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Anthropologist Discusses ‘Unexamined Assumptions’ About Seeing Friends And Family During Pandemic

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Medical anthropologists at Northern Arizona University have spent the last year interviewing dozens of people throughout the United States about the pandemic. The research has turned up insights about how people perceive the risk of infection differently depending on whether they’re making contact with strangers or friends. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Dr. Lisa Hardy, one of the researchers on the project, about what she’s learned.

Have you noticed any changes—this pandemic has been dragging on for a year, have you seen the way people are talking about the pandemic change over that time?

One of the big changes we’ve seen is that early on—this isn’t surprising because most of us are going through this—there was the idea that this is something new and different and we don’t know how it will affect us, and we’re trying new things, and isn’t it cool we had a Zoom dance party the other day? That kind of thing…. Now that it’s been going on for nearly a year, more of the people we talked to have had COVID, more of the people we talked to have lost people and have been through really devastating effects of the pandemic, and it feels much more like a marathon.

You wrote recently for an article for STAT News about this interesting idea that there’s a belief that strangers are dangerous and family and friends are safe, or safer. Can you talk about that?

People do talk about making calculated risks. ‘I really need to see my family member, even though it’s risky, I’m going to go ahead and take that risk and we’re going to get together.’ That’s one thing people are doing…. However, there’s something else we started to noticed in our data as well. This is different. Not calculated risks but unexamined assumptions, that because you know someone, they are safe. We would hear someone say something like, ‘I’m being so careful, I’m doing everything that I hear from health guidelines, washing my hands all the time and staying away from other people’… and then in the next breath we might hear, ‘We are going to a party later, there are going to be a lot of people there but it’s okay because we know them all.’…. And so what this means is, there’s a lot of research about the idea of contagion and xenophobia and people who think the ‘other group’ is to blame for the contagion. How this looks on a personal level sometimes means, that people think the dangerous person is the person I don’t know, and assume that just because you know someone, no matter what their level of risk is, they’re safe in the knowledge of the person, in the intimacy of knowing someone.

Why aren’t humans better at calculating risk? Do you think we’ve always been bad at that, or is there something about the pandemic that makes it really difficult to do?

I’m not sure we possess the ability to truly understand what a cell is, or what a particle is, or how things travel. Yes, epidemiologists, virologists, bench scientists do have the language for this and have a greater understanding than the general population. Even then, how much can we really know these things without attaching stories to them?…. The idea of COVID being an entity that has an intent, which is bad, it wants to hurt us, it wants to mutate. It’s a guy – we often hear that gendered idea-- it’s a guy out there that wants to hurt us. Those are all stories that come from interpretations of biology.

You’re saying these stories we create are very powerful but also can potentially lead us astray?  

Yes. And that it’s important for all of us to stop regularly and say, okay—like the people who have pods and assume those pods are safe, need to continue to revisit the pods and the safety of the pods, and who people are seeing outside of the pods. In our assumptions and in our exhaustion, where do we make leaps that are not based in our logic of what we know about contagion?

Lisa Hardy, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Interested in participating in this research? Take a survey about your pandemic experiences. Details here:


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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