COVID-19, A Natural Disaster? Interview

Confinement. Copyright Sandrine Revet

Can the current COVID-19 crisis be considered a “natural” disaster?

This question suggests several responses. It is interesting in that it invites us to reflect upon how we frame such an event and what consequences this can have in terms of the way we analyse it and deal with it. Even if the virus is naturally occurring, this pandemic is no more “natural” than disasters caused by tsunamis, hurricanes, or floods. The social sciences have for a long time shown that disasters occur when a phenomenon, which may be of natural or technological origin, meets a society made vulnerable by political decisions, economic choices, or forms of social organisation.

What seems interesting to observe is the way in which we think about what is happening and what this tells us about the means that are deployed to deal with the situation. Let’s consider UN agencies, for example: the international coordination concerning pandemics is managed by the International Health Organization and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). For these agencies, the current situation is considered as an “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. In France, the frame is similarly that of a “health crisis” (crise sanitaire).

For me, such wording bears two risks:

The first one stems from the decision to talk about a “crisis” or “emergency” and to use the vocabulary that goes with this. The notion of crisis implies a normal state and its temporary disruption before a return to “normal”. The crisis translates graphically through the metaphor of a “peak”, and through the more naturalising metaphor of a “wave”, as well as curves that rise and come back to their original level more or less rapidly. It is a linear reading of the crisis. In addition to this, talking about a crisis implies that the structure is only affected temporarily. In the current situation, however, it is obvious that this pandemic is not an abnormal disruption of a “normal” functioning but rather one of the normal consequences of an “abnormal” functioning. The current situation will also trigger a shock for existing social structures, which therefore means that it corresponds better to the notion of disaster, which designates a transformative event that destroys, reverses, upsets the order that precedes it.

The second risk that I see in the widespread use of the notion of “health crisis” is related to the qualifying term “health”. By qualifying the event in this way, we risk prioritizing the framework of health over all others. But as political sociology has shown in the past, one of the effects of these “crises” is to overwhelm the usual organisation of society into sectors, to produce what Michel Dobry has called “desectorisation” and oblige us to think outside of our usual comfort zone. This forces us to focus on coordination, which constitutes a major challenge for risk management professionals and is one of the most complex operations to put into place in the sense that each professional world, each sector, has its own temporality, its own challenges, languages, aims, scales. Making all of these coincide is an extremely complicated undertaking. Even if there is no question of denying the specificity of this event or the central role played by the healthcare system in its management, circumscribing it through using the term “health crisis” eclipses all the domains that are and will be affected in the long run, and also implies that in everyday decisions, health takes precedence over everything else. But of course, this isn’t the case. The health, social, environmental, economic, and political dimensions of this disaster are embedded within one another and they need to be considered together.

Just as states and societies prepare themselves for the advent of natural disasters such as earthquakes or landslides, do you think our governments could have prepared for this pandemic? Is it at all possible to avoid this type of pandemic?

Obviously, very few countries were prepared for this type of pandemic,1 which is rather surprising given that, since the 1990s at least, the possibility that this type of event would occur has been high in many areas, and there have been many warnings. Preparation exercises that simulate such events have been developed in many countries. In September 2019, the WHO’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published a report on preparedness for such pandemics, reminding states of the urgency to “prepare for the worst”, the worst being identified then as a “a rapidly spreading, lethal respiratory pathogen pandemic”.

The issue of preparedness should also lead us to question this framing, which has shaped the way risk and disaster management has been thought of since the early 2000s. The idea of preparedness was born during the Second World War with the setting up of the first institutions of civil defence and continued to be developed, in the United States in particular, during the Cold War through a set of mechanisms set up to deal with a potential nuclear attack. Preparedness is based on the idea that the disaster is inevitable, that it can occur at any time, and that it is therefore necessary to be prepared in order to limit its impacts. The question is no longer if the disaster will occur (prevention-thinking) or when (probability-thinking) but what will be done once it does occur. Preparedness is based on a set of measures and dispositifs (alert systems, exercises, simulations, storage, coordination plans, etc.) and on a relatively short time-frame for action (the “emergency”). Additionally, as social sciences research on preparedness has shown, it is extremely difficult to prepare for a disaster that has never occurred before. For instance, the scenarios used for simulation exercises are often based on previous disasters. It is difficult to use imagination in these types of exercises, and as Olivier Borraz and Elsa Gisquet show, simulations “promote an orderly vision of the crisis”.

Simulation of a disaster in Sendai, Japan, March 2015. An orderly vision of the crisis. Photo: Sandrine Revet

Focusing on preparedness tends to hide other ways of thinking about what is occurring, other frameworks that are based on less visible actions, and that consider the longer term. For example, framing an event in terms of vulnerability rather than preparedness doesn’t only centre on the hazard (here, the virus) and on an “exogenous” representation of the disaster, i.e., seeing it as being outside society, but on the contrary adopts an “endogenous” vision of disaster, i.e., seeing it as a product of society itself. In this framework, which emphasises factors of vulnerability, the—structural—measures that are considered are part of a temporality that goes beyond the emergency of crisis management and implies a need for policies aimed at reducing the factors of vulnerability. In the case of the current disaster, we ought to work toward clearly identifying the factors of vulnerability of each of our societies that have made this disaster possible not only in various specific contexts but also at the global scale. Worth citing here are the weakness of public healthcare systems, increasing globalization of trade, and deforestation.

