Israel Rodríguez: “Framing the pandemic as a health emergency means overlooking other important effects”

*Interview by Margalida Ripoll Ferrer and originally published in IN3 Blog.

Israel Rodríguez-Giralt is a researcher and the coordinator of the IN3’s Care and Preparedness in the Network Society (CareNet) research group. His research explores new ways of understanding and intervening in disaster situations, especially from an ethics of care perspective. From June to September 2020 he formed part of a task force created by the Government of Catalonia to improve its Covid-19 response strategy.

Your research group focuses on care. What is your understanding of this term? 

It’s a polysemic concept that is generally associated with specific groups, such as nurses and doctors, and also people who informally provide health, welfare or protection to someone. But the concept of care should not be limited to health, to the home, to specific professions, to the elderly or to people with functional diversity… As an idea, care is a much more cross-disciplinary concept and refers to all practices that sustain and enable life, that show that we are interdependent, that we share vulnerabilities and that we need the help and support of others. 

We also see care as an ethical and transformative principle, to which we want to apply a different way of conducting research: a participatory study that gives a voice to people and groups that find it difficult to make themselves heard. For us, care is also a metaphor for rethinking how to do science

How did your research on the situation in Puchuncaví affect this approach?

Puchuncaví is a town in Chile that is surrounded by companies that are very important to the nation’s economy, but that are also extremely harmful to the environment. Since the 1960s, the communities who live there have been systematically and continuously exposed to the pollution produced by these companies, making this disaster both chronic and also largely invisible. With Manuel Tironi, from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, we studied how the affected communities manage to live with and deal with this level of toxicity in their everyday lives. 

We found that by caring for their family members, but also looking after their plants and their pets, based on small, everyday acts of kindness, their toxic lives became more bearable: first, because by taking care of what was important to them they were also, even if just minimally, restoring an environment damaged by pollution.

But, more importantly, by caring they also noticed many of the effects of the pollution and the scale of it. They shed light on, for example, the slow impact of heavy metals on health and on the dynamics of plant life. This empowered them and helped them to think of ways to act and transform their situation. 

In that same vein, we tried to redefine the concept of disaster, bringing it more in line with the idea of slow violence or slow disaster used by other authors, such as Nixon and Knowles. Placing care at the centre has allowed us to shed light on other forms of environmental (in)justice and explore new ways of researching these communities and situations. 

How has this changed how you conduct your research? 

We are used to expert knowledge being the ultimate authority to explain or validate a given situation, but cases like this help us adopt a more careful sociological approach in which we listen to the communities, take into account the problems and situations that matter to them and amplify voices that experience the most difficulty in being heard.

For example, some of the town’s residents, generally women, explained what it was like to care for a person, generally their husbands, workers or ex-workers in the polluting companies, who were suffering from heavy metal poisoning. Their daily care routines allowed them to see the effects and impacts of toxicity that many health experts were unaware of. It was not just a tale of everyday suffering, it was also a means of shining a light on other symptoms and effects of pollution that biomedical knowledge and the institutional apparatus were not taking into account. 

These accounts highlighted the importance of going beyond certain realms of expertise. They also made us look beyond the acute end of the emergency and focus on the slower, more gradual harm and processes that were affecting their lives. This led us to reconsider disasters as slower, more silent and more sinuous  situations. What we were looking at was a “cloud  that enshrouded everything”. 

What do you mean by “slow  disaster” and how can it help understand the situation?

The usual image we have of a disaster is an acute and highly disruptive episode, normally due to natural causes, such as an earthquake, a hurricane  or a tsunami, but there are other disasters that are not sudden, but move more slowly and gradually, like the one in Puchuncaví.

For some time, the social sciences have been questioning the usual descriptions of what a disaster is, first highlighting that there is nothing natural about disasters, but also questioning the timescale used to define and limit these phenomena.

The beginning of a fire, for example, is not the point at which the forest starts to burn. To understand a major fire, you have to examine the ecological and sociological conditions that made it possible. This may include factors such as depopulation and the progressive abandonment of the rural world. And the same principle applies to defining when a disaster is over. For certain people or groups, usually the poorest sectors of society or those with least social and institutional support, the disaster may last for years beyond the point in time when the emergency is over or a specific threat, such as a flood, abates. 

How is the concept of “slow disaster” related to the Covid-19 pandemic?

