X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

A Walk for Humanity

Marilia Duque E S30 April 2021

Mike out for a walk in São Paulo

São Paulo is a city where work organises time and sociability. We are known as people who are always in a hurry and the city is a place where asking “How are you?” is usually met with people discussing what they are currently doing in their work and career. All of this has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions that were put in place to contain it, which have changed how people work and live. It doesn’t matter if these restrictions have been ineffective, a consequence of the political disputes in the country and the irresponsible actions taken by the federal government. Covid-19 was viewed as a ‘little flu’ when it first broke out[1], opportunities to buy vaccines were neglected[2] and the country now lives in a state of having to choose between saving jobs (‘the economy must come first’)[3] and saving lives, as Brazilians have not had the opportunity to benefit from a national plan that guarantees both. The result is that the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in 2021 alone has already surpassed the total amount of deaths between March and December 2020. A special commission was created to investigate the actions taken by the executive power under the Bolsonaro leadership[4].

This post is not about the macroeconomic or political perspective of this crisis. It is about the micro-perspective of everyday life during the pandemic in a middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo where I live. It is also written from the privileged perspective of someone who can afford to work from home. It is about my observations of how people’s behaviour has changed when it comes to time and openness in my local area. Between May to July 2020, the number of divorces in Brazil increased by 54%[5]. I am among those counted in this percentage. Living alone with my 17-year-old son, far from our relatives and isolated from our friends, we decided we should have a dog. And so Mike came into our lives. My son says that Mike is his ‘antidepressant’. What I found out is that he is not alone.

I take Mike for a walk twice a day and I try to combine these walks with quick stops in the local supermarket when I have to buy food or any other supplies. Similarly to me, walking the dog has become an opportunity for many of my neighbours to meet and talk to other people face to face. In the past, when two dogs inevitably stopped to smell each other, their owners were more likely to pull their leash and move on. This has changed. With the excuse that the dogs are ‘getting to know’ each other, owners now allow themselves to stop and talk.

That was how I got to know a young couple who moved to São Paulo one month before the pandemic started. He told me about his challenges as a teacher who had to learn how to teach online overnight. He also told me about how his wife ended up working in a hospital, even though she is trained as a dentist. Another older woman told me the history of her dog, a pet that originally belonged to her daughter, and how she had to take over the dog when her daughter got married. She is now thankful that she has her dog for company. Another man I spoke to found out that I was named after a small city in Brazil that is close to the city he was born in. Since then, every time we meet, even though his dog doesn’t like mine that much, he tells me about the particularities of his city and how he ended up in São Paulo.

These conversations are not restricted to dog owners. Each dog can become an opportunity for someone to stop and talk while petting the dog. Sometimes, they just really want to talk, like the woman I met who took her smartphone out to show me her daughter’s dog and talk about her family. At the time, I thought about warning her that it was not safe to take her smartphone out on the street and show it to someone she had never seen before, but I couldn’t ruin her happiness with security issues. So, I let her talk and show me some pictures and videos.

However, sometimes, people really just want to pet the dog, they want to give and to receive some affection. My son is responsible for taking Mike for a walk early in the morning before he starts his online classes at school. He has had to start waking up 10 minutes earlier so he could allow for people who want to stop and show their affection for Mike on his way. One woman explained this phenomenon to me: ‘It is dog therapy’, she said. She then explained in detail the hygiene-related habits she has adopted since her mother, who has an underlying condition, moved to her house at the beginning of the pandemic. Her dog is also great company for her mother, so she does everything she can to minimise the risks of COVID-19 transmission.

We both agreed that people are feeling lonely and the dogs provide time to pause and reflect, reminding us that among everything else, there is love and humanity. The conversation also reminded me of a young man I had met the day before. While he was on his knees petting Mike, he told me he was alone and that he was considering getting a dog. He was interested to know whether a dog like Mike could live well in a very small flat.

Like in the US[6] or Australia[7], the desire for some company has resulted in a wave of pet adoptions at the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil. One year after the ‘pandemic puppies’, as the phenomenon was known worldwide, a report conducted by dog-sitter provider Rover.com among Americans[8] showed that those who had welcomed a ‘pandemic pet’ did it for emotional support and happiness (41%) or because they needed something positive in their life (39%). 93% said it improved their mental and or physical wellbeing. The report also showed that 54% of owners adjusted their budgets or reduced expenses in order to keep their pets and 90% are still completely happy with the decision they made almost a year ago[9].

The reality in Brazil is quite different. In 2020, 13.4 million Brazilians were unemployed[10]. In comparison to 2019, informal work has decreased by 2.4%, while formal work in the private sector has gone down by 7.8%. Self-employment has gone down by 6.2% and the number of people who stopped looking for a job has gone up by 16.1%. The negative economic outlook and its impact on people’s household budgets is associated with a 70% increase in cases of pet abandonment during the pandemic in the country[11]. Some people had to leave their own houses to live with a relative and couldn’t take their pets with them[12]. In addition to this, there are two other factors that have contributed to pet abandonment during the pandemic in Brazil.

In the beginning, there was misinformation and misguided fears with regards to pets infecting humans[13], which were also reported in China by TIME magazine[14]. Now, as the pandemic remains out of control in Brazil, having reached 390.000 deaths[15] while I was writing this text, the many cases of pets being abandoned also reflect the sad fatality of many owners’ deaths[16]. Other than the economic crisis affecting the country, but often working in combination with it, that is the main reason that people are increasingly deciding to leave behind the pets of their relatives who passed away[17].

Just when I was just struggling to find a way to end this text on a hopeful note, I realise it is time for me to take Mike for a walk. I will enjoy every encounter he brings my way. I will keep listening to what people have to say. I will let them pet my dog for as long as they want. It’s true that, like everybody else, I don’t have the power to change the ‘macro’ reality of the situation, but I can contribute to my ‘micro’ reality. I can turn every walk into a walk for humanity.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/23/americas/brazil-coronavirus-hospitals-intl/index.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/18/world/americas/brazil-covid-variants-vaccinations.html

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41581-020-0327-0

[4] https://www.canalmeio.com.br/edicoes/2021/04/26/covid-19-matou-mais-em-4-meses-que-em-2020-inteiro/

[5] Between May and July 2020, the number of divorces in Brazil went from 4.641 to 7.213: https://epoca.globo.com/brasil/divorcios-crescem-54-no-brasil-apos-queda-abrupta-no-inicio-da-pandemia-24635513

[6] Dog adoptions and sales in US: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/12/adoptions-dogs-coronavirus/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/16/dog-gone-eescue-pet-shelters-emptied-by-surge-in-demand-during-pandemic

[8] https://people.com/pets/pet-adoption-statistic-year-into-coronavirus-pandemic/

[9] https://www.rover.com/blog/pandemic-pet-adoption-boom/?irgwc=1&utm_term=10078&utm_source=impact&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=384088798&utm_content=2JSQAdWFyxyLR970JSywsQuwUkB0a%3AQn7zsuTA0

[10] https://economia.uol.com.br/empregos-e-carreiras/noticias/redacao/2021/02/26/desemprego—pnad-continua—dezembro-2020.htm

[11] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2021/02/apos-onda-de-adocoes-abandono-de-animais-domesticos-dispara-70-na-pandemia.shtml

[12] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

[13] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

[14] https://time.com/5793363/china-coronavirus-covid19-abandoned-pets-wuhan/

[15] https://especiais.g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/estados-brasil-mortes-casos-media-movel/

[16] Economic constrains and owner’s death or hospitalization also reflect in pet abandonment in UK: https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/charity-warns-thousands-dogs-risk-18666922

[17] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53594179

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.