Review of Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID‐19. Lenore Manderson, Nancy J. Burke, and Ayo Wahlberg, eds., London: UCL Press, 2021, 488 pp.

Reviewed Book

Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID‐19. Lenore Manderson, Nancy J. Burke, and Ayo Wahlberg, eds., London: UCL Press, 2021, 488 pp.

Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID-19. Lenore Manderson, Nancy J. Burke, and Ayo Wahlberg, eds., London: UCL Press, 2021, 488 pp.

Cover of Viral Loads (2021)

Abin Thomas

University of Hull

Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID-19 is the result of a global collaboration to expose the structural inequalities that drive the pandemic. The editors—all anthropologists—collaborated closely and demonstrate how COVID-19 highlights the need to approach health and well-being as a collective responsibility. The book delineates examples of state responses to the pandemic (Part I), stigmatization and exclusion (Part II), poverty and marginality (Part III), precarity of care networks (Part IV), and directions for the future (Part V). Contributors to this book project draw on long-term ethnographic engagements and digital methods to explore the social and political implications of the pandemic in the Global North and South. This collection of essays on the anthropology of an emergency is a captivating account of “the first digital pandemic” (p. 17).

Part I critically examines the return of the state in relation to community mobilization, preventive health measures (e.g., isolation, contact tracing), and circulation of conspiracy theories. For example, Nancy J. Burke reveals both the significance of a deeply trained health professional system for an emergency and the extent of biopolitics in everyday social networks of care in Cuba. Part II addresses how COVID-19 accelerated the consequences of structural racism and discrimination through, for example, blaming and stigmatizing of already marginalized groups, and tested the limits of communal relations and political boundaries globally. Ato Kwamena Onoma’s excellent chapter on Senegalese emigrants suggests that scapegoating them as vectors of the pandemic in their home country calls into question the restrictive meanings of political citizenship during a public health emergency.

The subsequent section (Part III) continues to build on the theme of historical and structural inequalities to demonstrate the urgent need to redefine bureaucratic and policy structures, access to health, and sexual and reproductive health care. It not only addresses the struggles of living with disabilities during consecutive health emergencies (Zika epidemic and COVID-19) but also considers the circulation of fatphobic discourses on diets as well as the impact of unemployment and hunger. Claudia Fonseca and Soraya Fleischer investigate the ways in which negationist political leadership and neoliberal austerity measures exposed disadvantaged populations in Brazil to the virus. By focussing on children born with microcephaly and other disabilities following the Zika epidemic, Fonseca and Fleischer describe how the struggles of vulnerable categories of people to access care draws our attention to the need to strengthen local care networks at the grassroots level.

Part IV invites our attention to the structural weaknesses of health systems and their digital needs when faced with COVID. These show how resource-rich and -poor countries grappled differently with the virus due to the burden of endemic and chronic conditions and changing demography. In their chapter on uncertainties in treatment practices and the resultant strategies of health care workers in the United Kingdom and the United States, Ellen Block and Cecilia Vindrola-Padros explore innovative ways of responding to sudden surges in health care demands due to the lack of resource distribution and clear protocols. In the final section (Part V), the contributors highlight why the future of medical anthropology requires a “pluriversal” approach to human–animal–environmental entanglements, a sensibility to work with nonhuman companions as well as a perspective of “health as a common global good” (p. 453). As an example, Rebecca Marsland draws on the relationship between malaria and “mosquito-ridden environments” (p. 419) in Tanzania to think through the fragmented nature of the pandemic for managing the human–nonhuman separation and coexistence. One wishes more pages were dedicated in Part V to critically evaluate and situate the notion of “One Health” in relation to biosocial anthropology.

In response to the rapid developments and methodological challenges during the pandemic, Viral Loads succeeds in bringing together a distinct methodological engagement that is strengthened by the contributors’ prior fieldwork relations and collaborations. For medical anthropologists, the object of health often poses various structural and temporal challenges in the form of fieldwork. Viral Loads shows how an interpretive framework for a timely topic can generate an immensely rich collaborative project while acknowledging the care responsibilities and emotional demands during an unprecedented health emergency.

The book ensures that readers of medical anthropology and beyond learn how living through a pandemic calls for a radical re-evaluation of global health in favor of multispecies-oriented and contextualized making of biomedical knowledge. Viral Loads will be of interest to researchers from science and technology studies, bioethics, social epidemiology, data science, history of medicine, and medical humanities (to name a few). The book makes a strong case for health equity-oriented curricular programmes in public health and health policy.