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Open access

Exceptions and being human: Before and in times of COVID-19

Narmala Halstead

As a much proclaimed ‘new normal’ accompanying the global pandemic, the suspension of certain rights to protect other rights returns our attention to notions of exceptions outside the law in terms of sovereign power and those hidden within the law, such as structurally embedded violations. The consent for the emergency rights accorded to the state to act for the greater protection and bio-survival of all occurs alongside certain contestations which also, in dramatic instances, include spaces for new protests against structural and physical violence on the person. The murder of George Floyd and the protests which followed signalled points of both convergence and dissonance in relation to the emergency rights of the state and the overlooking of other ‘less visible’ loss of rights.

Open access

Experiencing Graduated Intimacies during Lockdown (Fengcheng)

A Reflexive and Comparative Approach to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Urban China

Junjie Chen


In this article, I examine the ways in which the recent, nationwide ‘lockdown’ (fengcheng) in China, caused by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, has abruptly reshaped daily intimacy practices of urban residents. Highlighting the lockdown in a southeast coastal city in the broader context of China's post-socialist transformations, I propose that class distinctions have profoundly reconfigured local citizens’ daily experiences, producing a system of what might be termed ‘graduated intimacies’. To further contextualize these urban citizens’ experiences of intimacy under the current transnational geo-biopolitics associated with the pandemic, I provide a reflexive and comparative ethnographic look at the national capital of Beijing. In so doing, I offer a glimpse into the lives of several sets of Chinese citizens at an unexpected historical moment induced by a grave public health crisis extending well beyond China's national borders.

Open access

Exposed Intimacies

Clinicians on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ellen Block


COVID-19 has overwhelmed health-care providers. The virus is novel in its prevalence, severity and the risk of asymptomatic infection. In order to reduce the risk of infection and stop the spread of COVID-19, clinicians in hospitals across the United States are taking measures to limit exposure to infected patients by reducing the frequency of visits to patients’ rooms, touching patients less, and adopting new protocols around the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). While these newly adopted practices are helping to reduce transmission risk of COVID-19, they are producing a habitus of infection; an acute shift among clinicians that is deeply embodied and likely to have a permanent impact on the health and wellbeing of both providers and already isolated patients.

Open access

Familial Intimacy and the ‘Thing’ between Us

Cuddle Curtains and Desires for Detached Relationality in Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Andreas Streinzer, Almut Poppinga, Carolin Zieringer, Anna Wanka, and Georg Marx


During the government-imposed contact restrictions in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, older adults feared that they may no longer be able to experience physical contact with family members. They were, however, given hope by a ‘cuddle curtain’, a device that promised to enable familial intimacy while blocking the exposure of older bodies to the coronavirus. Our research team traced how one such artefact was used in nursing homes in Switzerland. Here, we discuss its cultural biography to explore notions of intimacy by relating discussions about the curtain to anthropological discussions about entanglement and detachment. We contrast positive associations between the curtain and familial intimacy with regulations surrounding body fluid barriers in sex work, in order to relate the ‘thing’ to the larger context within which it circulates.

Open access

Fearful Intimacies

COVID-19 and the Reshaping of Human–Microbial Relations

Carmen McLeod, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw, and Brigitte Nerlich


This article explores how COVID-19 could be reshaping human–microbial relations in and beyond the home. Media sources suggest that intimacies of companionability or ambivalence are being transformed into those of fearfulness. While a probiotic sociocultural approach to human–microbial relations has become more powerful in recent times, it seems that health and hygiene concerns associated with COVID-19 are encouraging the wholesale use of bleach and other cleaning agents in order to destroy the potential microbial ‘enemies’ in the home. We provide a brief background to shifting public health discourses on managing microbes in domestic settings over recent decades across the industrialised world, and then contrast this background with emerging advice on COVID-19 from news and advertisement sources. We conclude with key areas for future research.

Open access

Intimacy, Zoom Tango and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jonathan Skinner


This is a personal reflection reacting and responding to the COVID-19 global pandemic and the domestication and on-lining of physical leisure pursuit. In Anthony Giddens’ The Transformation of Intimacy, there is the suggestion that the condition of the plastic is one ‘decentred’ and ‘freed from the needs of reproduction’. Giddens was writing generally about sexuality and the physical labour of reproduction, but this suggestion warrants wider exploration, particularly when Giddens concludes his argument with the suggestion that intimacy and democracy are ideally implicated in each other: autonomy of the self and open conditions of association as preconditions for establishing his reflexive project of the self. This personal reflection develops this suggestion by looking at two creative responses to the pandemic lockdown as socially distanced tennis and Zoom tango become tactics for living with the unexpected, for coping with isolation, for retaining and returning to an everyday.

Open access


Legal regimes under pandemic conditions: A comparative anthropology

Geoffrey Hughes

As it has spread globally, the pathogen SARS-CoV-2 (known colloquially as the coronavirus) has already caused untold suffering, with more most certainly to come. Yet as the virus afflicts, it has also encountered a range of human responses – from initial indifference and outright denial in parts of the Anglo-American West to society-wide mobilizations in much of the rest of the world. In doing so, the virus has become a sort of diagnostic tool that can reveal a lot about any body politic that it happens to enter, something we attempt to leverage in this issue's forum through reflections from ethnographers working in both India (Dey) and the United States (Brinkworth et al., McGranahan).

Open access

Learning to Dwell with Micro-Organisms

Corporeality, Relationality, Temporality

Lydia Maria Arantes


In this article, I enquire in which ways the corona-induced lockdown in Austria has reshaped intimacy in our household by scrutinising my husband's sourdough bread-making journey. As physical distancing has thrown us back onto ourselves, my field of research is equivalent to that which is immediately available – our everyday life within the confines of domestic space, at times expanded via digital technologies. My elaborations are based on my (research) diary in which I usually conflate personal and research-related aspects of my everyday life. As, during lockdown, (entries on) bread-making and caring for sourdoughs came to play an important role, I became inspired to unfold issues of corporeality, relationality and temporality with regard to newly developing intimacies, interdependencies and modes of knowing.

Open access

Microbial Intimacy

Andrew Dawson and Simone Dennis


In this article, we highlight how COVID-19 has transformed, is transforming and may transform into the future human intimacies. This, we argue, is an appropriate focus for anthropological investigation particularly. We posit a scaler approach to the anthropological study of the transformation of intimacy in COVID-19, embracing multiple levels from human relations with microbes through to human relations with deities. Furthermore, we offer examples of the overlaps between the ways in which intimate relationships at small and large scales are conceptualised, especially metaphorically.

Open access

On Money and Quarantine

A Self-Ethnography from Italy

Francesca Messineo


During the lockdown, I started perceiving cash as a potentially infected entity, carrying the virus on its surface. This article explores the trajectories and implications of this modified perspective on money by merging different levels of analysis. The attempt to grasp both the social and material significance of this ‘object’ will resound in personal anecdotes from my house. The self-ethnographic approach accounts also for the intimate feelings and the new gaze on money produced within me; the enthusiasm for imagining an economy driven by different rules; nostalgia for the activities I used to pay for; anxieties caused by this unprecedented health crisis; and my curiosity to observe how relationships with people and things have changed. The need to share experiences as a political statement and the desire to put fears and hopes into words guide my work.