Through an analysis of the influence of Cold War–era research and funding structures on modes of disaster research, Cécile Stehrenberger explains how and why the standard research approach to disasters is not perfectly translatable to studying the Covid-19 pandemic. She also speculates on how more recent turns in the study of slow disasters can pave the way to more policy-relevant work grounded in rigorous and ethical social science. By incorporating theoretical understandings of racial capitalism and gender inequality, for example, Stehrenberger suggests that rather than leaning into a rigid model of scientific research, disaster social science should recognize and embrace its potential for activist policy transformation.
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.
While many analyses have focused on the human-level health and economic impacts on essential workers themselves, Andrew Lakoff examines how the emergence of structural policies to “secure the supply chain” in times of disaster and public health crises created new categories of workers, and therefore of risk. In spite of the sense of urgency that emerged in the 2000s around the need to prepare for a global pandemic, the resulting guidance put forward in response to Covid-19 allowed for the social classification of essential workers to be subject to significant industry lobbying, with little regard to health and safety protections for those workers.
Immigrant Communities in the Covid-19 Pandemic: Old and New Insights on Mobility, Bordering Regimes, and Social Inequalityby Heide Castañeda and William D. Lopez
Heide Castañeda and William D. Lopez explore historical connections and future impacts of the pandemic on border management and human mobility. Focusing on immigrants in the United States, the authors show how in addition to limitations on their movements, punitive policies enacted in the past year have further reduced healthcare access for undocumented migrants and their mixed-status families, while pandemic-fueled anti-immigrant discourse has further marginalized these groups.
Taking a closer look at Singapore’s much lauded response to the pandemic, Sulfikar Amir’s contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series bring an important lens to the much-discussed question within disaster studies of how to evaluate resilience. In particular, the author shows the need to examine hidden vulnerabilities and inequalities in a society’s response to disaster, such as the treatment of migrant workers. While it is apparent that the government of Singapore learned important lessons from the response to the SARS outbreak in 2003, Amir shows that even with strong preparedness practices, governments may be prone to overlook marginalized groups within their jurisdictions, and that such blind spots have serious consequences.
Daniel F. Lorenz and Cordula Dittmer explore the sometimes-contradictory nature of postdisaster solidarity. Drawing on examples from the European context, they draw out the significant contribution context makes to utopian coming-together during pandemic lockdowns, reflecting on the experiences of those who are affected by these policies, but not primarily by illness itself. Even as the pandemic and its accompanying policies may create feelings of togetherness, especially among social equals with the necessary socioeconomic resources to manage limits on their mobility, more research will be necessary to understand whether these social phenomena can contribute to sustainable social change.
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.
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.