In this contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Deepak Lamba-Nieves shares a noteworthy contact tracing case study from the Puerto Rican mountain town of Villalba. While Puerto Rico has received recent attention for both its severe lockdowns and compliance-averse tourists, Lamba-Nieves describes contact tracing protocols developed at the local level that emphasized qualitative outreach as well as quantitative data collection. Though many contact tracing initiatives and policy discussions during the pandemic have focused on digital mechanisms, he suggests that paying attention to small-scale success stories such as this one offers important lessons for future programs.
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, which has previously supported additional emerging work in the field of disaster studies; the Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean; and the Religion and the Public Sphere program.
Lori Peek and Alice Fothergill explore the healing contributions young people can make following major disasters. Based on over a decade of research, the authors reflect on the needs of children to regain a sense of control when faced with feelings of powerlessness, as well as the very real need to listen to children’s experiences when formulating public policy, risk communications, and disaster response. While the contributions of children should never be viewed as a replacement for effective emergency management, their knowledge, creativity, energy, enthusiasm, and social networks have the power to help themselves as well as others in the recovery process.
Jih-Fei Cheng and Claudia Garriga-López explore the importance of radical care work and the activism of queer and trans people of color in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Emphasizing the approach of “intravention,” or the pro-health and care actions of communities themselves the most at risk, Garriga-López and Cheng shed light on the deep community health work of protest, often underemphasized in discourse and the lauding of mutual aid efforts. They affirm the need for a broad movement to achieve liberation from institutional and socially sanctioned violence and show the need for radical and inclusive coalition-building to promote community health.
Danya Glabau examines the consequences of school closures for families, drawing out how two older and interlinked crises of the family are exacerbated by the pandemic: the crisis of the privatization of the family and the crisis of patriarchy within it. By looking at schools, daycare, and families as integral and integrated parts of the social safety net in the United States, Glabau argues that under pandemic circumstances (as with many disasters) families are largely expected to take care of themselves, relying on their own highly strained resources. Reflecting a larger pattern, women are frequently expected to take on the majority of added caretaking roles, labor that remains underfunded and invisible.
Disaster Studies as Politics with Other Means: Covid-19 and the Legacies of Cold War Disaster Researchby Cécile Stephanie Stehrenberger
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.
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.