Linguistic Anthropology and COVID-19

A post-COVID-19 “return to normal” implies a continuation of the very cultural, linguistic, and economic practices that precipitated the pandemic. Scholars of language and communication must do better.

Language and health are co-constituted. This is evident across a range of contexts, from the role of narrative in the cultural construction of illness and healing to the discursive construction of medical authority, but it becomes especially clear when studying infectious diseases. As linguistic anthropologist Charles L. Briggs theorizes in his work on communicative/ health inequities, discourse about pathogens shapes infection patterns and rates; and this might thereby impact the mutation of pathogens themselves. Here, language makes certain entities portable and limits others’ portability—entities such as medical knowledge, funding, health professionals, medicine (including vaccines), and pathogens. With COVID-19, we have watched the impact of communication on illness unfold tragically in real time, as socioeconomic inequities that predate the pandemic have been retrenched through public and governmental responses to the virus. Briggs has also recently suggested that “retooling anthropology to face the current pandemic could inspire us to work more humbly, to create smaller, more nimble analytics and ethnographic practices designed to produce new ways of thinking and dialoguing.” Scholarship on language, culture, and COVID-19 that has been published over the past year tells us much about how patterns in language and communication have shaped the course of the pandemic. My own work on global health discourses, utilizing scholarship critical of techno-optimism and its application in public health, argues against a post-pandemic “return to normal.”

As has been the case during other infectious disease outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic has led many people to alter conventions for interpersonal encounters and face-to-face communication. Julia Katila, Yumei Gan, and Marjorie H. Goodwin examine these “new haptic trajectories,” analyzing the conversational moves through which people negotiate interaction rituals amid social distancing. Here, the term haptic trajectories refers to the temporal structuring of conversational actions involving touch and motion in face-to-face encounters. The authors include a conversation analysis of three types of responses made by politicians when one party offered a handshake—repairing, declining, and apologizing. In these examples from encounters among elites, social distancing is a choice. In the context of racialized socioeconomic inequities, on the other hand, many BIPOC workers in the United States and elsewhere have been forced to continue employment in jobs that require close physical contact without sufficient government-mandated protections or support. This is one of many causes of racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and health outcomes. In conjunction with research on haptic trajectories, this suggests that one space for potential intervention into COVID-19 discourses would be to emphasize how power, authority, and inequities shape the haptic trajectories of interpersonal encounters during the pandemic. It also indicates that there is more space for linguistic anthropologists to contribute perspectives on how the “communicable” (in communicable diseases) is constituted primarily through human behavior in interpersonal, face-to-face (communicative) encounters.

A three-dimensional printed model of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle
Image description: A three-dimensional printed model of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, a blue sphere with red notes emerging from it.
Caption: 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—virus particle.
NIH (CC PDM 1.0)

One core difficulty of managing such human behavior in public health contexts stems from the fact that human sociality is not just cultural but also biological, and has physiological and psychological components and implications. Augustín Fuentes discusses this with Krista Tippet in the On Being podcast, emphasizing that humans and COVID-19 are in a “multispecies moment.” This moment is rooted in the fact that “humans evolved as beings whose needs to touch and be touched, to converse, debate, and laugh together, to smile and flirt with one another, and to interact in groups, are central to healthy lives.” Though I am not an expert on such topics, there is much more to be said here on how viruses have evolved to exploit human sociality specifically in human communication patterns. And as Charlotte Roberts, Gabriel Wrobel, and Michael Westaway explain, there is also more to be said on how this has been linked to social inequities since at least the beginnings of agriculturally-based states as a form of political-economic organization.

As a contemporary instantiation of these social inequities, racial disparities in health are rooted in a broader range of pervasive inequities that predate but have continued into the pandemic. This includes a number of communicative/ health inequities that are not unique to the United States. A special issue of Multilingua edited by Jie Zhang and Jia Li presents case studies from China and the global Chinese diaspora on discourse about COVID-19. These case studies discuss lack of translation of public health messaging in multilingual disaster relief contexts, lack of access to crisis communication and public health information among international students and linguistic minorities, and the use of poetry and verbal art for intercultural pandemic communication. Many of the articles in the special issue provide much-needed attention to how language barriers limit access to public health information in multilingual contexts, emphasizing how the consequences of this affect people from already marginalized and minoritized communities. This is one way that communicative/health inequities shape the course of pandemics.

