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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.

 

“Not working? I would die…!”: on Peruvian migrants and their prospects on an acceptable retirement in Chile

Alfonso Otaegui30 January 2020

CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

The pension system in Chile (Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, or AFP) is a capitalisation system run by private sector pension funds. Workers have to contribute a fixed percentage of their salary towards a fund that is used by a private AFP, which invests it and makes it grow (depending on the risks the worker is willing to take). Once the worker retires, this amount of money – which varies based on the worker’s contributions – is used to provide him or her with a very low salary. This system has been severely criticised, especially in the last few years, and its reform has been one of the main demands in the ongoing protests in Chile.

I interviewed retired Chilean older adults who agree that the pension they receive is insufficient for proper living. Some of them continue working part-time –or even full-time– after retirement. There are some retirees however, who do not have the opportunity to do this due to age-related frailties, or a lack of job offers. All of these Chilean retirees, whether still working or not, claimed to have always been “very organised” when it comes to managing their money (especially the ones who are no longer working). By ‘being organised’, they mean that they have either been putting money aside their whole working life or, more likely, that they bought an apartment or a house whose mortgage they were able to pay in full before retirement. The result of this cautious strategy is the same: once retired they do not have to pay rent; therefore, they are more likely to survive on their pensions.

This long-term strategy is actually feasible for those who have had a stable job for over 30 years, but what happens to migrants who might have been living in Chile for a long time, albeit not for enough time to have built up a savings pot? Even though these migrants have been working continuously, it is not unusual for them to change jobs during the first years in their new country, until they find one that suits their education and expectations.

During my fieldwork in Santiago, I met and talked to middle and upper middle class Peruvian migrants – workers who settled in Chile in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although they have been living in the country for over 20 or 30 years and working continuously, they would not be able to live off their pensions and maintain the quality of life they have got used to.

In addition, some of them, during those long years of work, had not saved money for the long-term or bought an apartment, investing all their money into their children instead. Francisco, a 57 year old janitor, has been sending all his extra money to his children in Peru to pay for their studies. Martín, a 59 year old entrepreneur, invested all his money in the top educational institutions for his children here in Chile. Neither of them has an apartment of their own – they still rent. At the same time, neither of these two men regret their decisions: their family was a priority over their own future.

What struck me the most, however, is that when asked about their pensions, my informants answered that they were aware they wouldn’t receive an amount that they could realistically live on, something that did not come as a surprise to them. In a way, they already knew that long ago, when they moved to this country in their late thirties, without enough time ahead to build up a good retirement fund. Furthermore, their response went beyond the material aspect of retirement, revealing their attitude towards life. Almost none of the Peruvian migrants in this age range with whom I discussed this matter could picture themselves as retired. “Not working? I would die..!” replied assertively Ismael, a 65 year old engineer. This is almost the same response I got from Estela, a 65 year old nanny, who recently retired but still works three 8-10 hour shifts a week.

What does this almost stoic acknowledgement of the inability to retire tell us about these migrants’ perspective on life? My colleague Marilia Duque, who conducted fieldwork in a suburb in São Paulo, observed that for the people she spoke to, death was not a big issue. Rather, those older adults rather feared the loss of autonomy in later years: dependence was the new death. “Do nothing? I would go mad…!”, said another Peruvian migrant. This common trope hints at something deeper than merely not being able to afford a good retirement. It tells us that for these Peruvian hardworking migrants, inaction is the new death.