Events like the COVID-19 pandemic can become what Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey have called ‘binding crises’: ‘events with the clarity and immediacy of a terrifying threat’ (2018: 12), impacting the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless – though unevenly. Binding crises of the past (like the 1842 Great Fire of Hamburg, the 1858 Great Stink in London and the 1896 Bombay plague) have led to ubiquitous reforms in sanitation and waste management practices, most notably landmark innovations in modern sewerage systems. In what follows, I draw on ethnographic research, conducted discontinuously over five years (2015–2019), around municipal solid waste management (MSWM), and the political ecology of informal plastic recycling in the city of Ahmedabad, India. I argue that the current pandemic may constitute such a binding event as freelance waste-collection networks are paralysed by the lockdown and ‘authorised’ modes of waste collection are prioritised, leading to a novel ‘infrastructuring’ of emerging relations between human bodies and wasted things.
Managing the ubiquity of waste and waste-collectors in India
Or, hope is the first anthropological emotion
In the early months of the pandemic, much of normal life stopped. This was as true for me in the United States as for people I knew in countries around the world; we were all suddenly on pandemic time (Manley 2020). However, as one after another part of my life shifted, one aspect remained constant: the emails continued. Each week, and sometimes more than once, I received a request to serve as an expert witness in US political asylum cases for Nepali and Tibetan applicants. This is work I've been doing since 2005. It is work that seeks you out based on your knowledge of certain countries, for which one becomes an ‘expert’ when there is trouble in a country you know professionally (Good 2007). And it is work that I always feel unprepared for, as it requires not only testifying to political conditions in an applicant's host country but also being a witness to their often horrific experiences of political persecution.
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.
Legal regimes under pandemic conditions: A comparative anthropology
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).
Ethnography in the age of COVID
Jessica Brinkworth, Korinta Maldonado, Ellen Moodie, and Gilberto Rosas
The local slaughterhouse's coronavirus cluster was the first large outbreak we heard about in Champaign County. The sprawling pork processing plant sits in the midst of cornfields some 17 miles north of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Until early May, workers there processed 35 million pounds of pork a month. The company reported its first case on 25 April. Health inspectors arrived two days later to find the plant 90 percent out of compliance in its infection control practices. By 15 May, after testing 200 of the 627 workers for COVID-19, 83 got positive results. Management admitted it was ‘complex’ to track employees being tested and to follow up with those who had to be quarantined. That's when they contacted the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They then announced confidently to the local press: We've got it under control. We have the scientists now.