In their essay for “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences,” Samantha Montano and Amanda Savitt break down the importance of event categorization for applied disaster response, and the need for researchers and science communicators to use these concepts consistently. Hearkening back to E. L. Quarantelli’s seminal work on the subject, Montano and Savitt revisit previous events that have helped define conceptual scales for catastrophic events and ask whether and how we should describe the Covid-19 pandemic as such. Considering the unique harms produced in the pandemic context (including widespread economic impacts, and the limits on resource-sharing that can respond in geographically limited disasters), the authors show how the framing of our research has long-reaching potential effects on policy and practice.
This series of essays, drawing on insights from research on disasters and public health crises, will highlight how social research can shed light on the mutual effects of social inequality and events such as the Covid-19 pandemic over time.
This theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series has been curated by Scott Gabriel Knowles, professor of history at Drexel University, and Alexa Dietrich, program director of the SSRC’s Scholarly Borderlands initiative, the Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, and the Religion and the Public Sphere program.
Jacob Remes reflects on the significance of the United States as a “border nation” in the context of pandemic. While much media attention has been paid to the “bungling” of the US government response to Covid-19, Remes draws attention to the continuity between the Trump administration’s longstanding border policies. Taking this perspective highlights how disaster and public health responses have typically fit into the broader priorities and logics of governments and are often convenient amplifiers of xenophobic tendencies. Remes shows how these logics affect not only visible border policing, but can affect decisions such as whether companies from other countries can gain contracts for needed equipment or supplies, such as tests and treatments.
Marccus D. Hendricks weaves together critical perspectives from public health, urban planning, and disaster studies in his essay for “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences.” In light of recent calls to defund the police, Hendricks urges us to closely examine how we define public safety, focusing in particular on the role of infrastructure in making communities safe. While the pandemic has highlighted the faults in healthcare infrastructure, housing, access to clean water, and other risks remain serious threats to health and well-being, especially in Black, Latinx, and low-income neighborhoods. Hendricks shows the continuity of the current struggles for justice, and how shifting priorities to the most urgent existential community threats would strengthen public health and safety.
Historian Andy Horowitz reminds us that disasters are never simply events confined to a particular time or set of circumstances in this contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. Using the notion of “pre-existing conditions,” a phrase typically confined more narrowly to analyze individual health outcomes, Horowitz questions how we assign a beginning to the pandemic. Our choices in this regard will influence how the story of the pandemic is told, who is assigned blame for what, and what are indeed the lessons to be learned from the experience. He also suggests that in times that feel “unprecedented,” it is all the more important to use history as a way to understand the present and chart a path to the future.
For many observers in the United States, the political actions of Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil may appear to mimic US president Donald Trump’s disregard for science-informed policy and admiration for exclusionary nationalism. However, Marcos Cueto shows in this essay for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series that Bolsonaro’s actions must be understood in a broader Brazilian context of history, politics, and health policy. Cueto illustrates the influence of longstanding public health policies that focus on technological interventions without addressing social determinants, and finds a continuity with the perspective of the state as a whole toward public health, a tendency to rely on vertical authority structures, and Bolsonaro’s approach to the pandemic, including his evidence-defying embrace of the drug chloroquine.
In his contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Robert Soden describes how mutual aid groups are more effectively responding to the pandemic with the help of a broad range of technological and social media tools. Using the insights of crisis informatics, he draws out connections between traditional community organizing, disaster response, data privacy, disinformation, and social and racial justice. In addition to considering the importance of understanding this community work and strategies for the current moment, Soden looks ahead to a postpandemic world, urging researchers and communities alike to be sure to use what is learned now to forge a just “new normal” for the future.
Manuel Tironi and Sarah Kelly draw attention to the ways in which Indigenous communities in Chile are leveraging Territorial Control to prevent the spread of Covid-19 for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. Rather than relying on the logics of epidemiology to support these preventive actions, communities are appealing to the logics of sovereignty. While cautious about the temptation to draw simplistic and extractive “lessons learned” for Disaster Risk Reduction from the actions of the Mapuche and other Indigenous peoples, the authors describe how the lessons to be learned are about the need to decolonize disaster response, and to acknowledge the deep histories and shared knowledge that can provide communities with the resources to make effective public health and safety decisions for their people.
Continuing the “Disaster Studies” theme of the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Stephanie Russo Carroll, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, Randy Akee, Annita Lucchesi, and Jennifer Rai Richards demonstrate the need to understand the role of data as a mechanism of both oppression and liberation. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indigenous Peoples are working to gain control of their tribal data to combat the erasure of their communities, and to advance data sovereignty. Through this work in the short-term, the authors describe how control over their own data will support access to needed resources in response to the pandemic. In the longer term, data sovereignty will help advance systemic change, and contribute to the larger goal of dismantling racism.
Inaugurating the “Disaster Studies” theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Kathleen Tierney reflects on how major findings from social science research on disasters can help to contextualize and frame our understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, she looks at the importance of communication to the influence of social responses in hazardous circumstances, reminding us that society tends toward social solidarity, rather than disorganization and panic, in times of crises. Though many social practices, such as scapegoating, can further tear the fabric of society, disasters reveal and amplify not only inequality and vulnerability, but also potential strength. In moving forward, it will be vital to learn the lessons research on both aspects have to offer.
Given the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a crucial time to reflect, from the perspectives of those who have studied disasters and public health crises, on social science’s insights and its potential impact (positive and negative). In this introductory essay to the “Disaster Studies” theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Alexa Dietrich and Scott Gabriel Knowles highlight how disaster research can shed light on the mutual effects of social inequality and disaster over time. Conversely, this theme will both explore how research through a disaster-focused lens can help us understand and address the preconditions and consequences that make the pandemic so devastating, and what can usefully be learned from the responses of institutions and communities worldwide that have most effectively reduced its impact, or that may signal hope for society’s future.