A cultural interventionist perspective by Bhaskara Venkatesh
Social scientists, anthropologists, in particular, have for some time been recognized as potentially important players in emergency public health efforts, particularly in outbreak response. In 1996, Paul Farmer called for a ‘critical anthropology of emerging infections’—a new field that could identify the social, economic and political factors underpinning health emergencies and thus positively shape the course of health interventions. In the years that followed, Farmer’s call was met by a contingent of researchers eager to use anthropological skills to support outbreak response.
Public health hazards like epidemics or even pandemics have scale and it cut across various cultural, social geographies across the globe, like the ongoing pandemic of COVID 19.
Epidemics do have a pattern, which eminates at one cultural/ social setting and spreads across. In the past 5 decades the world has witnessed and suffered from, Ebola (since 1976 on and off) Sars (2003) H1NI/Swine flu (2009), Zika (2015) and now COVID19 (2019).
Human history has a list of pandemics, with varying fatalities mostly viral in nature with some bacterial pandemics such as Plague being an exception.
Viral pandemics are predominantly “zoonotic” in nature which is inter-species, as human interactions with animals led to transmissions of the virus from animals to humans leading to large breakouts of the epidemic, like H1N1 from birds, COVID19, (pangolins/ bats), Sars (pigs), Ebola (bats).
‘Anthropology is the study of what makes us human.’ Anthropology studies differences in humans (and other primates) through space and time. All humans share the same fundamentals of genetics, physiology, and neurology. Similarly, they share the same basic needs for food, shelter, security, reproduction and social expression. However, the environments, mechanisms, and interactions that humans use to meet their needs vary widely and manifest in surprisingly diverse social, ecological and epigenetic differences among and between individuals and populations. Anthropology starts from these shared fundamentals to examine diversity and variation.
Anthropology encompasses many different subfields, from primatology to museum anthropology. What they have in common is the emphasis on understanding human social and biological variation through a holistic, that is to say multifactorial, perspective: accounting for the influences of history and people’s natural, social and built environments, because of this holistic approach, anthropologists’ subject matter (if not their methods) may overlap with history, economics, sociology, psychology and, increasingly, the health professions.
Given the central importance of social practices in public health emergency (eg, health and hygiene behaviors), emergency responders will most frequently encounter sociocultural anthropologists, who study human social variation: differences in human behaviors, customs, values and outlooks?
There exists an academic debate public health continues to be dominated by a biomedical approach to health. In public health, infectious disease management is a high-priority area due to a large number of existing and emerging infectious diseases, such as malaria, measles, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, etc. All of these poses numerous and complex challenges in detecting and managing them. Anthropological interventions in disease management during outbreaks have proven significantly effective especially to manage epidemics of the social scale.
In recent decades, Anthropology along with other social sciences like psychology, sociology, social statistics, have effectively intervened in controlling infectious diseases like HIV / AIDS and the management of Tuberculosis through DOTS.
In the current COVID-19 crisis, epidemiologists and other health experts are working tirelessly to understand the scale of the problem and to help develop strategies to mitigate risks associated with it.
Anthropological social interventions such as social distancing, rigorous social communication of personal hygiene, generating awareness across various segments to prevent the spread is considered and proven effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the risk of the scale and pressure on health institutions during the outbreak and further on.
It is imperative to focus on inter disciplinary collaboration and approaches involving epidemiologists, social, behavioral scientists and other disciplines in designing innovative, culturally sensitive and precise public health interventions to respond to crises and also enable us to be better prepared for such public health emergencies in future.
About the author
Bhaskara Venkatesh is a master’s in Anthropology and works as a senior manager with the technology industry.