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.
In April 2020, in the midst of adapting virtually everything to the constraints imposed by the novel coronavirus, the Social Science Research Council announced a request for proposals for small rapid-response grants to support social science research on “the social, economic, cultural, psychological, and political impact of Covid-19 in the United States and globally, as well as responses to the pandemic’s wide-ranging effects.” The competition was open to PhD holders in the social sciences, the humanities, and related fields based anywhere around the world. To our astonishment, we received over 1,300 applications. In the end, a total of 62 projects were selected through a four-round peer-review process. These essays profile the results of their work.
While many aspects of this crisis are unprecedented, it has also been dramatically shaped by long-standing inequalities. When the Council announced the call for proposals, it was already glaringly apparent that while the pandemic would impact every aspect of society, the already marginalized would bear the brunt of its devastation. These essays will include examinations of the experiences of some of society’s most vulnerable populations. Other essays will investigate how the Covid-19 pandemic interacts with existing health disparities and ongoing environmental and social crises.
In addition to intensifying existing social injustices, the spread of Covid-19 and efforts to stem it have also created new challenges. Grantee essays will explore the various ways communities are responding to and coping with measures to stop the virus’s spread—lockdowns, social distancing guidelines, and the transition to remote work and education. The pandemic has highlighted the pivotal yet ambivalent role of technology in the Covid-19 era and several essays will examine how social media serves to maintain relationships, communicate information (and misinformation), and create virtual communities. Others will shed light on how the use of technology has exacerbated inequality and discrimination.
Taken together, the work of the Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant recipients illustrate the immense potential of the social sciences not only to elucidate the greatest challenges facing our society but also to lay a blueprint for how they might be overcome. A significant proportion of these essays will be international or transnational in focus, including many that will center on countries and communities in the global South. They examine the wide-ranging impacts of Covid-19—including on inequality, education, the workplace, health care, politics, and religious practices. We look forward to sharing their findings here.
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.
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.