Eco-risks and Covid-19

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Photo by Arun Kr on

“Everyone was trying to be pleasant… but the faces of the old people were scared. They’ve been around, and today at the grocery store, they were scared.” Small town, Idaho, March 18, 2020.

How do humans understand danger? This is perhaps the most enduring question that I’ve brought to my work in medical anthropology. What makes us afraid? What makes us change our behaviors or seek the help of experts? How do we protect ourselves from dangers large and small?

Covid-19 is our current danger. For some it is a fearsome specter, a death-bringer. For others, it is an inconvenience, a nuisance. The world is focused on this virus with an intensity that is unprecedented.

As an anthropologist I want to understand the processes of how cultures come to grips with a new menace. In past writings, I coined the term eco-risk to explain how cultures try to understand, control, and hopefully vanquish dangers that emanate from the environment. [1]

I use the term “eco-risk” to highlight how individuals and groups  react to dangers that they perceive as coming from their environment (Cartwright 2013). Eco-risk highlights how we create multi-level understandings of risk and danger in three inter-related processes: 1) the process of culturally recognizing and naming the environmental danger; 2) the recognition that is based upon available technologies of perception (pace Foucault), instruments, divination, microscopes and various kinds of ‘tests’ and 3) the articulation of these two things within the legal systems. What counts as evidence?

1) In the case of Covid-19 we have just begun to recognize the danger. As the virus has spread across the map, ideas and information changes. The threat has become more and more real. One by one, cultures are recognizing what this virus can do to individuals, institutions and societies.

2) Our technologies of perception are still faltering. Testing labs, equipment and supplies are inadequate and our protocols are reflecting this weakness. We still can’t see our foe, only those individuals presenting with the most critical symptoms are being tested. The vectors, those individuals with no or less serious symptoms are still untested. The ramifications of testing status, stigma, access to care and to services is another pressing topic for anthropologists to work on.

3) Legal ramifications will come in the kinds of rules we’ll set up for mandating vaccinations (or not), the punishments that we will create for breaking the rules, whatever they will be and the power structures that are established in the wake of this outbreak. 

These three processes play out over time, in ways that reflects cultural values, norms and aspirations.

Environmental threats come in all sizes as Covid-19 demonstrates. We are just getting a glimpse of how our lives are being changed forever by this wee virus that has come out of our environment to confront us.

[1] Cartwright, Elizabeth. 2013. “Eco-Risk and the Case of Fracking.” In Cultures of Energy, edited by Sarah Strauss, Stephanie Rupp, and Thomas Love, 201–12. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press

Elizabeth Cartwright, RN PhD, is a medical and visual anthropologist who works in Latin America–mostly. Her work is focuses on environmental health, social justice and anthropology with an applied focus; she is a professor at Idaho State University in the lovely Rocky Mountains.

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