Responding to the response: NAU anthropologist conducting survey to gauge Americans’ feelings on the country’s response to COVID-19

A handheld tape recorder sits on a laptop.

Medical anthropologist Lisa Hardy wanted to know what Americans thought about their own, their community’s and the country’s response to COVID-19. So she asked them.

Hardy, an associate professor in NAU’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, started a research project in March, as the pandemic and resulting economic and social shutdowns were ramping up. She has interviewed Americans from throughout the country and from a range of demographics: participants are between the ages of 23 and 92. They are different genders and represent a variety of income levels, ethnicities, employment statuses, religious affiliations and political orientations.

“We’re doing this research right now because we want to collect data in real time,” she said. “This situation changes from day to day, let alone month to month and year to year, and so, instead of making definitive claims right now, we want to collect information that we can observe over time.”

Hardy’s work focuses on community engagement around a variety of health issues and pressing community needs such as weight-related disorders, home air quality on tribal lands and resilience. Her work around coronavirus is similar, but as this issue is broader and the responses today could affect how societies and governments respond tomorrow, it’s a different sort of challenge. She wants to understand the impacts of the virus on social systems, how those systems withstand the virus and how people live and act during the crisis.

This social science research will add to the rapidly growing literature coming out of countries throughout the world and will help to inform future pandemic responses and support health and wellness for people dealing with local and global shifts. It’s critical, Hardy said, because addressing the pandemic globally has to be done through interdisciplinary efforts; this is not simply a health issue or an economic issue and all of the facets of the pandemic and response to it must be considered.

“Understanding power, policy, health, inequality, illness and justice from a holistic perspective can only be achieved through collaboration with communities and across disciplines,” she said. “We need virologists, epidemiologists, environmental and climate scientists and others to work together toward understanding not only COVID-19 but also the impacts of the virus on social systems, the ways in which different systems withstand the virus, and how people live and act in the midst of this global crisis.”

Across the wide spectrum of participants, she’s already seeing themes, most notably a shift in how people understand the relationship between the pandemic and political and economic decision-making. It’s always been present in her research, but much more isolated.

“There’s something a little bit different happening here, where people are very clearly associating local and global political positions to their everyday actions,” she said. “We see fear of unknown political decisions as a common thread across the political spectrum.”

She’s also interested in the conspiracy theories she hears about from responders; overall, people do not trust the response to the pandemic from the global to local level.

One other common response stood out to Hardy—one she’s glad to hear every time a responder shares.

“I feel struck by how much people are talking about others that they’re concerned with,” she said. “People are saying they’re really worried about other people who are in worse situations than they are. It’s really heartening, especially since we’re disconnected while sheltering in place, the idea that people are so focused and concerned on the well-being of others has been quite a lovely part of doing this research.”

The second round of interviews begins next week and will focus on people in specific groups. Hardy, along with anthropology lecturer Leah Mundell and anthropology graduate students Kayla Torres and Kevin Shaw, are the U.S. partners in an international research project looking at salutogenesis, which is the sociological term for the perspective that uses social cohesion as a measure of health rather than health as a biological phenomenon. An Israeli team started this international research, which measures the sense of community; support of family, community and virtual groups; trust in leadership; and sense of national coherence through a large multi-country survey.

It’s important work, Mundell said.

“I’m really looking forward to conducting interviews and analyzing data for this project because our interpretations of COVID-19 seem so related to our experiences of inequality or privilege, our social networks, our sense of community and our engagement with government,” she said. “These are all themes of the community engagement work that I do with students. Rarely do we have the opportunity to study such an intense, shared event that can provide a window into how people interpret their experiences as community members and civic actors.”

With scientists from multiple backgrounds gaining a data-driven understanding of how people live with and respond to the virus and the responses to the virus, they are better able to determine the ongoing need for health and resilience. This is important both for individuals and for systems that include inequality.

“One thing that is really standing out now and always is how systemic and structural inequalities like racism and ongoing settler colonialism continue to impact people differently,” Hardy said. “Having data on the medical and biological aspects, as well as the social science on where and how people are suffering and where and how they are finding support, will be important for the development of practical policy changes to improve rapid response in different ways.”

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications