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The Anthropologist in the Time of COVID-19

Thea Kersti C. Tandog

University of the Philippines Mindanao

The COVID-19 pandemic has made bare the strains of our institutions as much as it has attacked the bodies of our population. Anthropology, in particular, has also taken a direct hit from the conditions brought forth by COVID-19. Many anthropologists are either academics, researchers, or both – and both worlds have been severely upturned by the disease. Anthropology has functioned as a discipline necessitating ‘being with’ people, which makes ‘being there’ possible (Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois 2004). This is true not just for researching but also for teaching. However, “being with” and “being there” have been made difficult because of the needs for physical distancing and quarantines.

This had led me to start thinking about the anthropologist – our role and positioning – in the midst of this devastating pandemic. Do we have any use in the face of a deadly virus? What can we offer the world at a time when we are removed from our familiar terrains? Are we to be bystanders? Do we wait in silence as this pandemic pans out and the fatalities rise? Or can we still be engaged anthropologists and practice “being there” for people even if “being actually there” is impossible?

COVID-19 is not just a biological issue. Like how it sticks to its host, it has become fully embedded in the existing social, political, and cultural structures in different societies. In India, for example, COVID-19 is directly intertwined with religion, caste-system, and different forms of inequities in place (Roy 2020). As such, it is within the exact realm of Anthropological study. We have a role that we can choose to take part in.

Bearing Witness

The literature on the anthropology of violence and suffering has much to offer us in how we can proceed as anthropologists during these trying times. And why not? COVID-19 has exposed ‘structural violence’ (Galtung 1969) and has exacerbated ‘everyday violence’ (Scheper-Hughes 1992) in extreme ways. We are facing violence and suffering as thousands die and suffer either from the virus or from the conditions societies have created, which have now been magnified by COVID-19.

Those who study violence are all too familiar with the act of bearing witness. To witness is to see suffering. It includes close observation of what is going on. Why bear witness? Because bearing witness is a powerful tool “to authorize and legitimate… painful and devastating histories” (Angel-Ajani 2006, p. 79).

But how can we do this when we cannot be in the “field”?

Our field has now become the “now” and the “here” wherever we may be. COVID-19 has taken our lives and made them into “fields”. Events no longer occur somewhere “out there”, it is already occurring in the “here” and the “now”. Our experiences as well as the experiences of others become the “field” that we engage in. Of course, this is a difficult task. Bearing witness to horrendous events is a heavy burden. However, the times call for it. Someone needs to remember and to bear witness is to remember. As James Hatly (2000, p. 3) puts it, ‘[t]he witness refuses to forget the weight of [the] blow, or the depth of the wound it inflicts’.

We must bear witness to the history of COVID-19 (and the associated violence that surrounds it) as it unfolds before us, be vigilant, and critically think about the structures in place that has made it so because people need to know. Bearing witness, therefore, includes testimonies (Malkki 1997). We must testify to the world what we have learned about our societies today. We must testify so history will not be forgotten nor injustices repeated.

Engaged witness

It is, however, not enough to be ‘scientific spectators’ (Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois 2004, p 26). To bear witness is also to position one’s self in the side of those who are suffering. Being a witness is to

‘[position] the anthropologist inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally or politically committed being, a person who can be counted on to “take sides” when necessary and to eschew the privilege of neutrality’ (ibid.).

As Hatly states (2000, p. 3), ‘[o]ne must not only utter a truth about the victim but also to remain true to her or him’. Bearing witness, therefore, involves an ethical and moral stance. We must bear witness for those who are vulnerable, for those who are getting hurt by the structures in place, especially today when COVID-19 has exposed the violence of the political and economic system that we have in the present. We must, therefore, not be complicit to hegemony and the structures of power.

Complicities: To Be or Not to Be?

“Everyone who participates in the social order is complicit in it…”, says Laurence Kirmayer (see Farmer 2004, p. 321). If we are complicit to the structures of power causing violence and suffering to many of us, then we are accountable too. As anthropologists, it is our task to challenge – not echo – the rhetoric of the powerful. We must, therefore, find the voice of those who suffer, listen to them, and amplify them. We must not let marginalized lives go abandoned (see Biehl 2005).

In his 2015 book, Graham Fordham places particular emphasis on anthropological complicities in the face of suffering. He points out that the absence of anthropologists in the Thai AIDS discourse has led to the burying of the truth of suffering under the ground as other disciplines took over and misrepresented what was really going on in favour of making the problems easily digestible for technical solutions and for efficient management of the bodies of the vulnerable. We must not let this happen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 has crippled the social, political, and economic system of many nations that people are starting to mull over and reflect on the “new normal” we have created for this world. It is important to reflect on this “normal” so we may be able to think about and consider possible future, and how we can move forward. Anthropology can immensely contribute to this task.


Thea Kersti C. Tandog teaches Anthropology at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She has a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She also has a graduate diploma in Environmental Management and a master's degree in Applied Anthropology from the Australian National University. She is interested in the Anthropology of Violence and Suffering, Conflict, Environment, and Development.



Angel-Ajani, A 2006, ‘Expert Witness: Notes toward Revisiting the Politics of Listening’, in V Sanford & A Angel-Ajani (eds), Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy, and Activism, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, pp. 76-89.

Biehl, J 2005, Vita: Life in the Zone of Social Abandonment, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Farmer, P 2004, ‘The Anthropology of Structural Violence’, Current Anthropology, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 305-325.

Fordham, G 2015, HIV/AIDS and the Social Consequences of Untamed Biomedicine: Anthropological Complicities, Routledge, New York.

Galtung, J 1969, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 167-191.

Hatly, J 2000, Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility after the Irreparable’, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Malkki, LH 1997, ‘News and Culture: Transitory Phenomena and the Fieldwork Tradition’, in A Gupta & J Ferguson (eds), Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 86-100.

Roy, A 2020, The pandemic is a portal’, Financial Times, viewed 18 April 2020, <>.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1992, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Scheper-Hughes, N & Bourgois, P 2004, ‘Introduction: Making Sense of Violence’, in N Scheper-Hughes & P Bourgois (eds), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 1-31.

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