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Anthropology in times of COVID-19. Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile

Alfonso Otaegui30 September 2020

This post can also be read in Spanish.

Figure 1. Don Francisco (78) reporting on the empty streets of Santiago

The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented event due to its scale, to the extent that the French anthropologist Philippe Descola describes it as being, in certain respects, a ‘total social fact’ at a global level (Truong, 2020). This phenomenon, due to its both global and local nature, and its imposing urgency is an invitation for anthropologists to study it. However, the characteristics of the pandemic impose certain methodological challenges. How do we account for local experiences of the pandemic from an ethnographic perspective when both the researchers and the participants must comply with social isolation?

The Chilean government declared a state of catastrophe on March the 18th, 2020, imposing a strict lockdown in various areas of the country. Together with a team of four researchers from the Catholic University of Chile (1), we then started wondering –through Zoom meetings, of course– how we could study the experience of the pandemic in Chile. By then, the lockdown had just begun in the Metropolitan Region, and we were unaware that it would last at least four months in its strictest phase. We decided to try a participatory methodology and invite people we knew from previous research projects, and who had smartphones, to collaborate. This is how the ‘Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile’ project started. Week by week, we asked participants to send us audio messages, videos, photos of their experiences and their impressions of the pandemic – and its corollary, the national lockdown. In addition, we regularly called them and did informal interviews through Zoom or WhatsApp. This three-month project was intended to be a sort of guided auto-ethnography, but it was only so at first.

The participants come from different areas of this vast country: a Mapuche family from the Araucanía region, a family from the rural area of ​​Chiloé, and others from urban areas. In my case, I worked with three families in Santiago: two older adults, former students of my smartphone workshops, and a Peruvian worker that I knew from my previous fieldwork among migrants.

Over time, the participants developed different styles of communication when sharing their experiences. Directed auto-ethnographies mutated into travel logs of sorts. For Joaquín, a migrant who lost his job at the beginning of the lockdown, and whose experience is a testimony to the job insecurity exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, the auto-ethnography gradually became a shared personal diary, almost with the intimacy of confession. Anthropologist Daniel Miller recounted a very similar case in his tutorial on conducting ethnography during social isolation.

Figure 2. Communal meal during lockdown. ‘Here we are, making a communal meal to eat as a group, as everything has got too expensive. Now, more than ever, all unemployed, all united’.

Francisco, a 78-year-old widower who lives alone, developed two channels of communication over time. There was, on the one hand, the ‘official’ channel, through which he would send audio and video messages, and do the interviews as expected. On the other hand, there was the ‘unofficial’ channel: in personal conversations off the record, Francisco discussed with me what he planned to say in the messages since he was very wary about the image of him that such messages could elicit. The lockdown, for Francisco, was a gradual reduction of his everyday spaces of sociality.

Muriel, a 73-year-old woman, gradually became more discouraged as the weeks went by and her usual social activities were suspended. For her, the auto-ethnography was an opportunity to organise her feelings and thoughts, a space for conscious reflection. In a style opposite to the other two, Muriel would first focus on reflection every week, and then she would organise her ideas, write a rough draft on paper, and then read them in her messages. Her stories show the descriptive vocation of the chronicler, combined with major reflections about these dystopian times. In the first weeks of her story, the pandemic is the main figure, occupying the entire stage. Over time, it shifts into the background and the difficulties of being confined, the tension with other people in the house, boredom and uncertainty come to the fore.

You can listen to one of Muriel’s voice messages below:

 

The following is a translation of Muriel’s voice message: It feels like I am living in a new world, full of risks and uncertainties. As if everything I had learned was neither real nor valid. That is the most difficult thing for me. Not the confinement, but not knowing how life will go on. (translated by Alfonso Otaegui)

After three months of staying in continuous contact with these families, and one month of analysis, we want to bring these experiences to a wider audience. Perhaps such stories may inspire in the audience a sensitivity to the experiences of others. Such sensitivity is the basis for solidarity that, according to philosopher Richard Rorty, “has to be constructed out of little pieces” (1989: 94). To do so we partnered with the Visual Anthropology Lab of the university, to put together a multimedia website that would communicate such rich experiences. We may use illustrations, like fellow ASSA team member Laura Haapio-Kirk did, or perhaps develop short stories constructed around words and sounds.

Despite the various difficulties, in all the stories there are glimpses of hope. Perhaps Joaquín’s is the most illustrative. This migrant worker, whose family was stranded in Lima, was always longing for his loved ones during his pilgrimage from one precarious job to the next. He got closer to his young son through Whatsapp. With lockdown enforced in both countries, Joaquín helped him do his homework through a video call. It was during these strange times that his son, 4.000 km away, learned how to write. In a Zoom conversation, Joaquín shared with me the following, visibly moved: “his first text message was ‘Dad, I love you’.

Notes

  1. The team is formed by Jaime Coquelet (CIIR-UC), Rosario Palacios (CIIR-UC), Iniley Iturriaga Vilches (UC), and Alfonso Otaegui (CIIR-UC).

