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Localising the pandemic: Understanding global disruption through online media

by Maddalena Conte

It does not happen every day that a worldwide crisis completely overturns a discipline’s research methods, giving no choice but to experiment with new practices. This is exactly what is going on in anthropology due to the Covid-19 pandemic: by not being able to go “in the field”, which, anyways, would probably be empty, ethnographers need to expand their methodological horizons, and, together with most areas of life, take research online. In my case, as a second-year Cultural Anthropology student, I gladly accepted Professor Eva van Roekel’s offer to assist her in pioneering social media research, on which literature is still scarce. In particular, we were going to investigate the political unrest in Venezuela, which followed the self-appointment of Nicolás Maduro to the government, and provoked a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. I mainly focussed on the great exodus of Venezuelans to other Latin American countries, and their experiences as migrants. This project allowed me to learn innovative fieldwork techniques, which will likely remain the most viable ethnographic methods in the near future, and, as will be illustrated, provided me with new interesting insights on the local-global dichotomy.

Realising how the present conditions have impacted the work of anthropologists – as well as most aspects of everyday life – reminded me once again of the seemingly universal nature of the impacts of a global pandemic. When I started talking to my main Venezuelan informant, David Olaya, I immediately grasped the importance of life histories to understand the impacts of world-reaching phenomena.

I met David while I was surfing through Facebook groups and trying to get an idea of the experience of Venezuelan migrants in other parts of Latin America, especially Colombia. In order to obtain access to these groups, I texted the moderators and administrators – the gatekeepers of social media – asking permission to incorporate the content of their groups in my research. David was one of these administrators. And, to be honest, the only one to ever reply to me. We exchanged numbers and we began our 3-month-long intermittent WhatsApp conversation.

Because of the frequent blackouts and the unstable internet connection, together with the issues related to costly international calls, we mainly sent each other text-messages. I conducted qualitative interviewing by following a topic list I had prepared in advance, which mainly touched upon the journey which took him to Colombia, his family situation, and his personal experience as a migrant. However, he often deviated from my questions, and I let him direct the conversation to whichever topics he preferred to handle, especially in the initial phases. This is when I found out that the transfer to Colombia was not his first migration, and that, in fact, his whole life, much as that of several other Venezuelans, is characterised by a high degree of mobility.

David is a 52-year-old man born in San Cristóbal, in the Venezuelan Andes. At the age of 14 he got into a fight with his father and stepmother and decided to leave the house. Ever since, he makes a living out of “selling things”. He remains quite vague about what he did as a young man, which most likely consists of some sort of informal retail activity, but his business thrived and a few years later he moved to New Jersey with his entire family.  He obtained an engineering degree while working at the General Motors Company. When his wife got severely ill,  he was not able to afford American healthcare, and they moved back to San Cristóbal. Shortly after, David divorced and moved to Cúcuta, in Colombia. His main reason was to get out of the increasing political and economic turmoil Venezuela. He opened a “seed store” and a mechanic’s workshop in Cúcuta. With the start of the pandemic, he returned again to Venezuela, to be closer to his mother and children. He is still working in Colombia in a car repair shop most days of the week to make a living.

A striking feature of David’s story, and many Venezuelan migrants for that matter, are the frequent radical disruptions in their lives. Several life events forced him to repeatedly turn his whole life upside down. I had wrongly expected that covid-19 would be one of the most sweeping occurrences in David’s life, but this was not the case. I realised that the current “corona-crisis” is not what most affected the course of his life. I am not saying that David was not affected by covid-19 at all. Since national borders had again closed because of the pandemic, in order to reach Colombia, and his workplace, he had to start passing through the trochas (informal border crossings through rivers). These border crossings are more dangerous and impractical (see picture). However, he still manages to commute between the two countries almost daily. This shows that personal fights, split-ups and a life-threatening disease unrelated to covid-19 constituted much bigger disruptions than the current changes brought about by the pandemic.

Despite the overall attention to covid-19 and the implemented measures, it is important to re-evaluate the way in which we look at and understand the current crisis, as well as any other global disaster. It would be an imprecise approximation to think of these forces as equally disrupting in every person’s experience. It is important to keep track of people’s everyday lives, and listen to their main concerns, instead of projecting ours, which unfortunately happens still too often. I believe that online media are not to be seen as an obstacle in understanding people’s experiences of crisis. They should rather be seen as an opportunity to experiment with different methods, which, thanks to their profoundly individual character (we communicate through an account which is only ours), can provide new perspectives in “localising” global phenomena, of which the current pandemic is a striking example.

Maddalena Conte is a bachelor student of social and cultural anthropology.

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