TITLE: FEAR AND FORGETTING IN AN ONGOING PANDEMIC
Interview with Dr Heather Battles, biological anthropologist.
- INTRO: WHAT IS BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY? [00:00]
PAULINE: Welcome to Pandemics Reflected: a podcast that puts a pandemics research hub under the microscope – during a pandemic. Each episode, I ask researchers at the University of Auckland’s Pandemics Past, Present, Future research hub to reflect on how the current COVID-19 pandemic has affected, infiltrated and changed their body of research and their lives. Today we have Dr. Heather Battles in the studio. Heather is a biological anthropologist based here in the School of Social Sciences. Heather, welcome.
HEATHER: Thank you for having me.
PAULINE: It’s a pleasure. So first up, could you please explain to us what a biological anthropologist is? I mean, how is this different to other forms of anthropology?
HEATHER: So biological anthropology is one of the four subfields of anthropology, depending on where you are. In North America, it was linguistics, cultural anthropology, archaeology and biological anthropology. And here at the University of Auckland, it’s social anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology and ethnomusicology. So biological anthropologists are concerned with human biological variation, human evolution, and many biological anthropologists work in the area of the anthropology of health as well.
PAULINE: And that’s one of your particular areas, which is why we have you here today. So are we talking here about something like the TV show Bones versus Indiana Jones? A lot of people think of that when biological anthropology is mentioned.
HEATHER: Yeah. So a lot of biological anthropologists do work with human skeletal remains, especially if you’re working in the area of forensics or if you’re working on evolution and working with hominin remains. But other biological anthropologists work with living humans or work with archival data and historical data as well.
- THE ATTRACTION OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE (02:04)
PAULINE: Great. And that’s what you do. So you’re one of our first guests on this show so far who has always worked in the area of infectious disease epidemics and pandemics. Unlike many other researchers who have had our research transformed and changed into having to reflect on pandemics. So in particular, you’ve looked at polio. What drew you to infectious disease and why polio? Could you talk us through your early career?
HEATHER: So it started in undergrad actually. So I was a double major in anthropology and history and one of the courses I took as my fourth year seminar course in history major was on epidemics and we had choose our independent research project in that course. I was thinking about what I wanted to look at and I was thinking about family history and I had a great grandfather who died of the 1918 flu and so that was one of my possible choices. And then my aunt caught polio when she was a young child in Ontario, and that was my other choice. And so I went back and forth and I can’t remember why landed on polio instead of 1918 flu but I did and so I interviewed one of my aunts for that project about her memories because she was the older sister. So she remembers what it was like for the family when her younger sister got polio. I looked at the public history of polio and how it was depicted in the media for that course and just got me really interested in polio. It combined some of my interests in the anthropology of children and childhood, the history of childhood, health and disease, and disability.
HEATHER: So when I went to graduate school for my master’s degree, I was still interested in polio, and it was sort of a topic that I knew something about. So when they asked us to pick, you know, research papers for our classes, I was sort of gravitating towards polio. And I ended up doing my major paper of my one year master’s degree on the anthropology of disability. And then while I was doing my masters, they asked me, okay, what’s your PhD project going to be? And I sort of thought and thought and then you had to write a grant application right at the start, and I hadn’t even barely gotten into my master’s degree yet. And I thought, Well, I’ll go with what I know. I’ll write a masters or a sort of a Ph.D. grant application on polio. And then it just it stuck, it did. It combined all my interests and so I could look at a lot of different things with it. It also allowed me to combine my interest in, human evolution, human pathogen coevolution and bio social perspectives on health. So it just sort of ticked every possible interest that I had in one topic.
- POLIO: A SCARY SUMMER (04:50)
PAULINE: So. Well, that’s fantastic. So just going back to you mentioned your aunt or your aunt in your accent and you mentioned some of the memories she had of having polio and of that time. You talked as well about some of the newspaper accounts and things like that. Could you just give us a brief overview of what that was like?
