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Open Anthro Vol 8-1 Pandemic Perspectives



Open Anthropology, anthropology, COVID-19 pandemic, Global Health, applied anthropology;public health, public health


Shortly before coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) burst into public consciousness, several anthropologists met to discuss how to prepare for the next global health emergency. During the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Vancouver, we chatted about epidemics and other health emergencies during a reception of the Anthropological Responses to Health Emergencies (ARHE) special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology. An epidemic may not have been a common topic of conversation for most social gatherings at that time in Vancouver. Nevertheless, as medical anthropologists, we were eager to discuss beneficial anthropological interventions with recent disease outbreaks, particularly Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Central Africa, vaccine hesitancy and measles outbreaks globally, and the Zika public health emergency. ARHE members collaborated broadly to organize webinars, update virtual resources, and prepare public health briefs grounded in ethnographic research. Recognizing the importance of anthropology for health emergency responses, we discussed how to synthesize lessons learned in preparation for the inevitable next infectious disease outbreak. The "next" health emergency was right around the corner. On January 20, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. On March 11, 2020, WHO assessment was shifted to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, and since that time, the virus has spread to 184 countries and surpassed 1.2 million confirmed cases globally. This Open Anthropology issue highlights ways that anthropological knowledge can be useful for responding to the initial phase of an emerging pandemic.

This novel coronavirus is, by definition, a new pathogen. Limited and shifting biomedical knowledge exists to reduce transmission and provide treatment. Indeed, as we write this article, a vaccine and clear therapeutic protocols seem quite faraway. In the face of biomedical uncertainty about a highly pathogenic and contagious disease, anthropology’s cross-cultural perspective on epidemics can provide guidance on preparing social and cultural responses that limit human suffering. In other words, COVID-19 is new, but human responses to epidemics are not. This issue of Open Anthropology examines anthropological perspectives on outbreaks of other infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, cholera, Ebola virus disease (EVD), influenza, SARS, tuberculosis (TB), and Zika. We selected these articles to highlight the breadth of anthropological knowledge available for enhancing culturally informed responses for the COVID-19 pandemic. Each anthropologist has written extensively on related topics, and we invite readers to consider each author’s scholarship beyond this article.


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