cartoon by Thembo Kash
Doomsday or just another crisis?
By An Ansoms, Anuarite Bashizi, Emmanuelle Piccoli, Jean-Luc Brackeleire, Matthieu De Nanteuil
Since early 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic has resulted into a global crisis of which the severity by far exceeds the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Social scientists worldwide are trying to make sense of the crisis. Over the past few months, various authors have been asking important questions around the ethical challenges of such research. Who has the opportunity and the right to produce science in and around Covid-19 and what are the power dynamics that determine its guidelines? (Cogburn, 2020) What are the ethical and emotional challenges researchers will face? Should we think about how to do research "from a distance"? Or should we reject tendencies to subcontract research and favor the presence "on the spot" in order to be able to confront the realities on the ground? (Baczko et Dorronsoro, 2020) Should we consider COVID-19 as a particular event around which navigate a series of logistical complications that we must face as a researcher? Or should we approach the current crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally question our research practices and our interaction with all the actors in the chain of production of scientific knowledge? (Nyenyezi, 2020).
Next to these challenges around how to do research, there are also important questions in relation to the focus of that research. Scholars have been studying the way in which populations worldwide have been politically, socially and economically affected by Covid-19 (Borrell, 2020; Perrot, 2020), and which strategies international organizations, states and populations have put in place in order to manage and/or cope with this epidemic (Guilbaud, 2020). However, within this emerging social science literature on Covid-19, there are three important shortcomings.
Interconnection between crises - First, in focusing upon the magnitude of the Covid-19 crisis and its political, social, and economic consequences, scholars underestimate the way in which this epidemic crisis interconnects and interacts with other crises. Indeed, all throughout history, the interaction between human and nature has been marked by cycles of crises and epidemics (Kelly, Keck, Lynteris, 2019). Both frequency, scope and depth of those have intensified over the past two decades (Vedie, 2020) and have deepened the imprint of the Anthropocene (Gemenne et al., 2019). As argued by several scholars (Dupuy, 2004; Balibar, 2010; Sassen, 2014), we are now dealing with the irreversible destruction of ecosystems and life forms. This requires a redefinition of the very notion of crisis, seeing it not merely as a source of injustice demanding reparation, but as the seat of cycles of violence that durably alter life and potentially entail insurmountable trauma. In this respect, we see Covid-19 by no means as an anomaly but rather an additional crisis next to other epidemics (see f.e. Bashizi et al. 2021; Congo Research Group 2020), interconnected with a bundle of climatic, natural resource, and security crises of which the analysis requires a systemic approach (Hoffman, Olivier-Smith, 2002).
Lessons from the global rural south - Second, the contextual focus of a lot of social sciences Covid-19 literature is concentrated upon Western settings, and – in the global South - upon densely populated cities with a special focus upon slums (Gamba et al, 2020; Bringel, Pleyers, 2020). We argue however, that a lot is to be learned from research focusing upon rural environments in the Global South, preferably through a comparative and socio-historic perspective. In these regions, epidemics (both human, animal and vegetal) have since long interacted with other climatic, resource and security crises, reconfiguring people’s interactions with their livelihoods, their living environment, and their social lifeworlds (Moulin, 2015). In addition, populations in rural settings have often been confronted with public policy crisis management marked by international prescriptions and urban bias, and by top-down orientation. The disconnect between public policy and local realities of rural living environments (Olivier de Sardan, 1995; Parker & Allen, 2019) – and the reactions of the populations concerned - throughout previous and ongoing epidemic, climate, resource and security crises needs to be studied, as its lessons are of extreme relevance for Covid-19 crisis management. In doing so, ‘the rural’ should not be considered in disconnection with urban environments. In their daily or seasonal lives, many people navigate in between rural and urban spaces (Cortes et Faret, 2009); and during the Covid-19 crisis, the rural environment served as a refuge for quite some urban populations (temporarily) returning to a rural base in several countries of the Global South (Ruiz Molleda, 2020).
Resilience - Finally, a lot of the current literature on Covid-19 crisis management seems to implicitly align to a rather euro-centric epistemological view upon repair as mitigating the crisis’ impact as much as possible, with - as ultimate ambition - to ‘return to the original situation’ (for a critique, see Attia, 2017). Within such vision, resilience is defined as the capacity to confront, adapt to and overcome crises and shocks (Noris et al., 2008). This conception of resilience is often mobilized in order to reflect upon how policy interventions can enhance and reinforce this capacity to ‘adapt and overcome’. Critics however point to how this top-down policy-oriented lens fails to consider the local and socio-historical context within which resilience is anchored (Bierschenk et Olivier de Sardan, 2014). Within the field of socio-anthropology, critical development studies, and socio-psychology, resilience is seen as people and communities’ capacity to cope with shocks and crises, independently from externally imposed interventions (Ansoms et al. 2018; Kuiper, H. et al., 2019; Brédart et Stassart, 2017; Noris et al., 2008). This literature offers an alternative to the euro-centric epistemological view, by envisaging repair as a way of learning to coexist with the marks of the wound (Perilleux, 2017).
Agency and vulnerability - At the same time, the idea of resilience as the capacity to cope should not be idealized. A too narrow focus upon the agency of populations may partly invisibilise the inherent vulnerability embedded within people’s and communities’ trajectories throughout crises (Ionescu, 2011; De Nanteuil & Múnera Ruiz 2013). It may also ignore the traumatic imprint of structural and conjunctural violence embedded within crises, affecting and breaking down people’s dignity (Brackelaire & al., 2013). Vulnerability and trauma in the psycho-social sense, are to be understood not only in relation to those directly affected, but in relation to social life more broadly, including across generations, within and between communities, and within collective memories that color locally-embedded socio-historically constructed forms of knowledge (Martin-Baró, 1988; Ansión, Peña Jumpa, Rivera Holguin, Villacorata Pino, 2017; Montero & Serrano Garcia, 2011).
In short, a lot can be learned about rural populations’ trajectories of resilience throughout previous and ongoing crises in the global South. Whereas these groups are mostly ignored in emerging social science research around Covid-19, they may teach us a lot about the possibilities and limitations of our societies’ resilience throughout crises.