COVID-19, Conspiratorial Thinking, and Social Disaster: Alumna Martha Lincoln’s Perspective on the Pandemic

Martha Lincoln (Photo courtesy fo Lincoln)

Medical anthropology is a field for this moment. The coronavirus pandemic has brought it increased attention as reporters seek experts who can shed light on where we are and place in context where we might be headed. 

This summer, Graduate Center alumna Martha Lincoln (Ph.D. ’13, Anthropology), an assistant professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University who calls herself a “cultural anthropology informed medical anthropologist,” has been featured in stories by The New York Times, the BBC, SF State News, and other outlets as an expert on the social and cultural consequences of COVID-19 and other pandemics. 

The last six months have been an intense time for Lincoln and for her field. She says it speaks to the depth of this crisis that reporters are turning to medical anthropologists, medical sociologists, and historians for their perspectives.

Lincoln spoke to The Graduate Center about the COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications for the public and scholars. 

GC: You have written that epidemics often reveal pre-existing social problems, and, because they are so acute, have led at times to social change. 

Lincoln: There's something really dramatic about an epidemic that compels public interest and awareness. It's not like more quiet, chronic, long-term health disparities, which often get ignored. Epidemics are often also frightening to elites, because they realize that they can be affected too. This long experience of passing the buck, basically, to other groups, who are going to have more lasting disadvantages starts to look like a bad idea. And that's how we got in the 19th century, for example, sanitary reforms. Social planners started thinking, maybe it's not a great idea for us to have these slums in the middle of our nice metropolis. Maybe that is going to lead to other problems.

GC: When you look at the protests for racial justice and Black Lives Matter, can you tie that to what we're experiencing with this pandemic?

Lincoln: The response to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis would perhaps not have been so remarkably comprehensive and enormous if we had not had this sort of social disaster already. It's worth pointing out that this is a pandemic that from a really early moment starts manifesting in more epidemiologically serious ways in communities of color in the United States. And, with the current administration's neglect of the pandemic, in ways really strongly shaped by their perception that this is going to be limited to the blue states, limited to minority communities. And therefore, as an administration, they felt they could wash their hands of it because it's going to burn through their political enemy and it won't return. Now, that turned out not to be true. We ended up in a situation in the U.S. with a really uncontrolled, completely untraceable disease spread because of this sort of racist perception. I think one can compellingly say that those phenomena have the same root.

GC: Are you surprised by the people who deny the existence or the seriousness of this pandemic?

Lincoln: No, it's not totally surprising, in part because we've had such a long experience now in the United States of anti-science and anti-medicine, the kind of conspiratorial thinking that has informed responses to the virus. I think under experiences of crisis and seeming social collapse, some people feel very open to persuasion by forms of magical thinking. And a lot of what we're seeing in those responses is a kind of culture war response about the reality of the virus and its significance. 

At the same time, a lot of us are still being careful and are less represented in media, because it's inherently less spectacular.

GC: What brought you to this field and The Graduate Center?

Lincoln: I was a concentrator in literary nonfiction writing as an undergrad. And I took a class in ethno-medicine and thought it was really intoxicating. Out of undergrad I was working in nonprofit development, and I re-encountered medical anthropology through Tracy Kidder's biography of the physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer. His particular project in medical anthropology is really compelling. 

I was moved by that work to reexamine this field and think about further study. I applied to The Graduate Center in 2006 and was lucky to be accepted. I'm really glad that that was my decision, ultimately, because it is a fantastic field. And there are so many humanitarian and public health corners of medical anthropology. 

GC: It sounds as if there are opportunities for graduate students in your field.

Lincoln: I think that the pandemic is going to, for example, open certain funding streams. Potentially there will be more resources available in the future for graduate training and research on medical anthropological topics, especially if students are interested in infectious disease, emerging infections, biosecurity. Those are going to be important keywords. And I'd be really surprised if it didn't end up that grad programs in medical anthropology enroll more students in future years and have more of a place in public conversations about public and global health.

Submitted on: SEP 2, 2020

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