HEATHER: Well, I think a lot of the memory so talking to my aunt and talking to other polio survivors and then reading a lot of the memoirs that polio survivors have published since… There’s that just widespread fear that children felt, especially from their parents, because it was a summertime disease. That was when the disease was spiking. So everything associated with summer created a lot of fear. So parents wouldn’t let their children go swimming. They wouldn’t let them have ice cream or do anything that would, you know, go to the lake, anything that might be associated with getting a chill and getting sick. So basically everything associated with summer sort of became imbued with fear. So children remember just their parents being very anxious and their mothers being very anxious and sometimes remembering that their classmates or siblings or themselves got sick and needed, you know, crutches or callipers. Some have memories of iron lungs being used for respirators.
PAULINE: It’s amazing how quickly that memory fades. And I’d like to see what memories there are of this period. Now, I mean, you talked about anxious mothers, and I’m certainly one of those, or have been during this ongoing pandemic. In your analysis of the newspapers, what have you found?
HEATHER: Well, it has a lot of parallels to COVID. Actually, it’s one of the first things I noticed during the beginnings of the pandemic in 2020, the newspaper reporting the initial uncertainty as to what it was or the basic science behind the virus. Consulting with experts with differing opinions, daily tallies of deaths and cases in the newspapers. You know, I thought that was very unusual for polio when I was looking historically. But now with COVID, I can see it’s the same kind of thing: a daily reporting of what the current figures are in the newspaper every day in front of your face.
- DIGGING THROUGH DATA (07:21)
00:07:09,350 –> 00:07:13,080
PAULINE: How do you get this data? You talk about looking at these old newspapers. Do you go into the field? Do you go into cemeteries? Do you sit in the archives and scratch through things? People find that quite fascinating.
HEATHER: Yeah. So I do use a number of sources, depending on what time period I’m working with or where and what sources are available. So this could be digitised newspapers and here in New Zealand we’re quite lucky because we have Papers Past, which has huge resource of digitised historical newspapers and it’s constantly being updated. In New Zealand there’s also the historical death registrations. I looked at those in Ontario as well. Different rules about access in Ontario – they became public after a certain amount of time. So you just rock up to the provincial archives and look at the microfiche or the microfilm. They’re also digitised to some extent. So for people doing genealogical research in New Zealand, I had to apply for special access to them because they’re not public. So I had an internal research grant to look at those and then it was just a matter of going through. And since I was interested in polio – in this research on polio in New Zealand, in Canada – just going through scanning, looking for that cause of death that said infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, and then being able to follow up those individuals and families through the newspapers and through any other historical records that exist.
PAULINE: So that seems to be quite different from, say, other anthropologists that are going into the field and living with the community or let’s say, archaeologists who again go off to the field. What drew you to that historical aspect of things?
HEATHER: Well, I’ve always been very interested in history and the way history informs the present and the trajectories of things and how historical processes and evolutionary processes (going on a longer time scale). And it was also an opportunity to use my training. Like I said, my double major was anthropology and history and my Masters and Ph.D. supervisor was a historical anthropologist. And so the archives were her space of anthropology. I really liked that I had the ability to confine combined my interest in anthropology and evolutionary processes and health, but also my interest in history and especially social history and medical history.
PAULINE: That is so cool that you can draw together all of those interests into your research. Now, speaking of research, what were you working on when COVID arrived, end of 2019, beginning of 2020? I remember we were having chats at that time, but I cannot remember what we were working on.
HEATHER: Yeah, it’s hard for me to remember because we got driven in very quickly to preparing for the start of the new semester and Zoom and online teaching and everything like that. But I do remember I had some manuscripts in the pipeline of working, preparing drafts and submitting to journals. One of them was one that did come out last year finally, it was a co-authored paper with Phil Roberts from Australia. It was actually data out of his PhD thesis and that we’ve been working out and it’s on the scarlet fever pandemic in the 19th century in the Victorian Goldfields and the synergy with measles epidemics that were happening at the same time. And so it was really exciting that that actually eventually got published and came out and because it’s on a historical pandemic. There’s been a bit of interest in it, so that’s quite nice, just a small bit of interest. Just a small bit of interest, yes!
