the country, where some 167 languages are spoken.  The majority of the neighborhood’s impoverished working masses—many immigrating from Latin America and the Asian subcontinent, living in illegal rental units typically overcrowded and overpriced, and navigating precarious immigration statuses—were hit particularly hard. Their lack of access to health care, low-paying jobs, reliance on public transport, and the customary practice of living with extended kin or rooming with several other tenants in order to make rent, helped the virus ravage this community.

Ethnography is especially adept at bearing witness to people’s lives, but our perspectives are necessarily premised on a small scale that does not capture the enormity of thousands of lives gone in just one neighborhood.

Given the unequal nature of life in global metropoles, populations often living in the shadows shine a hotter spotlight on urban inequality and the jaggedness of a neoliberal calculus that has scaled back even the most basic services during a time of crisis. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recorded 7,260 coronavirus cases among the neighborhood’s 600,000 residents. Local and national papers noticed the death toll and began reporting on the passing of neighborhood personalities, including one of the city’s important long-time transgender activists, Lorena Borjas, as well as other leaders among the community. But reporting on the toll taken on the neighborhood is difficult without a fuller sense of population totals as well as virus-related deaths. These gaps in numbers ultimately raise questions that we may not be able to answer—how can anthropology help render visible a sense of the quantity of lives lost in the shadows?

Statistics has been employed by the social sciences for understanding populations with regard to the use of modern categories. Through practices of counting and categorizing, it makes individuals visible and, by extension, governable. The art of governance is premised on a formula for addressing security, territory, and population by allowing states to intervene in the fields of economy and population. Populations enable sovereignty since effective governance is dependent upon a savoir put to practice upon bodies, beginning with the family unit. On the year of a regular population count, this largely immigrant neighborhood’s participation in Census 2020 is at an historic low. Discussions about adding a citizenship status question to this year’s census discouraged participation among a cautious public. By the time the wave of deaths swept through the region, a sense of the area’s demographic and economic profiles was already hard to trace. The strict quarantine complicates improving that count, which can lead to significant losses, including governmental representation in a district playing a critical role in changing national politics. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the new members of Congress who has captured national attention for her progressive politics and outspoken manner, represents Jackson Heights and the Bronx. Her seat can be eliminated without an accurate count of residents in this district. Numbers matter in varying ways and are impacted by political strategies intended to diffuse population numbers and lessen the importance of those on the margins.

Further, anthropologists are also hindered from doing what makes the field so critical at historic moments like this one in that we cannot share in the lives of our study participants as before.  What do we do when we can hardly see our contributors through masks and at a distance of six feet at our closest? Capturing a sense of the vibrant lives lost requires new entry points and renewed solidarities, but what kind of a scope does a total number of deaths bring? Ethnography is especially adept at bearing witness to people’s lives, but our perspectives are necessarily premised on a small scale that does not capture the enormity of thousands of lives gone in just one neighborhood. When we wrap our collective minds around the failures of governance, we see the threats to security in the form of a pandemic exacerbated by economic and political pressures leave us short on knowledge of the vulnerable, further revealing that invisible populations suffer visibly from multiple social pathologies.

Melissa Zavala is a lecturer in anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Cite as: Zavala, Melissa. 2020. “Counting Invisible Populations.” Anthropology News website, September 11, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1488

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