Social sciences and the pandemic
As we were preparing for a webinar jointly organized by Ateneo’s Institute of Philippine Culture and the Ugnayang Pang-Agham Tao (UGAT) last Tuesday, Mary Racelis, the moderator, posed a question: What is the role of anthropology in addressing the pandemic? And what about the social sciences?
Her questions are very relevant not just for social scientists, but for those whose work draws inspiration from the social sciences — from writers to development workers to public officials and doctors themselves. After all, as Rudolf Virchow said, “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.”
The answers emerged in the webinar itself. Carin Alejandria of University of Santo Tomas spoke of the impacts of the quarantine in Baseco, relaying, for instance, how some residents have taken to fishing in Manila Bay. Her work points to the first role of the social sciences: to foreground the lived experiences of people affected by the pandemic, and break down these experiences into their myriad aspects, as when Michael Tan’s column in this paper reflects on how “it’s not just life, but also death, that has been put on hold” by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, taking a political economy approach, Josh San Pedro of the Coalition for People’s Right to Health questioned the dominant narrative of “flattening the curve,” arguing that we should also increase health care capacity, and that we must move beyond individual responsibility that’s at the heart of current policies to holding governments accountable for failing to address health inequities. His call to action underscores the second role: to use social theory and ethnographic data to challenge existing paradigms.
My own presentation dwelled on a theme I had articulated in a previous column: identifying vulnerable populations based on health, social, and economic disparities. Drawing on Merrill Singer’s notion of “syndemics,” I argued that we cannot “covidize” people’s lives by assuming that the virus is their paramount, or sole, concern. This brings me to another task for the social sciences: to situate the pandemic within various geographic, and social, cultural contexts, and relate it to other forms of suffering.
Social scientists can inform communications campaigns and health policies by anticipating sources of (mis)information and (mis)trust—and understanding where people’s perceptions about the pandemic are coming from. Even today, Mark Nichter’s work in the 1990s of how “mahina ang baga (weak lungs)” structured people’s thinking about tuberculosis remains a model of how illness semantics matter. In the case of COVID-19, social scientists have taken the lead in criticizing the term “social distancing,” arguing that we should actually be striving to bridge social distance.
The webinar had an all-anthropology cast, but every discipline has something to contribute. Without historians like Ambeth Ocampo and Francis Gealogo writing about epidemics in the past, and without writer-scholars like Jose Rizal making journal entries about them, how would we know what happened, and what it felt like? We also need sociologists and political scientists to reflect on how citizens and their leaders respond to health crises, as when Randy David calls out the “optics of power” manifest in the government’s lockdown measures, or when Jayeel Cornelio writes on how grief is a “powerful emotion that can bring us together.”
Using our different lenses, we have a duty, as Thea Kersti Tandog of UP Mindanao puts it in the inaugural entry in UGAT’s Talaarawan project, to “bear witness” to the pandemic, and to make our voices—and those of our interlocutors—heard.
Finally, social scientists can make themselves useful beyond their disciplinal knowledge and help out in their capacity as concerned citizens, helping hands, warm bodies. The opening of Palma Hall—home of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy in UP Diliman—as Kanlungang Palma, a quarantine facility, is both symbol and substance of this kind of engaged scholarship: What has always been a place of learning has been turned into a place of healing: a repurposing that we must all embody.
In many ways, all of the above have always characterized the role of the social sciences in public health and nation-building, a role which the pandemic is forcefully reminding us.
We have much work to do.
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