- PAST PANDEMICS & COVID LINKS (11:08)
PAULINE: I was going to ask, can you see any links between that and COVID? But that’s very, very clear that there is. And when we’re chatting about that 1916 polio epidemic in New Zealand and how you just published on some of that, how you were talking to me about how that took place in World War One? And you thought that perhaps that was why polio in New Zealand had been forgotten a little?
HEATHER: Yeah, I think when people think about the big polio epidemics in the 20th century in New Zealand, they think about the 1920s and thirties and forties and so on. There’s not, I couldn’t find much written on the 1916 epidemic at all. And the 1918 flu that came along a couple of years later was the biggest pandemic in human history, and even it was called “the forgotten pandemic”. So it’s maybe not surprising that the 1916 epidemic of polio was forgotten. But it was the biggest. It was big. At the time it was the biggest that there ever been a New Zealand and it was the first national level, really epidemic, of polio. There had been sort of smaller outbreaks before and a smaller one, especially in 1914. But this was the first that reached the whole country and produced large numbers of deaths and a large number of cases. And I was quite interested in it in my research because of the intersections with the First World War in terms of a number of things, but especially in the rehabilitation process of the children afterwards.
HEATHER: So there’s some really interesting history there of the rehabilitation facilities that were used for the troops. Once, you know, the troops were patched up and on their way home, they had, you know, personnel with orthopaedics expertise and they had beds. And there was actually a period of overlap when the kids were there getting surgeries or doing some rehabilitation from polio effects and they were there at the same time as the soldiers who were receiving their rehabilitation treatments. And there’s some really interesting history there. The newspapers covered it a little bit, but I was just really fascinated with that intersection of the wounded soldiers and the children who’d caught polio in 1916 and the aftermath of that.
PAULINE: You talked a little bit about that forgotten period and this interest. There seems to be a move towards people becoming quite blasé about COVID at the moment and a couple of things of people saying, “Oh, it’s going to be forgotten, we want to forget it”, etc. And obviously children are sort of driving the next wave, according to some reports. Do you have any comments on that?
HEATHER: I think now with COVID, the forgetting of the 1918 flu makes more sense because you have got this mass trauma of a pandemic on top of the trauma of the war. And I can see why people didn’t want to maybe think about it anymore or write about it or talk about it. I think the problem right now is that we’re still in the middle of the pandemic and it’s not just a matter of not thinking about it or trying to get past it. We’re still in it and there are still things we can do to stop it. And so that’s currently a big problem for public health.
- LOCKDOWN RESEARCH IN THE WINDOWLESS ROOM (14:27)
PAULINE: It is indeed. Thinking of things we can actually do – how did the lockdown affect your daily life at the time? We had a bit of a chat and a giggle about this. I mean, talk us through your daily life, your daily routine in lockdown.
HEATHER: Well, level four was pretty severe. It was the middle, really, or the beginning of a new semester. It was just straight into emergency Zoom teaching. So just me and my computer in my windowless room, which is sort of a spare room slash home office that I never really thought I would use for anything other than, you know, occasional personal admin and paying bills in that room and having a pull out couch for guests. And it became sort of my main living space doing Zoom recordings, doing, live lectures, just constant Zoom meetings for all sorts of university business at odd hours with international collaborators.
00:15:23,080 –> 00:15:27,309 (JUST AFTER)
HEATHER: And yeah, my world became very, very small and very, very focussed on sort of emergency reaction to dealing with, you know: moving that teaching online; responding to reporters who were suddenly interested in my expertise and all sorts of things. So it was just sort of not a lot of time to sit back and think about research. And the benefits of historical research is usually I have quite a lot of time to reflect on things and can go at my own pace. COVID sort of changed that and the teaching had to change very quickly and responses to sort of research requests or expertise requests were very, very fast as well. So the pace both slowed down and sped up drastically at the same time.
PAULINE: It did indeed. Now you’re known as a bit of a coffee aficionado. How did you make sure you had coffee during those dark times?
HEATHER: Oh, well, I think I ordered, you know, the beans to arrive. I think somewhere in there I oh, I think I ordered I got my own grinder or something like that. I sort of upgraded things as I went along, upgraded my coffee machinery because at level four, you couldn’t go out at level three, at least I could get takeaway coffee and support all my local cafes, and that was my one outing of the day normally. So level three was not so bad because I had an excuse to get out for a walk. Level four was sort of upgrading my home environment. Normally, I didn’t spend a lot of time at home before the pandemic, and now it was all the time. And then also upgrading my office equipment because my little tiny laptop screen was not cutting it any more. So every lockdown, I think I upgraded my equipment. I got an external monitor, I got a separate microphone, I got a bigger USB hub, I got a laptop stand. You know, my set up got better and better in every lockdown.
PAULINE: Heather can now pretty much run the country from the small room in her apartment. Did it affect anything like your access to archives or were you not research intensive at the time?
HEATHER: So the lockdowns and the closing of the border did affect my ability to travel, especially to go to conferences. So there were conferences that I was meant to go to that I couldn’t. I’d just come back from research leave at the end of 2018. So luckily I was between leaves. I wasn’t sort of planning to do a lot of additional research at that time. And because of online resources and previously collected work and things like papers past, I could always I could refocus on some of those things that were available and could. I spent a lot of time also redirecting my students to things that could be done.
HEATHER: Because, you know, having research students who are working on their own projects who suddenly needed to pivot and make sure that they could do a project that would be viable no matter how long lockdowns lasted or no matter how long the border stayed closed. So a lot of things with either data, data sets that were readily available and could be obtained from overseas, you know, with permissions or research that could be done locally as long as we weren’t in, you know, full lockdown.
PAULINE: Cool. You’re one of the researchers who has pretty much always worked in epidemics and infectious disease. But a lot of people’s research was stimulated by events happening in the pandemic. And that even happened for you. Do you want to talk to us about the COVID 15 study?
HEATHER: Oh, so yes, you’re referring to so a study that I’ve been collaborating on with some colleagues. So they had a pre-existing study looking at growth of children in New Zealand and they’ve been tracking this for a while. And I had a conversation one day when my colleague Bruce Floyd was talking about this project he was working on and some of the trends they were seeing in the children in their growth over the lockdown period. And I had mentioned that sitting at home in my little room for months on end, I had gained a bit of weight and sort of found that others had similarly gained something called the COVID 15. I think it’s sort of like the freshman five or ten or whatever it is, you know, the consequences of being sedentary for long periods of time. So I suggested that they might want to look at the weight gain impacts during the lockdown period in their data. And next thing I knew, I was included as a co-author on their paper.
PAULINE: That’s pretty cool. And yeah, quite interesting that the personal does affect our research lives and others’ research lives because we’re all people and anthropologists and researchers, understanding what it means to be human.
- EPIDEMICS EXPERTS IN THE SPOTLIGHT (20:15)
PAULINE: Now, Heather, you mentioned you went from relative obscurity to being a sought after profiled academic in the media and also by transdisciplinary international research teams. So I saw you on TV being interviewed and I even heard that you were co-authoring a briefing paper for the World Health Organisation. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
HEATHER: Yeah, so that was actually one of the outcomes of our Health Research Hub that we had here, sort of a predecessor to the Pandemic’s Research Hub. And so as part of that hub, we had a researcher who was visiting us and gave a little guest talk, Caitlin Pilbeam from the University of Oxford. And so when she was asked to contribute to some briefing around the issue of immunity passports for a W.H.O. working group, a social sciences working group, she then reached out to me if I wanted to contribute some historical and anthropological perspective to that. So then I joined that team. And that eventually led to a publication, a journal publication about social science implications and issues to be considered in the issue of immunity, passports and immunity based documentation for COVID 19.
