GVSU medical anthropologist joins others worldwide to offer insight on fear, stigma and the social science of a pandemic

Kristin Hedges, seen here in this 2018 photo, is working with fellow medical anthropologists worldwide on the social science behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristin Hedges, seen here in this 2018 photo, is working with fellow medical anthropologists worldwide on the social science behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

While health concerns are obviously always a key element in a disease outbreak such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is another force that also plays a significant role in how the situation evolves: social issues.

Fear, stigma and the cultural values of a population are among the factors that influence how people react to a pandemic, and medical anthropologists such as Kristin Hedges are the experts who can help provide clarity.

Hedges, assistant professor of anthropology, said those in her field are more of an unseen aspect of the expertise called upon during an epidemic, but their insight on the reasons behind people's reactions and behavior is valuable as officials consider policy and practices.

"Medical anthropology studies the connection between culture and health and trying to understand how your culture is going influence how health wellness and treatment are defined," Hedges said. "Why it's helpful in this circumstance is because we have an understanding of how people react to advice. Health is not just about biology; our culture is going to affect how you're thinking."

With the understanding that these social science issues are critical during an epidemic, Hedges and her counterparts worldwide have already held one webinar for scholars and the general public and plan another this week. The group, Anthropological Responses to Health Emergencies, as part of the American Anthropological Association, was formed during the Zika outbreak in 2016 and has since then mobilized when global health crises emerge for brainstorming and shared solutions.

While professionals such as those in public health are more apparent during a crisis such as this, medical anthropologists are employed everywhere from higher education to agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research institutions like Johns Hopkins, Hedges said.

One area that medical anthropologists understand deeply is how and why the "othering of other people" happens, Hedges said. In the case of an epidemic such as this, fear is at the root of the xenophobia, racism and stigmatizing that has taken place.

"A big part of the survival instinct is fear of the unknown, and since COVID-19 was completely unknown it's not surprising people are responding in fear," Hedges said.

The barrage of messaging, misinformation and disinformation also has a strong cultural component, Hedges said. One piece of advice from the first webinar is when fact checking people on social media, "debunk without amplifying." Fact-checking may not change the mind of the original poster, Hedges said, but someone else reading comments may take it in.

As for the distinctive characteristics of the American culture in responding to this crisis, one potent value is individualism, which can be a hindrance in getting people to think and act collectively, Hedges said.

And yet, also on display are the American values of providing resources for those who need them and finding ways to connect and look out for each other, she added.

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