With this essay, SSRC president Alondra Nelson inaugurates the Council’s Covid-19 and the Social Sciences essay forum. The discussion of how to reopen our societies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic poses special questions for social researchers, she argues. How do the social conditions exposed, exacerbated, and created by the novel coronavirus demand that we substantively rethink our ideas of society and, therefore, some of the prevailing assumptions of social science?
Starting with SSRC president Alondra Nelson’s reflections on “Society after Pandemic,” this series of essays explores the human, social, political, and ethical dimensions of Covid-19. These pieces call attention to how social research can shed light on the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic and what can be done to improve responses, both now and in the future.
The publication of this series would not be possible if not for the help of the following SSRC staff:
Juni Ahari, communications and editorial assistant.
Cole Edick, program associate, Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs.
Carrie Hamilton, program assistant, Social Data Initiative and Media & Democracy program.
Saarah Jappie, program officer, Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean.
Michelle Lee, program assistant, International Dissertation Research Fellowship.
Line Sidonie Talla Mafotsing, communications and editorial assistant, African Peacebuilding Network and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa.
Daniella Sarnoff, program director, International Dissertation Research Fellowship.
Catherine Weddig, program assistant, Social Data Initiative and Media & Democracy program.
Migrant farmworkers, many of whom belong to communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, are essential workers whose labor has kept people fed throughout the pandemic. In this essay based on their SSRC-funded research, Jennifer Bair and Kathryn Babineau report on the experiences of migrant farmworkers in Vermont’s dairy industry, analyzing the role that worker-driven organizing has played in supporting safer workplaces. When the pandemic hit, a civic infrastructure was already in place in the form of previously established groups that migrant workers trusted ready to disseminate information, testing, and eventually vaccines.
While Covid-19 measures have been detrimental to millions around the world, workers in the informal sector have been particularly affected. Through their SSRC-funded research, Ademola Ajuwon and Grace Ajuwon investigated how lockdown measures intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19 harmed the livelihoods of informal traders in Ibadan, Nigeria. Having conducted various interviews with informal traders, the authors describe how the measures disrupted traders’ income and businesses, and they argue an effective response to the pandemic requires government assistance.
SSRC Covid-19 grantees Timwa Lipenga and Hendrina Kachapila’s essay reflects on how governments in Malawi—both British colonial and contemporary independent—have attempted to deal with pandemics. The authors’ research on Spanish flu and smallpox campaigns under colonialism provides important background for understanding Malawi’s response to Covid 19, and how Malawians varyingly follow, resist, or avoid government mandates. A tendency to manage pandemics in a top-down manner, without adequate consultation with everyday people and how they view the nature of illness, is shared by regimes past and present.
In poor urban neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya, Covid-19 related restrictions have resulted in tremendous economic setbacks for residents. Through their SSRC-funded research, Anders Ese, Kristin Ese, Joseph Mukeku, Benjamin Sidori, and Romola Sanyal interviewed women traders to make connections between Covid-related setbacks, the practices of containment, and assistance provided by authorities. While the women they spoke to recognize that they often suffer unjustly at the hands of local officials, they also show notable support for both the restrictions and the powers that enforce them, helping cement long-standing and inequitable practices.
While transparency is often lauded as a positive dimension of government, it has the potential to have a deleterious impact on marginalized communities. Through their SSRC-funded research, Timothy Gitzen and Wonkeun Chun examine the impact of South Korea’s extensive public health surveillance system and the government’s efforts to make private information public on the LGBT+ community. Though intended to ensure public trust during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government’s unprecedented sharing of information opened the doors for discrimination.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the transition of many offices to remote work has led to new ways for employers to track workers’ movements, behavior, and productivity. Through their SSRC-funded research, Jessica Vitak and Michael Zimmer surveyed remote workers in the US about perceptions of current workplace monitoring practices. They argue that worker concerns about reductions in privacy and independence at work might have negative outcomes on worker productivity, satisfaction, and well-being.
Distrust in vaccines is not a new phenomenon and has existed since the first inoculations in the eighteenth century. Through her SSRC funded research, Allyson M. Poska investigated the Spanish Empire’s smallpox eradication campaign and how colonial subjects, particularly Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, in Spanish-controlled Peru resisted the government’s vaccination program. Vaccine hesitancy, Poska argues, was partly instigated by distrust of a colonial system that administered discriminatory policies and enforced slavery.
Were Indigenous Peoples’ Vulnerable or Resilient? Strategies to Cope with Covid-19 in the Peruvian Amazon Basinby Deborah Delgado Pugley and Dámaris Herrera Salazar
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout Peru, one community was particularly hard hit by the disease, Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Deborah Delgado Pugley and Dámaris Herrera Salazar, through their SSRC-funded research, examine how the Indigenous communities in Ucayali Region addressed the lack of government support. However, they argue to be wary of resiliency narratives that can be employed to justify state neglect and a slow response.
The Covid-19 Pandemic Endangers Sex Worker Health and Safety, Underscoring Need for Structural Reformsby Denton Callander, Étienne Meunier and Mariah Grant
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people across all walks of life, among them sex workers. In this essay based on their SSRC-funded research, Denton Callander, Étienne Meunier, and Mariah Grant examine how the pandemic has impacted sex workers in the United States, analyzing the role stigma plays in heightening the health, social, and economic threats posed by the pandemic. To ameliorate sex workers’ conditions, the authors argue for decriminalizing sex work and providing long-term support.