PAULINE: Nice. And you also asked why targets give a keynote about what to do when your research suddenly becomes irrelevant.
HEATHER: Yeah. So this was a group of biological anthropologists down at the University of Otago, and they were having sort of their annual retreat to plan their research. And so they asked me to come and chat about my experiences of pivoting research in the midst of a pandemic. And so I talked to them a little bit about how the pandemic had affected my work. I think one of the things I told them was that it had been a really great opportunity to join collaborative projects, not just in New Zealand but overseas as well. You know notwithstanding the middle of the night zoom calls and lack of sleep. But yeah, it had overall been a bit of a positive experience in that way and opening up some more collaborative opportunities because, I’d be sought out as one of the people working in this area and allowed me to make some more connections. And it was really actually important because I was by myself in that room, you know, just doing online teaching, not seeing colleagues, not having family around, not having really any contact with any other people. And so the collaboration with co-authors, which isn’t all that common in historical work especially, it’s a lot of sole authored work, that was really nice and sort of gave you a social aspect and some social interaction in the midst of the lockdowns.
PAULINE: That must have been very, very valuable indeed. Those were some lonely times. Did you find you needed to develop any new skills for a lot of the media and outreach work that you were being asked to do? Do you have to undergo media training when you start your role at the University of Auckland, or is that something that just comes about organically?
HEATHER: I understand that there is media training available. I have not been trained. I think the part of the problem is how do you undergo media training in the middle of the pandemic? So I think normally that might have been something I would have sought out in the middle of the lockdowns. That didn’t really seem like that didn’t really didn’t really happen. I’m not sure if it was an option or not. It’s probably something I could should consider doing in the future. I think it’ll be very beneficial. But I also didn’t really have a very high profile compared to, you know, the folks who are consulting and advising the government. So there’s people who are sort of the media’s go to person. And I was consulted in various capacities for various articles and different things, but I wasn’t super high profile. I wasn’t, you know, appearing live. I wasn’t appearing on stand up presses or anything like that. So, no, no, no, no formal media training.
- VACCINE PASSES (24:35)
PAULINE: And as you say, in the middle of a pandemic, I could see how that wouldn’t necessarily be top of mind. Upskill in media presentations when you’ve got far more pressing and urgent work to do. Now talking about pressing and urgent work. I was reading a Spinoff article in which you were quoted talking about vaccine passes. And one of the things you said is that “a vaccine pass isn’t some unprecedented, radically new thing. That is just one in a long line of pandemic responses across history, including controlling borders, nationwide lockdowns and vaccinations”. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about the work you did in vaccine passes?
HEATHER: Well, some of this came up in previous research in a lot of different ways. So when I was looking at polio in North America and New Zealand and elsewhere, passes during polio epidemics were something that were used. They weren’t vaccine passes at the time. They were health passes. You know, a doctor would certify that you were not currently infected with polio or showing no signs of current illness. And that would allow you to move from town to town where restrictions had been put in place. Most well-known case I think is in New York City during their 1916 polio epidemic. And they had very similar concerns to some of the initial concerns that were raised with COVID immunity, passports around fraud (you know, were private doctors being paid off to allow children to move freely through these restrictions)? Because in the absence of a cure or vaccine, the first thing people do is control movement of people. And so with polio primarily affecting children, one of the things to do was say nobody under 16 can enter this town or cross this border.
PAULINE: It’s quite frightening imagining how those children were restricted from moving with their families. Now, another thing that you said, and I quote again, is you said, “I think there’s a lot of people now asking what could we have done differently?” (And this was right at the start of the pandemic). And you say: “we knew this was coming and that pandemic is going to be a constant threat. I think people who researched this already know this. Maybe we needed to be louder”.
