“#Esenciales y Visibles”
“The Bill of Rights doesn’t have a virus clause”
“We stayed at work for you. You stay home for us!”
The slogans of the Covid-19 era in the United States have been visible in automobile “marches” in front of factories, at armed statehouse protests from Michigan to Texas, and in emergency rooms. The pandemic is revealing existing social fractures and making new ones at the same time. It is also enabling new bonds, and the potential rearrangement of power relations.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has presented the United States and the world with a variety of problems not yet seen, or never at a global or national scale, with temporal simultaneity. An entire nation on lockdown, sheltered in place, with schools and public facilities closed—all at the same time—is nothing the United States has seen, except during some brief interludes of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic. At present, we have far more questions than we have answers. How much of policy and practice is shifting with the headlines, and how much will solidify into new social arrangements: of labor, of knowledge in science and public health, in law and human rights action?“How will measurement, risk perception, official encouragement, and fear shape the return to normalcy?”
The Cold War civil defense era presents perhaps the only time something like what we see today was imagined. That era of planning was, not coincidentally, the first great moment for social science disaster research. The context is certainly different today, but in some surprising ways perennial problems of the Cold War persist. Most immediately, we lack an understanding of how long periods of social distancing/quarantine will impact institutions, communities, and individuals. Equally vital are the questions raised by the inverse scenario. From Germany to China to the United States, there have been different approaches at national and subnational levels to address the “re-opening problem”: How will measurement, risk perception, official encouragement, and fear shape the return to normalcy? To what degree will elements of our “new normal,” such as stricter migration limits and telework, remain?
The rhetoric of “lessons learned,” an old saw in disaster research, is already loudly heard, but what structures must change in institutions, in the economy, in the hierarchies of expert practice before any of these lessons will be implemented? We know from decades of social science disaster research across disciplines that perspectives—of policymakers, researchers, and those whose experience is being researched—shift as the disaster unfolds. We also know that waiting until the disaster “ends” will find researchers drawing arbitrary lines. For those who suffer from Covid-19, survivors or not, we see that when and how (and if) they are counted as cases, and therefore acknowledged, varies widely around the world and across the United States. For the survivor, it may not be so clear when disease ends and healing begins. In public and medical discourse, the effects of structural and environmental racism on the increase in vulnerability to Covid-19 are often erased. For policymakers, the practical boundary between immediate disaster recovery and the needs of the economy is likewise obscured. In terms of method, researchers are already modifying their work practices under conditions of shelter and social distance. Implementing these practices with care and ethical specificity requires documentation and discussion. For disaster researchers it is of the utmost importance that we do not work in ways that, purposely or not, reproduce or augment the relationships of disaster.“Covid-19 raises essential empirical and methodological questions for researchers who want to understand the pandemic as (simultaneously) a highly local concern, a national emergency, and also geopolitical/geospatial force.”
Another fundamental set of research questions relates to scale—both temporal and spatial. Whereas September 11 and Hurricane Katrina were widely seen as disaster “events” with localized impacts, Covid-19 defies these boundaries. A “slow disaster” paradigm has emerged in recent years, in an attempt to conceptually link disaster events (like hurricanes) to much slower processes of environmental injustice. The slow and steady degradation of infrastructure fits well into this paradigm, and the Covid-19 pandemic reveals the eroded state of both physical and governmental infrastructure in the global health system. These gaps and deteriorated systems are clearly visible now, but will this event spark reform or even mark an inflection point toward new systems of disaster preparedness infrastructures? The slow disaster paradigm is capped by the Anthropocene framing that seeks to bring planetary change and social change into the same frame. Covid-19 raises essential empirical and methodological questions for researchers who want to understand the pandemic as (simultaneously) a highly local concern, a national emergency, and also geopolitical/geospatial force. As Kim Fortun has observed about the “quotidian” nature of the Anthropocene, it is essential for researchers to be conversant not only in the data points of global change, but also with the ethnographic tools of the local.
Though it is by now a classic concern for disaster research, we remain charged with documenting the effects of social inequality in the context of disaster. Disasters “punch down,” but what are the dynamics of twenty-first-century intersectionality in this regard? Gone are the days when ethical disaster researchers could show up after a disaster, ask some questions, and just move along. New research methods challenge us to see work on Covid-19 not as a linear path to a finished product, but as a way to deepen empirical knowledge and form theory while also repairing broken infrastructures and, perhaps, even providing reparations for longstanding injustices. This cannot be done by social scientists in isolation (though we are, at present, in physical isolation). The imperative is to see disaster research as an extension of disaster preparedness and disaster recovery efforts usually left to elected officials, bureaucrats, and first responders.
Inspired by the series “Understanding Katrina,” which helped chart a course for insightful disaster-related research for a decade, with the “Disaster Studies” theme of the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, we seek to continue building a provocative and collaborative research agenda that can support and inspire social change. Social science research often speaks to policy goals, and disaster researchers have contributed substantially to our understanding of how the structures and cultures of emergency-management agencies are often counterproductive to their missions. Disaster research also shows that some of the most profound social action happens at the grassroots, as communities largely abandoned by traditional organizational structures prepare, respond to emergencies, and forge their own recoveries. As crises of leadership, particularly in the United States, during the Covid-19 pandemic have shown, these insights are needed now more than ever.
At the same time, many communities are reeling from the impacts of cascades of multiple hazard-events-turned-disasters. In the context of an increasingly extractive global political-economic system, even the most creative communities responding to disasters at the local level find themselves drained of every type of resource. With this reality in mind, we have invited a broad range of scholars to speak to the question of not only how we learn from past and present crises but also how we might imagine a more just and equitable—and therefore more resilient—future. Here you will find case studies and thought pieces from scholars in public health, history, science and technology studies, urban and regional planning, gender studies, and data science, as well as founding disciplines of the field, such as sociology, anthropology, and public policy.
Banner photo courtesy of Sol Aramendi.