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.
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.
Yasmin Ortiga and Karen Anne S. Liao conducted research supported by the SSRC on the dramatic disruptions that Filipino labor migrants experienced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the support (or lack thereof) of their plight by the Filipino state. Arguing that labor as well as commodity supply chains have been thrown in upheaval, the authors describe the limits of the Philippines’ labor export strategy. In particular, they focus on two sets of labor migrants—nurses unable to take jobs abroad, and repatriated cruise ship workers—for whom dignified work at home was unavailable. Ortiga and Liao conclude that treating labor as a commodity has deep human and social costs.
Renan Gonçalves Leonel da Silva and Larry Au share results of their SSRC-supported study that compares three countries whose response to the pandemic has been especially fraught: Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Through a deep analysis of mainstream media coverage, they identify and analyze the different ways that Covid skepticism played out in these countries. Drawing on the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries,” the authors show how blind spots in the ways experts and policymakers explain the need for certain responses can spark contestation over them.
When You Do It Right, It Looks Like You’re Overreacting: Intuitive Judgments of Covid-19 Public Health Measuresby Jonathan F. Kominsky and Elizabeth Bonawitz
Jonathan F. Kominsky and Elizabeth Bonawitz examine the public’s judgments of Covid-19 safety measures during one of the pandemic’s peaks. Their research project, funded by the SSRC’s Rapid-Response Grants on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences, created hypothetical scenarios to explore whether the provision of different kinds of information shaped how people viewed responses to negative events (such as public health crises). The authors found that a judgement of overreaction was typical under most scenarios and, moreover, such judgements strongly predicted whether a person followed Covid-19 measures.
Mike Ananny discusses “how the pandemic has shown how an everyday word like ‘public’ actually contains myriad assumptions about why and how to live together.” Ananny argues that as “public life”—both as concept and practice—has been destabilized under Covid-19 conditions, we witness how the conventional notions of a “public sphere” has always limited our understanding of “public” and diverted attention from the inequalities that underpin it. At the same time, public life during the pandemic has revealed multiple examples of social connection and mobilization that broaden the scope of “public” in ways that imagine “what public life could be like.”
Through audio diaries and interviews, former SSRC fellow Sienna Craig and her collaborators chronicled the experiences of Himalayan New Yorkers during the pandemic. Many Himalayans live in central Queens, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in New York City. This essay shares the many challenges faced by the Himalayan community, not least their struggle to be seen as a “community” with its own needs. But it also emphasizes the responses of Himalayans in terms of collective self-help and making claims on city government for attention and essential services.