Anthropologists answer four questions about the pandemic – Kidron – – American Anthropologist
Question # 1: Where are you located and how severe is or was the pandemic in your region, country or location?
I live in Jerusalem, but I am chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Haifa. We have had three large waves of coronavirus, and although we have had a relatively low death toll, over the waves we have had a very high rate of cases per million in our population. We were in full containment during the peak of each of our waves. We are currently in our third lockdown. Between the closures, schools and small businesses have also been closed, for most of the past year. The university has been on Zoom since the start of our spring semester last year. Many small business owners have gone bankrupt and our economy is a major concern, as are political instability and a sense of disenfranchisement. However, despite the great challenge to emotional well-being given the very profound changes in daily family and professional life and the perpetual experience of precariousness, we appear to be extremely resilient.
Question # 2: How has the pandemic affected you, your family, the institution where you work and your work as an anthropologist?
Although the first month of the pandemic was frightening, with great concern for loved ones and doomsday associations abounding, a strange sense of routine eventually took hold. While I didn’t see myself as someone who needed a lot of personal space, being at home required setting limits. At the same time, as the department manager, there was a sense of urgency and responsibility and a huge amount of new challenges, for example to set up distance learning, frequent departmental Zoom meetings and news. ways to stay in touch with students, let alone retain new applicants. Our graduate students were forced to either redesign their research projects or put their projects on hold. My own research, which included observations and interviews at the homes of the interlocutors, was interrupted. I postponed the fieldwork to Cambodia and had to freeze my grant from the Israel Science Foundation for national commemoration.
Question # 3: Do you blame anyone for the pandemic and, if so, who or what, and why?
The coronavirus in Israel, as in many places, has been politicized. The existing divides in Israeli politics have intensified and some are on the verge of a major rupture. It is difficult to enforce COVID regulations in two traditional sectors – ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations and, to a lesser extent, in some Arab-Israeli populations. The government’s political ignorance of ultra-Orthodox behaviors (key players in our unstable government) has been infuriating. On a more positive note, the massive participation in protests against government corruption in Israel offers hope for a more democratic future.
Question # 4: Are there aspects of the pandemic that anthropology helps you see?
There has been a lot of talk about risk and oversight. In this short answer, I prefer to refer to micro-anthropological phenomenological observations concerning interactions on Zoom and interactions offline. Compared to our first few months of awkward interactions with Zoom, an interesting form of intimacy has emerged that is totally absent from face-to-face classroom interactions. For teachers sensitive to face-to-face work, the experience of observing the reactions of twenty students (close-up) in a four-hour seminar is exhausting. However, at one point, from the comfort of their own homes with family members appearing and disappearing in the background, the students began to share fascinating and more personal and confident readings of the course material. Interaction between students has also become more relaxed and intimate, triggering more group interactions outside of class on WhatsApp. I myself have allowed the students to deviate from the planned route and discuss ways in which they can apply the theory to their fieldwork. Outside of the classroom, between closures, it seems that despite or due to social distancing, more effort is put into face and eye work when meeting with friends and acquaintances, and there is a new appreciation for the importance of sociality. I would also add that it has been fascinating to watch the many transitions and embodied responses of disbelief, fear and panic gradually turn into a bizarre normalcy and, now with the vaccine, a false or premature complacency. The body remains a central site of self-management, not only for physical and emotional health and well-being, but also for the creative negotiation of new forms of expression and interaction that protect oneself and others during pandemic. As a psychological anthropologist, it seems to me that in Israel there is less person-centered discourse around depression and anxiety than in other societies. After Israel’s shift to late modern individualism, there appears to be a recursive movement toward empowerment through more traditional family sociality and maintaining friendships (online). Emotional distress is mainly related to the temporary isolation of grandparents and aging parents and to economic uncertainty.