Anthropology, Public Health

How coronavirus has affected human cultures and religions around the world [Podcast]

Author’s note: At Anthro Analyst, we often analyze societal issues about public health from an anthropological perspective. In doing so, we try to provide unique insight into global public health trends and offer unique commentary from the perspective of high-school students. This is the first episode of our podcast which provides us a great platform to discuss anthropological ideas in a format easy to digest. Feel free to follow our podcasts on Spotify or Anchor FM to stay up to date with our series!

The field of healthcare isn’t limited to clinical practice. Rather, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, factors influencing healthcare include  “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age that shape health,” collectively known as the social determinants of health. In the first episode of the Anthro Analyst podcast, we explore how a core element of our society—religion—has affected, and been affected by, the coronavirus pandemic. By learning more about the societal underpinnings of the coronavirus, we can improve our pandemic response and better respond to similar issues in the future. 

In this podcast, Soham Govande and Durjay Trehan explore how culture and religion have affected, and been affected by, our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to this episode on Anchor FM or Spotify.


Anchor FM:

For your convenience, we’ve included a transcript of our conversation below if you’re not able to listen. Feel free to follow our podcasts on Spotify or Anchor FM to stay up to date with our series!


SOHAM: Around the world, religion is considered an essential facet of society that people look to in times of crisis. My name is Soham Govande on the Anthro Analyst podcast, and today, we’re going to be talking about the intersection of anthropology and public health, as we look at how these relevant aspects of culture have affected, and been affected by our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

SOHAM: Before we begin, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Soham, and I’m a high-schooler in Central Texas. I’m passionate about public health, and a strong believer in the idea that the health and well-being of society are deeply interconnected. Health and well-being are influenced by societal factors, such as culture, demographics, and geography, collectively known as the social determinants of public health. We often hear about what’s on the front line of the pandemic response, but unfortunately, some of these other aspects I mentioned can be overlooked. On the Anthro Analyst podcast, as teenagers, we believe that we can provide a fresh perspective on the issues surrounding us. 

SOHAM: Today, I’ve brought my friend, Durjay. Durjay is avidly interested in psychology and political science. Do you want to introduce yourself, Durjay?

DURJAY: Hi, I’m Durjay and I’m also a high-schooler in Central Texas. I’m happy to be here to discuss these prevalent issues. I also run a blog called Psychology Weekly in which I discuss similar aspects of our society. 

SOHAM: A quick disclaimer before we begin – especially in today’s political climate, religion can be a controversial topic, so I want to emphasize that the purpose of this podcast is not to endorse any group, but rather, simply to analyze our society’s culture from an objective perspective in order to gain a deeper understanding of how we can improve our response to the coronavirus and better respond to similar issues in the future. 

DURJAY: That’s right. We’re impartial and just trying to observe and analyze these societal matters.

SOHAM: One more thing – We’re recording this podcast on Easter Sunday, so happy easter to all our listeners who celebrate it. 

DURJAY:  So without further ado, let’s get started. The current death toll is 110,000 deaths and almost 1.8 million confirmed cases.

SOHAM: Let’s start by talking about religion, and on a broader level, culture. Many religions have a superhuman spirit, or a God, in who people place their faith in when they face troubling times. Due to the nature of this pandemic, many are deeply disturbed by the lives lost and the trauma they face. Durjay, can you tell me what you think about this?

DURJAY: I think that’s an interesting point, Soham, because coronavirus is a once-in-a-century type disease. For many people, like myself, this is the first life-threatening event in which oneself, their family, and their communities are all in danger. I think that’s largely why people are so scared. Because it’s our first time facing something like this, we quite frankly aren’t well-equipped. Like you mentioned, in many devout communities, people are praying to their God to help them make it through this era. 

SOHAM: That’s right, and I think one example of a community with numerous devout members is Iran. Let’s talk about the current state of the coronavirus in this country, and which factors affect the public health situation there. As we know, Durjay, Iran has the 9th-highest reported cases of coronavirus in the international community. Why is this so?

DURJAY: In many rural parts of the country, there isn’t adequate sanitation and infrastructure, which has led to a high poverty rate for families. As you mentioned, it’s one of the most devout countries in the world, and a recent poll found that 87% of Iranians pray every day, overwhelmingly in the name of the state religion: shia islam.

SOHAM: Wow, that’s quite religious. I can’t imagine that in the United States. Since you brought up the quality of life, I’d like to touch briefly on that. So, I think that the lack of education and high poverty rates, could also be connected to the lack of awareness about coronavirus in rural areas because it’s easy for rumors to spread about an unknown disease when you’ve heard so little about it in your local community.

DURJAY: Definitely, I think a recent study showed that education levels and coronavirus awareness were highly correlated, which is in line with many other inquiries of a similar nature. And although this developing status likely played a role in Iran’s current status as an epicenter, I believe it’s also imperative that we discuss the political and governmental side of things as well. Have you heard that the Iranian health minister recently tested positive for coronavirus?

SOHAM: Yes, and that’s quite an interesting development, as, at least according to many western sources, he played a vital role in the downplaying of the very disease that impeded their response.