HEATHER: Yes. So I don’t know. There are those preparedness plans in the governments, the New Zealand government, other governments have these preparedness plans in place. Part of the issue is how well they’re implemented as well as well as what they’re planning for. So a lot of what was expected as the next pandemic was a flu pandemic. And so if you’re preparing for a flu pandemic, you’re expecting certain things. Maybe you’re expecting slightly less contagiousness. And you got COVID, which is, you know, airborne, highly contagious. And so maybe some of the plans weren’t geared towards that.
HEATHER: But there was also the matter of funding, of maintaining stockpiles of personal protective equipment so that you’re not caught off guard with lack of masks and other supplies for health care workers and things like that. There’s a recurring sort of historical trend to get complacent if there hasn’t been a threat in a while and to redirect that funding to things that are seen as more of a priority. You see this happening over and over again with re-emerging diseases like tuberculosis. So if you take your funding and redirect it, sort of take your foot off the gas, it can come back and resurge. So it’s sort of a constant problem. But that means because it happens and is so predictable, it should be then foreseeable and preventable.
HEATHER: And then there’s also the matter of surveillance systems being set up so that we know what viruses are circulating out there, what sort of zoonotic infections. So infections that come from animal populations into human populations are out there and can maybe be caught early before they turn into a pandemic.
- MONKEYPOX & DISEASE VISIBILITY (28:50)
PAULINE: Talking about surveillance systems, if anyone is particularly interested in surveillance and data ethics. Last episode we interviewed Dr. Andrew Chen about his work as a data ethicist during this current pandemic. And speaking of zoonotic diseases, monkeypox is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. And I thought maybe just spontaneously you could talk us through smallpox and how vaccinations eradicated that, what that means for monkeypox and do people need to be worried? Again, this is very much conjecture, crystal ball gazing. No one is expecting you to be a medical expert in this. This is the anthropological perspective.
HEATHER: Yeah. So. One of the things with monkeypox is helpful is to take that broader ecological perspective of infectious disease in emerging infectious diseases. Because one of the things it looks like might be contributing to the monkeypox outbreak globally right now is the waning or loss of immunity to smallpox, because, of course, smallpox was eradicated by 1980. And that means that vaccinations stopped because once the disease is no longer around, you no longer need to keep vaccinating people for it. So you had loss of natural immunity and loss of immunisation. So people now there is some cross immunity. If you’ve had a smallpox or been vaccinated against smallpox, you have some immunity to monkeypox. And so that might have been one of the things that might have been keeping monkeypox from spreading and sort of entering new populations – is widespread immunity. And so we’ve lost that. And that creates sort of a potential niche or opportunity for that that virus to then exploit.
HEATHER: So there’s a vulnerability there. The game plan for for monkeypox has a lot to do with how smallpox was controlled as well. So things like ring vaccination, so vaccinating potential contacts, potential anyone who was potentially exposed to smallpox has been fairly effective in the past. And so I think that’s the plan now rather than sort of sudden widespread vaccination of everybody, because we do have the smallpox vaccine. We still have stockpiles are still reservoirs of that because labs have retained samples of smallpox. So even though it’s eradicated from the natural world, from human population, from circulation, it still exists in labs as a consequence of Cold War politics. So the U.S. and Russia have retained samples, which means we need to keep the vaccine around. So there is enough vaccine, as far as I know, and it’s currently being used.
HEATHER: But as smallpox is just another example of a zoonotic disease that’s been around that’s primarily been affecting people in Africa in sporadic outbreaks has maybe gone under the radar, maybe from lack of surveillance in certain settings and has now sort of popped into view. And now the question is, how long has it been circulating before we actually started to notice it.