Xenophobia and xenophobic discourse is another problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A COVID-19 forum in Language, Culture, and Society discusses stigma, fears of contagion, and anti-Asian xenophobia in the United States and England, including an auto-ethnographic examination of self-silencing in response to rampant racialization of the virus. My contribution to this forum focuses on the interplay between xenophobia, stigma, and communicable models. In that piece, I am especially interested in deconstructing and critiquing the claim made in some public discourses that xenophobia is a “normal” reaction to COVID-19. In the United States, anti-Asian xenophobic discourse has shaped COVID-19 most directly through its enactment by former president Trump in the early months of the pandemic. At that time, the idea of closing borders, and in particular limiting travel from China, yielded a false sense of security tied to government inaction on other fronts. Adia Benton also discusses the racist underpinnings of this fixation on borders and its epidemiological implications in a piece that is part of a COVID-19 forum in the medical anthropology blog Somatosphere. The US government’s inaction and Trump’s xenophobic discourse on China allowed the virus to spread throughout the United States more widely and quickly than it would have otherwise.

My academic interest in COVID-19 discourses is rooted in both my previous work on HIV discourse in South Africa and also my current project (2016–present), The Global Health Discourses Project (for other scholarship on the discursive construction of global health, see Betsey Brada’s research). In my research, I have noticed that global health professionals rely heavily on techno-optimism when they tell stories about their work. Briefly, techno-optimism refers to a belief in the superiority of science, medical knowledge, and technology for solving complex human problems—a pervasive though problematic public health outlook. Historically, as scholar of the history of medicine Randall M. Packard explains, this sort of perspective has been linked with targeted health interventions that use medical technology to avoid having to address the structural inequities that shape health disparities.

In the United States, techno-optimistic discourse has been on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in discussions of vaccine development. Techno-optimism is not necessarily always associated with targeted nonstructural interventions (e.g., Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health work in Haiti and elsewhere), but in contemporary public and global health discourses, the two almost always appear together. This pairing is also part and parcel of neoliberal capitalism’s approach to health care, which focuses on privatization at the expense of a robust public health system, and is evident in US government responses to the pandemic. What could be more techno-optimistic than narrowly focusing on the creation of a magic-bullet intervention without attention to details such as how to change employment practices, safety standards, access to care, and sick leave policies in low-wage labor to reduce the burden of infection for low-income communities; how to make sure that people are vaccinated quickly and equitably in low- and middle-income countries; and how to address rampant environmental degradation—caused by global neoliberal capitalism—that has resulted in increased human contact with wildlife and thus increased incidence of zoonosis.

In addition to these often-overlooked issues, public health officials now face the problem of convincing a surprisingly wide swath of the public to be vaccinated. As Emily Brunson and Monica Schoch-Spana point out, one simple lexical shift to aid in this effort might have been to not use the term “warp speed” in US government vaccine development efforts, as “speedy development is not a characteristic that most people care to have associated with medical interventions.” These authors also overview the pervasive history of medical inequities and abuse that lead many from marginalized communities to reject vaccination and public health messaging about vaccination as unreliable or untrustworthy.

Many public discourses seem fixated on vaccine development in part because many people want to “return to normal.” I do not think that we should want this. Normal would mean continuing with unsustainable, inequitable economic patterns that result in environmental degradation, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, and high levels of income inequality—in short, continuing the sorts of cultural, linguistic, and economic practices that have led to the pandemic in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for public and global health efforts; but as Briggs suggests, it should also be a wake-up call for scholars who study language, health, and inequities. It is past the time when we can cordon off any of these topics and relegate them to distinct subfields.

Steven P. Black is associate professor of anthropology at Georgia State University. He is the author of Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health, and is coeditor (with Lynnette Arnold) of a special issue of Medical Anthropology titled, “Communicating Care.”

Catherine Rhodes, Steven Black, and Thea Strand are the section contributing editors for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Cite as: Black, Steven P. 2021. “Linguistic Anthropology and COVID-19.” Anthropology News website, March 26, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1606

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