How an Anthropologist Looks at All This

A doctor friend of mind sent me the following question last week: “Is your perspective  on the pandemic and the associated chaos different based on your knowledge of anthropology and medicine? If so how?” Here’s my answer:

Thanks very much for the question, Michael. I think part of the answer is that I think about behavior, culture, and evolution very prominently. In fact my big class right now is called “Disease & Human Behavior.” Some of my perspective would overlap with a public health perspective. One Scientific American article I assign in this class was written years ago, and asks: “Are We Ready for the Next Pandemic?” Answer: No.

But in no particular order:
The difference between the outbreaks in Singapore and Hong Kong vs. the disastrous one in Italy (or the one here soon) could have something to do with genetics, but I would say it’s mainly culture. That includes government, but it also includes a more collectivist culture in which people respect authority, follow orders, tend to fear others’ opinions, and act for the common good—not necessarily out of the goodness of their hearts, but because of deeply engrained habits they were raised in.
By contrast, look at the photo in the article linked here.
A number of US cities have done the “Behave Better Please” approach with little result, then issued decrees and laws, with a bit more result (most bars stayed open anyway), and then finally to enforcement. China blundered with initial coverups (one result of autocracy), but when they switched they came down hard with enforcement. I value democracy, but I would like to see Miami beach emptied by the National Guard if necessary. Today.
I just don’t believe that much in people’s intelligence and good will, I believe in their impulsiveness and selfishness. That I suppose is part of my anthropological outlook on human nature. “Drive Safely” signs are great, but seat belts are better, and air bags are best because they require no human cooperation. Voluntary social distancing is great, but enforced social distancing (quarantines, closures, etc.) is necessary eventually, and vaccination (including enforced vaccination for the idiots who will no doubt resist it) will be much better still.
I could say a lot of things about our government’s lack of preparedness and collossal failures of leadership in the past two months, but y’all see that clearly without anthropology. I expect the worst, they didn’t, we get screwed.
In terms of evolution, I would say two things.
First, new emerging viruses are guaranteed, an evolutionary opportunity for the virus that it can’t pass up, exacerbated by deforestation and intimacy between humans and wild animals in some places. The “emerging” part is when they evolve the ability to go from animals to humans. Then it’s to their great advantage to evolve to human-to-human transmissibility, also pretty much guaranteed sooner or later. Then there are interesting evolutionary questions for the virus.
Should I become airborne? Usually yes, but not if you’re universally deadly—your whole evolutionary project will be over in no time. Should I become very virulent? Usually no, because I want my human host to live long enough to spread me. Probably I should evolve a latency period (very long with HIV) or a spectrum of effects that includes asymptomatic people, like COVID-19. Ebola doesn’t have to be airborne even though it’s deadly because dead people can transmit it, especially in certain cultural contexts. Polio doesn’t have to be airborne because fecal-oral transmission is so effective in poor crowded environments. Malaria does very nicely with mosquitos, and there are 3 levels of evolution: the parasite evolves resistance to drugs, the mosquitos evolve resistance to pesticides, and humans evolved resistance via sickle cell & thalassemia genes.
Which brings me to the second evolutionary point, about humans. We spent most of our evolution in dispersed populations with a burden of worms and other parasites, plus a probably low level of percolating bacteria and viruses. Increased population with the evolution of “civilization”—high population densities—meant that tremendous new epidemic possibilities emerged. Poverty in stratified societies created an underclass of more vulnerable people. See the second link below for how this is working/will work in COVID-19. Finally, we evolve to our most civilized level, where bulldozing forests creates constant new evolutionary opportunities for microbes, and international air travel takes them wherever they want to go.
More than you wanted to know. But that’s how I think. Hope for the best, but for many reasons expect and prepare for the worst. This will not be the last pandemic of course. Will we be more ready for the next one? Anthropological answer: probably not. It requires foresight, which we humans are not good at. Instead, we discount the future and go with the hormonal flow.
See y’all on Miami Beach this weekend? In this group, I hope and trust not…

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