Even though we have known for a long time that using such preventive measures costs less than reacting in a crisis situation, such structural measures aimed at reducing the factors of vulnerability are less visible than crisis management measures. And it is always difficult to convince authorities to invest in preventive measures once the crisis is “over”.

How can the anthropology of disasters help us think about a moment like this?

The anthropology of disasters has for a long time worked on similar situations, even if the scale of this pandemic is unprecedented. Although anthropology cannot “make sense” of what is occurring, it allows us to examine how humans deal with and give meaning to what they are going through. Several authors have recently coined an even more specialised label for this kind of work in relation to the current situation. In particular, the volume The Anthropology of Epidemics , published in 2019, examines themes that are specific to the current type of disaster and also echoes anthropological research on other topics.

Several themes that have been widely dealt with in the anthropological literature appear to be relevant in the current situation. The anthropology of disasters has shown that disasters do not even out inequalities but, on the contrary, deepen and worsen them. In the face of a discourse that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s around the idea of “global risks” and in particular with the publication of Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity in which Ulrich Beck claims that contemporary risks have the common characteristic of uniting humanity under the same condition of vulnerability, anthropology has shown that such vulnerability differs depending on the context, leading people to deal with situations of danger with different resources. By coming as close as possible to the people and the groups under study, anthropology is able to qualify the major trends, by showing for example the unexpected resources some groups considered to be vulnerable can mobilise—groups that have developed skills to deal with critical situations on an everyday basis and that are sometimes less destabilised than others when a “disaster” appears.

"Distribution de produits d'hygiène dans le Choco, Colombie, avril 2020. Photo : Ascoba.

Distribution of hygiene products in Choco, Colombia, April 2020. Photo : Ascoba.

Anthropology has also shed light on the emergence during critical situations of “survival communities”, based on the social organisation of groups that allow for emergency reorganisation. This is what we see appearing today through the phenomena of mutual aid between inhabitants of the same building or neighbourhood, or within family groups. It is also what is reflected in the “impulses of solidarity” that reassure us about the human qualities that arise in critical times. However, anthropology has also shown that such solidarity is ephemeral and that it is undermined as soon as external aid mechanisms take over, based on selective criteria that reintroduce differences and competition between those who have access to them and those who do not. On the other hand, disaster situations often make it possible for new actors and new social relations to emerge. Gender relations can be disrupted, as can relations between generations, and new leaderships may emerge. Once again, these processes are not universal, but they are worth studying in specific contexts, with a perspective that goes beyond the very moment of the “crisis” and that has a good knowledge of the field.

Emblematic figures also frequently emerge in disaster situations, and they can be portrayed differently depending on the context: heroes, victims, scapegoats. Many anthropologists focus on how these figures can be understood in the contexts in which they are mobilised.

Anthropology has also extensively documented the impact that the treatment of corpses can have in disaster situations, be it epidemics or other situations of mass death, such as conflicts. Non-compliance with funeral rituals, mass burials, and degrading treatment of bodies have a major influence on how societies deal with the dead in the longer term.

Finally, anthropology makes it possible to work on the basis of the different narratives that are produced about an event, which can take forms as diverse as songs, works of art, poems, tales and stories, photos, and everyday conversations, and that can provide insight on the meaning that people give to such events. Without confining ourselves to media narratives or national discourses produced by a few emblematic figures, it is interesting to analyse the complexity of these narratives and to see that they weave, in several voices, the fabric of a collective narrative that does not always stabilise. These narratives attempt to give meaning to what has happened or is happening and often point to the culprits. What is striking when one analyses them in detail is the plurality of voices that coexist within them.

In conclusion, I would say that what is specific to anthropology is the way it enables us to look at the ordinary of these “extraordinary” situations by examining everyday experiences. Ethnography offers a particular scale of inquiry and engages with detailed description while anthropology offers a comparative programme that offers a wider perspective.


Further reading:

Access the other articles published on COVID-19 on the CERI website, in French and in English

Access the CERI Resources on the pandemic here.

Access the CERI Resources on the Environment and Climate change here.

Other publications by Sandrine Revet are available here.

Latest book by Sandrine Revet, Disasterland. An Ethnography of the International Disaster Community.


Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.

Cover photo by Sandrine Revet.

  • 1. At the time of writing this (April 2020), South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam are cited by the WHO as the countries that have best managed the pandemic. Taiwan can also be mentioned in this regard, even if the WHO does not cite the country for geopolitical reasons. These countries all experienced SARS in 2003 or MERS in 2012 and have “learnt something” from this experience.
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