How can Anthropology and the Humanities deepen our understanding of disease, the body politic, healthcare, and the power of solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Facing a world of uncertainty, our Spring 2020 Medical Anthropology course (ANT/HUM 240) has creatively transitioned to online instruction, becoming a vital forum for students to grapple with the life-altering COVID-19 pandemic.

Drawing from ethnography, critical theory, and the arts, students have analyzed the multifaceted medical, social, and political-economic challenges brought on by the pandemic.

What can art tell us about pandemics?

We considered how plagues were historically explained and addressed in the absence of scientific knowledge and clear medical armamentarium. Drawing from the Princeton University Art Museum’s artworks and historical accounts (from the Bubonic Plague in early modern Europe to HIV/AIDS in the late 20th century), we learned how plagues occasioned new forms of control and political power and socially mobilized constituencies facing mass death.

Carlo Coppola, Italian, active ca. 1635–1672. The Pestilence of 1656, Oil on canvas , 76 x 99 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Caroline G. Mather Fund

Structural violence and COVID-19

As the Medical Anthropology course unfolded, we examined how the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the precariousness of our systems of preparedness as well as the forms of structural violence that exacerbate vulnerability, rates of mortality, and disparities in care.

We were greatly inspired by the powerful work of LaToya Ruby Frazier in The Notion of Family, in which she exposes the environmental predation, state disinvestment, and everyday violence that marks the life chances of generations of African-Americans, surviving America’s boom and bust cycles.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, American, born 1982. Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test), 2011. Gelatin silver print, 61 × 101.6 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Hugh Leander Adams, Mary Trumbull Adams and Hugh Trumbull Adams Princeton Art Fund © LaToya Ruby Frazier

Lack of investment in public health and deeply entrenched inequalities within and across countries has amplified the impact of the pandemic. COVID-19 continues to spread and kill unevenly along the lines of age, class, race, gender, and locality.

The pandemic has been dangerously politicized within the unfolding drama of a world theater, exposing the regular curtailing of the rights of marginalized peoples, the expensive and inadept search for “magic bullets,” and the rampant disregard for human lives.

Students have also used Medical Anthropology discussions to explore new practices of solidarity, emergent forms of cultural expression, and activist efforts for risk mitigation and universal systems of social protection.

Students partner with community stakeholders

Excitingly, several service organizations in the Princeton area have agreed to online collaborations with our students for their final Medical Anthropology projects. Supported by Princeton’s Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), and the Pace Center’s Service Focus program, students have addressed local health problems and developed research and communication materials that are relevant to community partners as they envision future work.

Working in small groups, a significant number of students have also creatively explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the politics of public health, viral economies, caregiving, and medical ethics. Critically engaging emergent literatures and media, these groups have produced audio-visual and artistic projects.

In years past, our community-engaged projects have been showcased in a Medical Humanities Fair, where students presented their works to our partners and the larger Princeton community.  This year, we are sharing the students’ ethnographic and creative works on this online platform.

As you visit the website, we hope you share our excitement in the critical force of Medical Anthropology as we seek to produce people centered, socially meaningful, and politically relevant knowledge for our times.

Art curator Kate Bussard visited the online class and discussed the ethics of photojournalism in times of humanitarian crises and war using exhibits from Art Museum’s current exhibition LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography

Co-Instructors | 
João Biehl & Onur Günay
Teaching Assistants | Ipsita Dey & Nikhil Pandhi

With the support of Trisha Thorme (ProCES), Yi-Ching Ong (Pace Center),
Sebastián Ramírez (Global Health Program), Ben Johnston (McGraw Center),
Jeffrey Himpele (VizE Lab), Patty Lieb (Department of Anthropology),
Veronica White, Kate Bussard & Cathryn Goodwin (Princeton Art Museum),
Miqueias Mugge (Brazil Lab / PIIRS)





Patty Lieb
Communications and Events Manager
Department of Anthropology


Header Images 

Carlo Coppola, Italian, active ca. 1635–1672
The Pestilence of 1656
Oil on canvas
76 x 99 cm
Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Caroline G. Mather Fund

Gaetano Previati, Italian, 1852–1920
The Monatti, illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, ca. 1895–99
Watercolor, heightened with white gouache, on light brown wove paper
23.2 x 32.2 cm
Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Felton Gibbons Fund

LaToya Ruby Frazier, American, born 1982
Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test), 2011
Gelatin silver print
61 × 101.6 cm
Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Hugh Leander Adams, Mary Trumbull Adams and Hugh Trumbull Adams Princeton Art Fund
© Latoya Ruby Frazier
Courtesy of the Artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome

Concept of SARS-CoV-2 or 2019-ncov coronavirus, 3D Illustration, Getty Images