DURJAY: This ironic occurrence was emblematic of a larger retribution Iran faced for what many viewed as the Ayatollah’s failed response. Most prominent in this failure was a lack of regulating travel from China. Many officials and supporters of the government defend this action by defining their diplomatic relationship with China. But Iran did even less to limit this travel than tourist-dependent nations like Turkey. Furthermore, recent developments regarding the nuclear deal and consequential parliamentary elections furthered the neglect shown towards the oncoming crisis.

SOHAM: Thanks Durjay. Now, we’ll be talking about Italy. The major religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism, and about 80 percent of the population is Christian. How has coronavirus affected the religious practices of Italians?

DURJAY: Well, as of today Italy has gone for 6 weeks without an in-person mass and some regions have moved to online masses.

SOHAM: That’s a good point you bring up. For example, the papal mass for Easter Sunday is taking place online. This is tremendously good news to hear because although religion does play an important role in people’s lives, it’s equally as important to take scientific and medical precautions against COVID-19, so this is a great step in the right direction. 

DURJAY: However, these restrictions weren’t always in place, and religious gatherings were part of the reason the virus spread so rapidly in Italy.

SOHAM: That’s right. To elaborate a little on this, despite the national lockdown, the Diocese of Rome pushed back against an order to close all churches. This was because the Pope Francis felt that Italy was having an overreaction, though hundreds of churches did end up closing anyway. 

DURJAY: During the last few weeks as the virus hit its apex in Italy, which occurred in late March, the news media documented the situation. Although it has decreased now, the number of cases have reached 140,000 and the number of deaths reaching 18,000.

SOHAM: The US has over 500,000 cases but it just recently passed Italy in the number of deaths, and this means that Italy had a much greater mortality rate than the US did. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why Italy was so hard hit by the coronavirus. The first reason I can think of is demographics. The country has the second-oldest population on earth, and its young often mingle with their elderly loved ones. In Italy, 23 percent of the population is over age 65, compared to the US, where that same percentage is 16 percent.

DURJAY: I think another dimension of the fear was that Italy wasn’t able to flatten the curve, and as a result, their healthcare system was overloaded with cases while the virus hit its apex. This was responsible for the high fatality rate, which rose to above 10% in cities in Northern Italy.

SOHAM: It’s quite tragic that so many people were victims of this pandemic. What’s even more disheartening, in my mind, is that the people who got sick from attending large religious gatherings may have been affected in a particularly negative way, since the reason they attended such gatherings was to pray for their well-being and that of their society, but they actually got sick as a result of their prayers.

DURJAY: I see what you’re saying. That’s an interesting point, Soham. Now, let’s talk about the situation in South Korea. 

SOHAM: Yes, going back to religion, it’s been found that half of South Korea’s cases can be traced back to a meeting of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. 

DURJAY: It’s also true that hundreds of Muslims who attended a mosque service and one rector of an Episcopalian church contracted the virus. This spread has led to some limiting of public worship in a similar fashion to Italy.

SOHAM: Staying on that topic, let’s talk about the situation in India, which is a Hindu-majority country. Both of our families are from India, so I think we can offer particular insight into what’s been going on. Hindus believe in reincarnation, and funerals are important cultural events for family and community members. However, this practice is being limited by new laws put into place by Prime Minister Modi. Funerals are now being  limited to 20 or fewer attendees. 

DURJAY: Also, the largest Indian association of priests is asking mourners to postpone travel to the northern Indian city of Haridwar, which is a site on the Ganges River, due to the shortage of priests to perform rituals. 

SOHAM: Moreover, the new guidelines prohibit embalming the corpse of a COVID-19 victim and ban relatives from kissing or hugging the body to avoid any risk of transmitting the virus. Again, this rule is definitely for the better, as we don’t want the virus to spread in parts of India which have high poverty rates and where people don’t have adequate access to healthcare services.

DURJAY: Another important aspect I feel that we should talk about is the islamophobia that has recently sparked in India. For those who haven’t heard already, it was found that 1,000 people who attended a large Muslim missionary gathering could have been exposed to coronavirus. Since then, it has sparked a nationwide manhunt to find people who attended the missionary and quarantine them. Unfortunately, this has resulted in increased racial tension and islamophobia, as exemplified by the current administration

SOHAM: Yeah. I think it’s really unfortunate that this is happening. In this time, we all need to unite with one another, but what’s happening around the world is that people are breaking into groups rather than finding common bonds. If we want to have any hope of defeating this virus, we need to work with one another rather than blaming each other for who caused it. 

DURJAY: I definitely agree. The only path forward in times of crisis like this is to unite not divide further.

SOHAM: Just to recap, we frequently hear about what’s happening at the front line of the coronavirus response, but it’s important for us to consider the societal factors underlying it as well. Thanks for coming on today Durjay. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

DURJAY: Thanks for having me, Soham.

SOHAM: And on that note, I’d like to thank everyone for listening. Be sure to return for the next episode of our podcast as we take a deeper dive into the coronavirus pandemic and examine the intersection of public health and anthropology from a new perspective. 

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