PAULINE: Which is a concern. Now your main interest is “changing infectious diseases”. How infectious disease changes and how diseases emerge. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you look at, sort of is it a social, biological process and how you work through the process of the emergence of infectious disease?
HEATHER: So one of the things that I tell students when I give guest lectures on this topic or regular lectures in my courses, is that the emergence of infectious disease is both about, you know, actual emergence in terms of a mutation or a biological change in the virus or the virus or bacterium or whatever pathogen you’re talking about coming into a new population or is about or at the same time it is about coming into view. And diseases can come into view in different ways, tied into biological changes, but also social perceptions. They can come into view because they have new symptoms that maybe take on new social significance. They affect a new population. A population previously affected by a disease that maybe didn’t have a strong political voice gains one. So thinking of HIV/AIDS activism and the gay community in the 1980s.
HEATHER: It could be a disease moving into a new area. So a disease that was sort of confined geographically spreads to a new place or more places. Or it could be like polio, a disease that was previously endemic and sort of a steady, constant trickle of cases, clusters in time and space. So clusters in particular years, clusters in particular seasons. And you get a sudden cluster of cases, a lot of cases at once that grabs people’s attention. Whereas if it was, those same cases were scattered throughout the year, scattered over multiple years, it maybe wouldn’t have drawn much attention.
- LABOUR, GENDER, ABLEIST POLICY IN VIEW (34:07)
PAULINE: So thinking of coming into view, if we apply that metaphor to more of a social process, scholars and public intellectuals have noticed a shift in their disciplines. So how people are expected to work are blurring between work and personal lines. Certain inequities on gender issues of race lines, etc. are coming into view. They may they previously existed, but now there seems to be a big shift potentially in the way in which knowledge is produced and the way in which we do things. What have you noticed in biological anthropology or in anthropology generally? Have you noticed a shift at all?
HEATHER: Well, I think the most I mean, immediate shift was in access to data or to conferences. So, you know, the first thing that happened was thinking about access to conferences when people could not go in person. And it was interesting to see that happen all of a sudden when the disability community has been calling for those kinds of access changes for a very long period of time. And so the sudden shift to online conferences and how to replicate those in-person networking opportunities in a virtual environment.
HEATHER: So we saw a lot of sort of trial and error with different conferences and sort of different virtual environments. There was one I went to where your little avatar would run around our little virtual conference centre on the screen and interact with other little avatars, and everyone could dress up their avatars. The conference happened to be at Halloween time in North America, so we were all dressing up our little avatars, like trick or treaters. So putting in a bit of fun and whimsy into that, trying to replicate sort of a more human, friendly atmosphere in a very sort of cold online space because as much of as much as academic conferences are about, you know, presenting your latest work very formally, they’re also about just getting to know other people, seeing who you could actually see yourself collaborating with in the future or doing work with or recommending your students to.
HEATHER: So that’s perhaps the harder thing to replicate. And what I think a lot of people are hoping is that those lessons or those learnings that we’ve had from the sort of emergency online conference attempts and efforts will be able to be carried forward to enable wider participation, especially in biological anthropology, where a lot of our large conferences are usually held in the U.S. or in Europe. And there are major barriers not just for people with disabilities to access those conferences, also from lower income countries who don’t have the funding to travel or who face barriers through visas, obtaining a visa and access to actually enter those countries. We’ve had a big problem in the past and in-person conferences with that with scholars, and it’s just perpetuating inequalities in the discipline.
PAULINE: Absolutely. And as you’re talking about that, it came to mind that the last international conference I attended was with you in 2018, the triple A’s in San Jose. And at the time we were talking about ableism and even the scent in the hotel lobby and how accessible these conferences were. And it’s quite strange to think that that was the last time I actually attended a conference. And with you, which is quite coincidental. Coming to the future, do you think things will continue to shift and change both in the way we do research and the way in which we make research more accessible to researchers at large, not just a privileged few, and also the way in which we do things, for instance, continuing to have these virtual conferences, continuing to open the scope of what researcher knowledge means.
