The corona pandemic has confronted people all over the world with something that was and still is unpredictable, but more than that it has confronted people with their fragility. The fragility of the human body, social systems, health care systems, economic systems, political systems and the fragility of what is generally believed to be everyday life. As a PhD student in anthropology, I have been confronted with my work as an academic and as an ethnographer, and the fragility of what I believed to be an asset to society. In this essay I am sharing my situation, concerns and hopes for the future that might come after the ‘crisis’ for myself, society and academia.
What humanity has been witnessing in the recent times, starting towards the end of 2019 and what is still holding us in a tight grip, locking us into our houses and homes, introduced to us in numbers and news is simply not visible. This is such a – even though frightening – beautiful paradox of the way nature and culture relate and communicate to each other. So, the consequences of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are extremely visible within societies all over the world, its own visibility is something that the human eye cannot capture. The average person will always only know and remember the experiential part of SARS-CoV-2. An experience that was mainly shaped by the politics of breath.
„We’ve been living the politics of breath— who gets held down and strangled by police and who does not; who has to fear that and who does not; who gets access to oxygen, respirators, ventilators and who does not; who are told to stay home, who are required to be exposed, who are trapped in crowded institutions, who can self-isolate, who are provided protection and who are not; who can get tested and who cannot.“ (Pratt, 2020:1)
Pratt summarizes the divisions that the virus disclosed within society. Divisions between privileged and less privileged, between the young and the older, between the essential and the dispensable, between the symptomatic and the asymptomatic, between the obedient and the disobedient. The list of divisions one could draw is likely to be continued. However, paradoxically enough these divisions within societies and between individuals are often being made in the name of solidarity. How successful is a unity that has come about through division? And is this even something achievable at all? Will societies be more united after what we are experiencing, or will we be more aware of the divisions that have been made visible?
Medicine is a powerful force within society. It is one of the domains where humans believe to have conquered the natural, the biological. However, it is a domain in which there are no answers to the whys, but plenty of responses for the how. While scientists can explain how illnesses function, how illnesses’ trajectories are likely to proceed, how these might be treated and how high the percentage for recovery, they lack the answers for the why the illness emerged in the first place. Obviously, it is possible to trace back causes and infection chains (as it has been done in many countries through digital apps), still this does not reply to why I got infected and my partner living with me under the same roof did not. Why some people just carry a virus and other people in same health conditions die of it. This is the unpredictability of life, of nature. This is where religion attaches in the societal net. It is the domain in which knowledge phases out and only beliefs can carry thoughts further.
Easy to forget, humans are as natural as their surroundings and as such part of nature, humans too constantly evolve, develop and die. The body thus should rather be viewed as a subject, instead of an object (cf. Mol and Law, 2004).
“We all have and are a body. But there is a way out of this dichotomous twosome. As part of our daily practices, we also do (our) bodies. In practice we enact them. If the body we have is the one known by pathologists after our death, while the body we are is the one we know ourselves by being self-aware, then what about the body we do? What can be found out and said about it? Is it possible to inquire into the body we do? And what are the consequences if action is privileged over knowledge?” (Mol and Law, 2004:45)
The body-we-are is non-stop communicating. As the body-we-are is based on the self-awareness we have developed for our bodily existence, it depends on each individual to know or not know about the body-they-is. Therefore, any bodily sign might be mis-/judged, mis-/interpreted, un-/aware by individuals. The individual’s response to it, is what Mol and Law (2004) termed the body-we-do.
“What this suggests is that the assumption that we have a coherent body or are a whole hides a lot of work. This is work someone has to do. You do not have, you are not, a body-that- hangs-together, naturally, all by itself. Keeping yourself whole is one of the tasks of life. It is not given but must be achieved, both beneath the skin and beyond, in practice.” (Mol and Law, 2004:57)
The body-we-do, keeping ourselves together, can be a challenging task. Puberty might be one of the moments in which people are actively and consciously relating to and/or confronted with the body-they-are. It is not always easy to mediate between the body-we-are and the body-we-do. The task becomes even more complex, if we are suddenly concerned towards both directions, namely in- and outside.
“The self-aware body has semi-permeable boundaries. But not only does what was outside the body come inside, but there is also movement in the other direction.” (Mol and Law, 2004:52)
What happens when the body-I-do clashes and potentially harms the body-others-have? Suddenly, above being concerned about my own bodily needs and signs, I now have to create a sensitivity towards the bodily needs of others. So, I might be well aware of my medical record and the body-I-am, how can I be aware of the bodies-they-are? And so, all I become aware of is the threat that the body-I-do poses to others and all ethical issues that might go hand in hand with it.
As an ethnographer I am interested in the lived experience and everyday lives of others. An experience which I will not be able to share with them under the current situation. Moreover, I realize how the everyday life of people has been shattered – for some to the worse, for others more or less indifferently depending on which division they belong to. For those whose everyday life conditions have taken a turn to the worse, and by this, I mean existential fears and inhuman work or living conditions (and I personally consider complete isolation an inhuman living condition), I ask myself what am I doing for these people? Staying home? Very unlikely that this is going to bring about a change in their lives. For those, who as me, have the privilege to stay home, work from a computer, get a full salary, have a health insurance, are free of chronical diseases, have nothing to fear about except boredom, I wonder do they feel as useless as I do? As an anthropologist I have always believed my task to be creating a sort of sensitivity between and amongst people. Right now, I am questioning if academia is the place where I will be able to achieve this. And if it is not rather out there, where I am supposed to be.
For what will come after this period, I hope it will have reminded us that all humans-are-a-body and all humans-do-a-body, we all relate and influence each other. We are all fragile towards ourselves and towards each other in the same ways. We all have a responsibility towards ourselves and towards each other, because as human beings we are never divided, as this world pandemic has brutally shown. Thus, the responsibility goes beyond wearing a mask or getting a vaccine, it is a responsibility that is not woven in medical or ethical concerns, but in the most natural fact that the interest of one, is the interest of all – to secure one’s life, whatever one may wish for it to look like…
“It was a consequential choice: A price will be paid. We don’t know how great, but we will know what it was for and we’re OK with it. Freedom requires risk.” (Pratt, 2020:3)
Pratt, M. L. (2020) Airways. Anthropology Now, 12:2, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1824789.
Mol, A. & Law, J. (2004) Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: The Example of Hypoglycaemia. Body & Society, 10(2-3), 43-62.