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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.

 

The COVID-19 crisis in Santiago: the increased vulnerability and isolation of older adults

Alfonso Otaegui23 April 2020

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

As everywhere in the world right now, the main subject ruling everyday life in Santiago, Chile, is the COVID-19 crisis. On the 18th of March, the government declared a national state of catastrophe. Since then, borders have closed, massive gatherings are forbidden, and people are asked to stay at home. The date marks five months since the start of social unrest in Chile, with protests that initially began as a response to a rise in metro fares in Santiago and then escalated into a national crisis. Five months of manifestations and repression followed until the COVID-19 crisis emptied the streets. The government postponed the constitutional referendum from April to October. Despite many accusations of human rights violations directed at the carabineros (Chilean police), their presence in the streets seems to be accepted again.

I still live in the working- and middle-class neighbourhood where I came to do fieldwork on ageing with smartphones over two years ago. While in strict lockdown, I keep in touch with the older adults I taught a smartphone use course to for over a year, mainly through our WhatsApp group. For these older adults, having someone help them with the smartphone is more necessary now than ever before. On the one hand, misinformation about the coronavirus can be significantly harmful. I have been in charge of debunking fake news, which I do several times a week. On the other hand, it has become imperative to be able to do some chores online, such as paying bills. I created a couple of tutorials on how to use banking apps, which have been proven useful for them.

Isolation due to the lockdown and the risk on contagion can exacerbate the feeling of solitude for older adults, especially those living alone. Such is the case of Esther, a retired secretary who is 71. She lives alone and has been estranged from her only son for a long time. She is prone to depression and has a very delicate health condition, which until not so long ago, required the attention of seven different specialists. Esther had closed her bank account since being mugged on the street a few months ago, and has relied solely on cash since then. When the lockdown was announced, she called me sounding very worried, as she did not know what to do and had no one else to turn to. She could not risk going out herself but she needed to pay her bills somehow. Fortunately, on the last day before the lockdown, she was able to open a new bank account that included a home banking service. She only needed to learn how to use her banking app.

Not being able to teach her in person represented a new challenge. The smartphone was our only way of communicating, and her single remaining connection to the Internet (she had to cancel her home Internet service, as she could no longer afford it). I could not talk to her and simultaneously show her banking app screens. I produced two tutorials specially tailored for this occasion. “I will try to do this very slowly, as a way of entertaining myself”, she said. Fortunately, she was able to follow the instructions and succeeded. She was indeed pleased and grateful, and even seemed to be empowered. Esther still struggles with depression. “I try to prevent negative thoughts from growing inside me, and I try to be away from the phone”. Too much information can be overwhelming, she explains. She walks inside her one-bedroom apartment as she tries to stay inside as much as possible. However, other older adults who, like Esther, live alone, will have to go outside at some point.

 

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

The only time I go out is once a week, on Sunday morning, to attend the Sunday street market where fresh fruit and vegetables are sold for a much more reasonable price than in supermarkets. I was surprised to see many older adults doing their weekly shopping. Even though vendors and customers wear masks, and the city hall sends out inspection teams to enforce the preventive measures, social distancing is not really respected. Besides, it is common that people touch different products before selecting which ones to buy. It is indeed quite risky to go to the street market. According to the last epidemiological report from the Ministry of Health on April 20th, Santiago is the administrative region with the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the Metropolitan Region. Hopefully, some initiatives to help older adults have been displayed throughout the city, with some groups relying on volunteers to do the shopping for them. Digital exclusion and isolation were already a concern for older adults long before the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis seems to have exacerbated what was already there.