Covid-19 was a revolution that I should have seen coming.
In his classic Cultural Anthropology article, “Missing the Revolution,” Orin Starn (1991) argues that anthropological projects of redemption—the efforts we make to push back against negative narratives about our interlocutors or their communities—can blind us to certain uncomfortable realities. In trying to understand the failure of anthropologists to foresee the 1980 Shining Path rebellion in Peru, Starn (1991, 63) asks why those who “spoke with scientific authority guaranteed by the firsthand experience of fieldwork” somehow missed the revolution that was emerging right underneath their noses. How could those who knew so much know so little about a cataclysmic event that was about to happen? How could they not see something that was staring them right in the face?
These are questions that have been haunting me over the past few months, as the dramatic global catastrophe around us has unfolded. My book, Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health after an Epidemic, examines the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic in China, the pandemic preparedness efforts that were made there, and the global health politics of infectious disease containment. I spent more than a year in the late 2000s embedded with local public health institutions in China that were on the front lines of pandemic preparedness efforts, speaking with over one hundred public health professionals in Mainland China and Hong Kong, as well as officials from the WHO and U.S. CDC. If anyone should have seen this disaster coming, it should have been me.
That I somehow did not, and further, that I publicly demonstrated this failure in a major U.S. newspaper in late January, has been a source of embarrassment and confusion. As I hunkered down with my children, calmed my students, and hoarded my toilet paper, I kept asking myself: how could I have gotten it so wrong?
I should clarify, first, that I did get a lot right. I spoke out early and often about the xenophobia and blame that I was certain would emerge against China and Chinese people in the United States and Europe; I warned that cases of coronavirus in Wuhan were heavily underreported and explained how the reporting of disease numbers at the local level in China actually worked; and I raised alarms that locking down massive numbers of people for an indefinite period of time would be catastrophic in ways we could not and would not entirely anticipate in advance. All of these things, unfortunately, did come to pass.
And yet, I got one thing very, very wrong. I did not think the world needed to panic. I did not think that Covid-19 was the “Big One”—that is, a disastrous pandemic along the lines of the deadly 1918–19 “Great Influenza.” I thought, wrongly, that this outbreak—like SARS in 2003, H5N1 avian flu in 1997 and 2006, and H1N1 influenza in 2009—would not be as bad as everyone at first feared. And so I kept telling people—the worried moms at birthday parties, my daughter’s preschool teacher, the news reporters looking for answers—to take a deep breath, and calm down. This was not the end of the world, I said. There was no need to start panic-buying masks. Things may be bad in Wuhan, but elsewhere, it was going to be ok.
But it wasn’t ok. And it’s not ok. And this is the Big One. And the fear was justified. And that left me wondering, as one irate social media troll put it, “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING???”
This question brought me back to Starn’s (1991) provocation. Somehow, in digging so deeply into the world of pandemic preparedness in China, I had missed the revolution.
In hindsight this probably was due in large part to the commitment I had made over the years to counteracting Orientalizing and disparaging narratives about the emergence of viruses in China. The beginning of this outbreak followed a familiar pattern: a mysterious disease arises in China. Scientists raise the alarm that this could be the Big One. The threatened apocalypse is blamed on Chinese people’s supposedly unnatural and irresponsible habit of consuming wild animals. Accusations of a cover-up merge with demands for China to utilize its authoritarian powers to contain the virus before it “escapes” China and spreads to other countries. Xenophobic reactions in Western countries target Asians and Asian Americans.
I had seen this movie before, during previous, smaller outbreaks. And like any good anthropologist, I had critiqued the racist undertones of the screenplay. I had questioned why scientists were so sure the next Big One would come out of China or Southeast Asia, when the last influenza pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, arose in North America. I had questioned why the media reported with such glee on grotesque imagery from Chinese wet markets. And I had refused to blame the public health professionals I had gotten to know in China for occasionally failing to keep China’s germs to itself.
So I drew conclusions that I should not have drawn about how the movie would end this time around. I thought the sensationalist headlines about a new plague arising from the wet markets of China would turn out to be just that: sensationalist. I thought that this virus would follow the same pattern that SARS and H5N1 had followed. It would show up in small outbreaks here and there in other countries—just enough to sow more fear and fuel more xenophobia and hysterical headlines. And then, I thought, the spread would slow, the attention to it would die down, and we would go back to finding other reasons to blame China for our problems.
So confident was I in January and February that Covid-19 would not be the next 1918 flu that for a long time I downplayed the harrowing photographs out of Wuhan that my Chinese friends were passing on to me from their social media feeds. I brushed off dire warnings from colleagues. And I responded to the questions of reporters with a word I now wish I had never used: “overreaction.” Sure, this was a nasty virus for some, but shut down all of Hubei province? Shut down borders with China? Evacuate everyone back to the United States? This, I felt, was overkill.
But whatever you want to call the remarkable series of events that later unfolded, it was not an “overreaction.” And so these early messages have, over time, come to seem painfully out of touch.
How this happened holds lessons for how we produce and demonstrate ethnographic authority in the public sphere. Like most academics, I did not have much experience translating my research into public commentary in popular media outlets. Despite its obvious relevance to my work, when the coronavirus first appeared, I actually was quite startled when people outside of anthropology started asking me what I thought. Startled—and pleased. Suddenly, I was on the local news, then national news, then international. I spoke on radio, TV, podcasts, and webcasts in Providence, New York, London, and Hong Kong.
I was comfortable doing this because I felt I had important things to add to the global conversation about the virus. And for the most part, I did. But by giving into the temptation to step outside of what journalists refer to as my “lane”—my area of expertise that I really know about—to comment on what I thought might happen with the trajectory of a complex viral epidemic, I had threatened my credibility. In rushing to interpret events in a way that fit neatly with a narrative I had previously identified, I had also committed the cardinal anthropological sin of oversimplification. In the end, without quite realizing I was doing it, I had pushed the bounds of my expertise too far.
None of this is meant to suggest that I, or any other anthropologist, should not engage in public debates on important issues. I am still talking to the press about Covid-19. I still feel confident that I have something important to add to the conversation. But I have learned to be much more careful about pushing the limits of ethnographic authority. From now on, I’ll be staying in my lane.
Orin Starn. 1991. “Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru.” Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 1: 63–91.