What we are reading: COVID-19 and the Turn to Magical Thinking

Hugh Gusterson writes a powerful article on the influence that magical thinking has on coping with the types of stress we are facing now with the coronavirus pandemic. He compares the early 20th century Maji Maji Rebellion against German occupation of what is now Tanzania to the (mostly) U.S. protesters arming themselves while the practice their first amendment right to dissent.

He notes that “people turn to magic when they feel powerless” and how this magic can lead to a “sense of false security.” Conspiracy theories abound when the world around us is uncertain as well. Gusterson, briefly, lists the types of rumors and false cures that people around the world latch onto in the face of chaos and concern. He then focuses his attention on the U.S. and the different examples of magical thinking and pseudoscience. He argues that, while magical thinking and pseudoscience are coping strategies in uncertain times, they are ultimately no match against the realities of a viral pandemic and can even cause harm.

This is not the first time that pandemics have led to such ideas. During the worst of the AIDS pandemic, scientists and physicians with questionable credentials pandered “theories” and even a president failing to provide antiretroviral medications to his citizens and various “cures” including violence against women and girl children . And, during the recent Ebola epidemics, rumors of witchcraft and Western aid and medical workers using Ebola for demonic purposes spread almost as fast at the epidemic itself.

We will be managing ourselves, our children, our governments, our economies, and our world for months to come in the face of COVID-19. Part and parcel in that management is managing our stress, fears, and phobias related to sickness, health, and our health and democratic institutions. A management strategy, for better or for worse, is magical thinking, unfounded cures, and yes, sometimes violence against our most vulnerable.

ARHE Call For Papers for AAA

“Responding to Epidemics: Engaging Local Knowledge and Practices During Health Emergencies” – AAA Meetings, November 18-22, 2020 (Please note important deadlines below)

We invite abstracts for the a panel for the AAA Meetings in St. Louis, MO, Nov 18-22, 2020

This panel is organized by the Anthropological Responses to Health Emergencies (ARHE), a special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology.

Co-organizers: Michael C. Ennis-McMillan (Skidmore College) and Mary J. Hallin (University of Nebraska at Omaha)

Chair: Deon Claiborne (Michigan State University)

“Responding to Epidemics: Engaging local knowledge and practices during health emergencies”

The initial responses to epidemics such as Zika in the Americas and Ebola in West Africa tended to have a biomedical focus with little consideration of knowledge practices and response of local communities. Furthermore, the flow of information tended to be one directional with responses developed in the West or developed countries and then transferred to developing countries, with indigenous knowledge and practices marginalized. This flow of information fails to consider that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa or in Asia have effective treatments and responses to the respective illness. Anthropologists have become involved in epidemic responses to help understand human behavior during an epidemic. This panel examines responses to past epidemics and to the current COVID19 response. Using anthropology’s comparative perspective, the panel explores local responses across the globe to epidemics and health crises. Issues covered by the panel include risk of infection, access to and use of biomedical and traditional medical services to address epidemics, social aspects of death and dying, collaboration among all health providers and first responders, contact tracing, and role/contribution of anthropologists in epidemics. Case studies draw from a variety of geographic regions. This panel is organized by the Anthropological Responses to Health Emergencies (ARHE), a special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology. The panel focuses on identifying anthropological approach to identifying strategies, effective prevention and treatment, community participation, and addressing health disparities. Comparing responses to disease outbreaks and examining the role of anthropologists and the local communities can help us learn from previous epidemics and can help develop locally meaningful and effective responses to COVID-19 and other health emergencies.

Before May 13, contact: Michael C. Ennis-McMillan by email: mennis@skidmore.edu

May 13: Due date to submit 250 word application to organizers

May 15: AAA due date to begin application online

May 20 May (17:00 EDT): AAA due date to complete application online