As we know, since March 2020, the sudden arrival of the coronavirus has resulted in thousands of deaths, caused numerous health problems and brought the health system to the brink of collapse. This probably explains why, since the beginning, the pandemic has been qualified as a “health emergency”.

With the health emergency, as we have seen, the focus is on the “curve”, whether it be for deaths, like at the start, or hospital admissions, which came later. The emergency is associated with the most serious and acute manifestations of the contagion, especially from the biomedical perspective. 

However, my argument is that the health emergency obscures a wide range of voices and conceals a series of slower and more gradual effects that while less immediate are equally important. One example is mental health, but there are also effects on other levels: poverty, social cohesion, social connectedness, etc. These would be the submerged part of the iceberg.

And perhaps the effect of most concern is that the importance of the health emergency has been so strongly imprinted that it prevents us from considering the pandemic in other ways. As a slow disaster, for instance. In such contexts, my work consists of finding ways of shedding light on these other harms. Paying attention not just to the times of most acute pressure, to the loudest voices, but also to the most chronic and silenced dimensions, which are often related to inequality, social exclusion and institutional abandonment. 

You have participated in various research projects related to Covid-19, including one on its consequences in terms of mental health. What were its main findings? 

The research was coordinated by Constanza Jacques, from the Jordi Gol Primary Healthcare Research Institute (IDIAP Jordi Gol), and I made contributions at different points of the project. What the study found is that in the first months of lockdown, a lot of people who were responsible for elderly people in homes or providing informal care for others, particularly women, were subjected to immense stress and suffered greatly from a lack of protective resources and masks, but also of institutional support because the assistance systems collapsed. This is reflected in results that showed an increase in the rates of moderate or severe levels of depression and anxiety among the people with this profile

Another research project in which I participated, coordinated by Daniel López, a colleague at CareNet, enabled us to see that elderly women in the city of Barcelona, especially those over the age of 80, also often amongst the city’s most impoverished people, are those at most risk of social isolation under distancing conditions

These data are important because of the type of people who are affected, who are in many cases overlooked, and they highlight some of what the social sciences can contribute: helping public policy makers to determine which groups are suffering most and adapting measures and policies to them.

Another group you have studied in the past is children, through the CUIDAR project. What is your opinion of their situation during the pandemic? 

In the CUIDAR project the emphasis was on children and young people, one of the groups most often neglected in disaster situations, as we have also seen in the pandemic. This group is often perceived to be homogeneous, despite being extremely diverse in terms of age, gender and life experience. We also tend to see children and young people as a group to be cared for and protected, but we don’t often see them as citizens in their own right, with opinions and agency in a disaster situation. 

Based on this premise, the project sought to raise awareness among policy makers and emergency professionals, showing them through participatory experiences with children and young people that if they want to make the world safer for them, the best thing to do is to listen to them. First, because there is a situation that affects them and they have a right to be informed and should be allowed to voice their opinions about it. But, what’s more, there is a practical purpose for this too, given that in crisis situations children and young people have been found to contribute knowledge, care and support to their communities

In this respect, the measures taken during the pandemic have been somewhat frustrating. Children and young people, along with the elderly, have been excluded from the decision-making process, which is a reflection of a structural problem in society. We have established rights to prevent this from happening, but social and institutional practices show that there are groups who are repeatedly discriminated against for reasons of age. This means that their priorities and visions of the world are systematically ignored, making them and other groups subject to discrimination more vulnerable, and creating conditions whereby the disaster affects them more intensely. 

How can research by social scientists play a greater role in the design of public policies?

Our problems are becoming increasingly complex and global, highlighting the dire need for an interdisciplinary approach. The pandemic is a good example of this. But it is not something that is easy to implement. We need time, practice and also to understand that we need to work together. This may be why, given the magnitude of the challenge, such collaboration has been lacking during the pandemic. 

In any case, I am convinced that those of us working in the social sciences can do things to improve this dialogue: learn to express ourselves better, show evidence of the relevance of our work and find creative ways of raising awareness among policy makers  and other co-experts. It is important to realize that collaboration makes us wiser, stronger and better equipped to meet the challenges we face

With the concept of slow disaster I am trying to do just that: show that the social sciences are also at the heart of defining these challenges. And that the concept of disaster is not limited to seismologists’, physicists’ or epidemiologists’ expertise, but also includes social scientists, or  the affected communities, and that the different knowledge we all can provide can help shed light on issues and dimensions that are not being taken into account.