Why we need social sciences and the humanities to live with Covid-19

Around the world, many countries that have already undergone lockdowns or other strict containment measures for some time, are now embarking, or about to embark, in gradual reopenings. One of the main concerns in people’s minds is how to get ourselves out of the quarantine we have found ourselves in. Even where the numbers are encouraging and the curves are starting to move in the direction we desire, the fear of a second wave of infections is palpable. Most of us are aware of the delicate balance between the need for easing the restrictions on human movement, and that of protecting the gains made in slowing down the spread of Covid-19.

The question of the day is: how are we going to learn to live with Covid-19? It seems the virus is here to stay and, at least until a vaccine is found, we are going to have to learn to get along with our unruly guest as best we can.

Economic forecasts warn that the global economy is heading into a deep recession, and hint that the deaths and suffering this could cause might match or surpass those caused by Covid-19. What is becoming apparent is that our quarantine comes at a heavy price, and there is now a major dialectical tension between two imperatives: keeping the virus “under control” and trying to “save” our economies.

Anthropologists, geographers and other qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars have done important work that can shed some light on the current dilemmas and pressing need for reasoned and effective action.

Trojan pigs and Trojan viruses

The dynamic tension between keeping invisibles such as bacteria and viruses at bay while safeguarding economic interests, has already been explored at length by anthropologist Guntra Aistara and geographer Elizabeth Dunn in the field of food safety standards.

Aistara and Dunn have studied European Union food safety laws and their effects on farming in post-socialist countries such as Latvia and Poland. Their works show that these laws are often used not merely to enforce necessary food standards, but also to promote big business at the expense of small scale farmers.

In a 2003 academic article, Elizabeth Dunn focused on the effect of European Union Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (EU SPS) on small scale farmers in Poland. She argues that, even though the EU SPS are presented as based on “scientifically factual rules” drawn from the international food standards of the Codex Alimentarius, they have the effect of “profoundly changing local agricultural infrastructures”.

Dunn’s work shows that, in the Polish context, these rules have been used to close many small pig farms, and opened the national market to multinational corporations such as Smithfield Foods. These regulations have helped to create an “uneven playing field” for farmers in Poland, all under the pretext of keeping the public safe from food contamination.

To capture the essence of this process, Dunn uses the metaphor of “Trojan pig”, paraphrasing the Trojan horse trope: regulations are here introduced with undeclared agendas and consequences "sneaking in" along the way.

Guntra Aistara has made similar arguments in her account of Latvian small scale food producers, whose work often became illegal after the introduction of EU SPS regulations. Aistara’s research shows that here too food hygiene standards are intimately related to free trade policies, and EU SPS laws have enabled the entry of global capital into new markets, squeezing out small scale producers. Small scale farmers cannot pay for the infrastructure needed to comply with these new food safety standards.

Both scholars highlight the paradox that the implementation of safety standards initially intended to diminish the risk of contamination, may actually increase that risk. Small scale producers move into unregulated grey markets, contributing to the emergence of what Dunn calls in another study “‘zones of wildness’ where contamination is rampant”. The regulations end up taming the unruly invisibles – such as bacteria that can contaminate food – only on paper.

Will we see similar “side effects” today as Covid-19 infection control measures are implemented to ensure a safe reopening of the economy? Will Covid-19 be used as a “Trojan virus” to pursue undeclared agendas that have little to do with the need to contain the infection?

All across the world, small businesses, often family-run enterprises, play a major role in providing incomes and jobs for a large number of people. Will these businesses be marginalised if they are not put in a condition to reopen due to costly safety measures? Will the state help them bear this cost, or favour big business which has more resources and benefits from economies of scale when implementing significant changes to economic activities?

Funding social sciences and the humanities

Another major concern as the negative economic effects deepen, is that calls to “save the economy” might quickly turn into plans to make savings at the expense of workers and citizens, that is more cuts and austerity further slashing public budgets when people are in most need of state support.

As an anthropologist, I am particularly concerned about how such measures might impact funding for the social sciences and the humanities. We are already seeing news of universities retrenching staff and gearing up for budget cuts. Here too, there is a danger that pre-pandemic trends in a certain direction might be reinforced. The value of social sciences and humanities has been increasingly questioned by neoliberal approaches that privilege “hard sciences” such as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Will cuts to higher education budgets be used as an alibi to redistribute more funding to STEM disciplines, at the expense of social sciences and humanities?

The answer to that will probably vary in different national contexts, but much will also depend from the perception of the usefulness of social sciences and humanities in the current effort to fight Covid-19. We do not design ventilators, we do not develop vaccines, we think about social life.

Yet it is precisely this interest in social life that enables us to make a crucial contribution to the pressing collective need to learn to live with Covid-19. As I mentioned in an earlier article in this blog, if we start from the assumption that our relationship with Covid-19 is not something merely biological, but has important social dimensions, then social scientists and humanities scholars have much to say about it. In the same piece, I showed how bacteria and viruses are persons too, albeit not human ones, which means they have in a metaphorical sense agency – they “do” things to us and to the world around us.

The need for interdisciplinary research

The opposition between social and hard sciences is in fact a bit of a fiction, and not a useful one. In reality, the biological aspects of life are entangled at all stages with the social ones – to the point that it is often hard to draw the boundaries between the two. This means that interdisciplinary work where social and natural scientists and humanities scholars collaborate to study common challenges, is essential. The burden also falls on us in the social sciences and humanities to make a strong argument in this direction, and show the general public and institutional funders why our insight is so badly needed.

The existence of a social life so to speak of bacteria and viruses is something well established in our fields. But we are increasingly seeing an acknowledgement of the usefulness of the social metaphor among natural and medical scientists as well.

In a 2009 TED talk entitled “How bacteria speak”, microbiologist  Bonnie Bassler pushes the metaphor to describe how bacteria “talk” to each other, how they “hold votes” on whether it is time to attack their host together. She also draws from the metaphor of multilingualism to show that bacteria are able to “speak” to other species using some kind of bacterial “Esperanto”. In another co-authored article, Bassler describes the communal living of bacteria and discusses issues of “fratricide”.

Other examples include the work of biological physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob, who coined the term “bacteria art” to refer to the beautiful fractal patterns that bacteria make in their organisation of social space. A collaborative study by scholars in biology, genetics and zoology proposes the establishment of a new field, sociovirology, where virus-to-virus interactions are studied through the framework of social evolution theory.

The problems these works discuss appear very familiar. Our expertise in all things social is not something that natural scientists can do without. Although we might not be able to engage in direct conversations with our colleagues in the natural and medical sciences about the specific biological features of Covid-19, or the pernicious effects it has on the human body, what we can do is influence their inquiries by making them think with our analytical tool box, which comprises a wide range of well articulated and empirically tested conceptualisations of social life. This is what we have been working on for centuries.

The hard sciences need our theoretical knowledge if we are to find safe ways to co-habit with invisibles such as Covid-19. We better not forget that these non-human agents were in this world way before us, and they are not going to go away any time soon.

Sarah Czerny is an Assistant Professor in social anthropology, and works at the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Rijeka, Croatia. She has a long term interest in human/non-human relations, particularly human relations with invisible critters, and has just finished the manuscript "Milky Ways: An Exploration into the (Non)Humanisation of Milk".

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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