References

Truong, N. (May 22, 2020). ‘Philippe Descola : « Nous sommes devenus des virus pour la planète »’. Le Monde. Retrieved from https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/05/20/philippe-descola-nous-sommes-devenus-des-virus-pour-la-planete_6040207_3232.html

Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge University Press.

 

Getting lonelier: the forbidden spaces of sociality during the lockdown in Santiago

Alfonso Otaegui27 July 2020

“I hope that I will overcome this [the pandemic], given that us, older adults, are more susceptible to being attacked by this bloody virus”, says Don Francisco. Don Francisco is a 78-year-old retired electrician. He lives in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the western part of Santiago, not far from the central train station. He lives alone, as he is a widower and has no children, no siblings, nor any remaining family. Since lockdown started in March, I have had regular contact with Don Francisco every week through WhatsApp. He is one of the former students of my smartphone workshops.

As I said in a previous post, the COVID-19 crisis —and its corollary, the quarantine—have mostly enhanced what was already there: inequality, insecurity, instability of the job market. When it comes to older adults such as Don Francisco, it has revealed the relevance of little everyday interactions and the impact of digital exclusion.

Due to the lockdown, Don Francisco has seen his usual spaces of sociality reduced. His messages week after week constitute a collection of everyday interactions that are no longer possible. He regrets not being able to access the now closed big park near his house, where he used to stroll every now and then, sometimes sitting on a bench and watch people passing by. “There is no one in the streets, no one”, he highlights. Much of the social life of Don Francisco takes the shape of everyday chores: buying vegetables at the fair, going to the supermarket, getting the newspapers at the train station. Little opportunities for little dialogues.

Street market in Santiago during the lockdown. CCNC-BY Alfonso Otaegui

“With the neighbours, now I barely see them, we only meet when it is ‘street market’ day. We meet at the market and just give each other a short wave from afar, as we are holding bags… but at least when we see each other, we know we are fine, right?”. 

At the street market, Don Francisco enjoys short interactions with the vendors, who usually cry out their offers to passers-by, all potential customers. “We know each other with the vendors. We chat about our health […] I see families running the same stall, the son selling, while the father is sitting behind, watching, resting. It is so nice to see families united like this”, he adds. Lockdown has prevented Don Francisco from having his more intimate dialogues with his family – the cemetery where he used to go and see his relatives is shut.  Besides, the closing of all churches has taken other moments of reflection from him.

Going to the bakery provides another chance for greetings and smiles: “I now buy bread every three days, to avoid going out too often. With the bakers, I used to have a short conversation. Sometimes, even the master making the bread would come out to say hi to us, the oldest oneswho are in more danger.” All these little everyday interactions are spaces of socialisation for older adults such as Don Francisco, especially if they are alone. All these small interactions have been reduced or put on hold in the last four months.

Don Francisco’s experience also illustrates the limitations and contradictions of some of the measures taken to enforce lockdown. In Santiago, it is mandatory to have an official permit to go out. This can be downloaded from the police station’s website. Policemen patrolling the streets and security guards at the entrance of the supermarkets usually ask for this permit. After being mugged on the street last year, Don Francisco rarely goes out with his smartphone. ‘They prevented me from entering three supermarkets because I did not have the permit..!’ —Don Francisco complains vividly—‘I hope we, older adults, do not starve. Who is going to feed old loners like me, if we can’t go into the supermarket?” Fortunately, one supermarket allows him to go in without the permit. “I will not say the name, in case this conversation is intercepted”, adds Don Francisco in a WhatsApp voice note. As much as he likes technology, he is also worried about unwanted surveillance.

Digital literacy can be a powerful tool for older adults to fight isolation. Don Francisco loves gadgets, from the solar-powered moving flowers he has in his little garden, to the old mobile phones he repairs to pass the time during the lockdown. He is well-versed in the use of the smartphone. Many of his contacts, however, are not. “Last week I talked to Doña María, she is a charming lady about my age, but the phone call lasted 10 minutes…that is too expensive!”—he shares in another audio message. Indeed, phone plans are very affordable if one restricts themselves to WhatsApp communication but expensive when it comes to regular phone calls. Don Francisco uses WhatsApp with me regularly and we often have WhatsApp calls of up to an hour, sometimes even more. He also receives many WhatsApp chain messages from a couple of his contacts. Still, Don Francisco considers these to be a lower form of communication. “Those are things people do not write, they just forward them”, he states with a dismissive tone. Now and then, however, he expresses gratitude in WhatsApp groups when someone forwards a video of an old song he liked.

Despite all the setbacks, Don Francisco is eager to ‘overcome the pandemic’. He really wants to see the world post-COVID-19. For the time being, the pandemic has made him a little lonelier. Now and then, Don Francisco even takes his smartphone when he goes out and uses it to film the streets. He sends me a video message while sitting on a bench in an empty square.

This is one of the things I miss the most’—he says—‘sitting on a bench, looking at people passing by. Sometimes one of them will sit down next to me, and we will chat. I miss that a lot.’