Blog Global Health Center

COVID-19 & the value of anthropology in public health

Written by Kat Morgan, incoming MPH candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Gold Family Summer Research Scholar in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

With a newly acquired BA in cultural anthropology, I often receive inquiries on what I’ll “actually do” with my seemingly impractical degree. Informed by my role as a summer research scholar with the Institute for Public Health, I feel better equipped to respond to the skepticism. This is a love letter to anthropology and public health, post tailored to articulate the merit of anthropological research and theory by illuminating its importance in informing public health practice and research, particularly from the purview of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kat Morgan in front of the Atlanta skyline

Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. Yet, in a field that relies heavily on population-level surveillance and data collection, humanist research approaches are ever more valuable in determining how to best serve the public health needs of communities. Anthropology is the study of the development of human societies and culture. Both fields present a diverse degree of research opportunities and are tailored to investigate the human condition.

Anthropological theory is an instrument through which qualitative and ethnographic insights are used to achieve comprehensive data collection and analysis. Applied anthropology is praxis-based research through which investigators assess a community or populations’ needs, gather data, solve problems, and make program recommendations. Public health practitioners investigate “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks,” also known as the social determinants of health. Holistic, applied anthropological research that explores the nuances and complexity of health and wellness in a social and cultural context is not something to be undervalued in public health research contexts.

During the 2013–2016 West African Ebola epidemic, Anthropologists helped mitigate the spread of disease by conducting qualitative research on burial practices to inform the creation of interventions that promote safe burial practices. Similar to COVID-19, Ebola is a highly contagious virus. By understanding the cultural burial practices in West Africa, anthropology facilitated Ebola control in communities, informing practitioners on how to encourage safe funeral and burial rites for Ebola victims and their families. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, anthropology can identify cultural constructions of illness, inequality, and syndemics. Whether at a community or global level, anthropology is the key to acquiring culturally relevant and informed data and interventions through which public health practitioners can promote well-being.

Additional examples of the value of applied anthropology in improving public health include the role it can play in informing policy development or even aggregating data to design culturally relevant health interventions. Although applied anthropology has already contributed to public health, there is great potential to more deeply integrate anthropological research and practices into the various disciplines of global health. As we continue to see a decline in COVID-19 cases and an increase in vaccination rates, now more than ever, anthropologists can employ ethnography to understand community disparities in cases, vaccination rates and begin to investigate the future social and cultural consequences of the global pandemic.