HEATHER: I think they’ll have to. Some of the shifts will have to be permanent or have to be things we continue. Not just for the reasons we mentioned, but also with climate change and efforts of institutions and governments and individuals to reduce carbon footprints. And the idea, I think, of several times a year flying around the globe to give conference presentations when there’s a potential option on Zoom or some other platform is sort of increasingly unsustainable. Also, just funding wise, spending large amounts on conference travel when funds are restricted means that people will be maybe more selective with how they’re spending their funds and maybe putting that money into hiring research assistants or on increasing the public impact and outreach to have so that their research has more impact in practical terms and reaches the wider public more. So some of those changes, I think, will intersect with with other efforts like sustainability
PAULINE: I think what we definitely need to see more of is at the moments I think the US, UK and Europe tend to dominate research with a lot of the smaller or non-English language speaking countries and researchers, their voices not being heard. There’s been a big shift towards (or in the past of) that trying to be rectified and I do hope that they aren’t going to be back steps as a result.
- NEXT STEPS, OSLO CALLING (40:03)
PAULINE: So it’s as you say, that really important balancing of climate and of people, but also of making sure that not the same dominant voices are being heard because they happen to live in the places where we’re lots is happening and is bigger. So as a final question, what is next for you? I believe you are off to Oslo?
HEATHER: So I’m involved with a project that’s been funded by the Centre for Advanced Studies at the Norwegian Academy of Letters in Oslo. So I’ll be going there for four months, leaving in August. So my research and study leave is coming up. And this is a project that was planned pre-COVID on influenza pandemics and especially severe outcomes of influenza and its impact on indigenous peoples. So it’s an interdisciplinary project, I think actually it won’t just be about influenza now. There’s a lot of researchers who are part of it who are going to be working on COVID as well, and some other pandemic diseases in there, too. And it’s composed of about five different projects within this larger project. So there’s researchers from all over the world coming in. It’s taking place over the course of nearly a year. And so people will be co-resident in Oslo in overlapping periods.
HEATHER: We’re currently working through the budget and seeing who we can fund in terms of additional visiting researchers. So particularly having indigenous students and early career researchers coming to the centre. And the big goal of the project is that it’s interdisciplinary, that it’s bringing together people who work on the very far biological side, sort of clinical, working with quantitative data and people who work with historical data, with long term historical perspectives, and people who work with social data on the social side of things and slightly more qualitative side as well. And people like myself who sort of work somewhere in the middle of all of that. So the idea is breaking down some of those silos that we see when people are, like in this institution where we’re divided into you’re in the faculty of Science, you’re in the Faculty of Arts and really fostering some of that collaboration and see where that can lead us in terms of solving some of these problems, in terms of pandemic impacts and the people that they impact the most because the impacts of infectious diseases aren’t equal.
- FINAL THOUGHTS AND NEXT SHOW: DR ROCHELLE MENZIES & MIRIAMA AOKE (42:44)
PAULINE: Well, we wish you the best of luck with that. And I can’t wait to read the results that come out of that next bit of research. Is there anything… any thoughts you want to leave us with before we sign off for today?
HEATHER: Well, I think we were talking before about the bio social or bio cultural perspective, which is something maybe that makes biological anthropology quite special (or I think it does) in terms of why we’re not just human biologists, why we’re actually within anthropology particularly, or why I’m with anthropology as a discipline. Which is that consideration of the biological and social together and their interaction. And the phrase I like to use, I think it might come from Agustin Fuentes, who is a very well-known biological anthropologist, which is that the biological and the social are inextricably intertwined. And so not thinking, oh, here I’m doing the biology, I’m looking at the biology of it, this disease. Oh, no, over here. I’m looking at the social impacts of this disease. But the fact that those two are mutually constitutive: they influence each other, and you really can’t understand infectious disease and human experiences of them and pandemics without understanding both the biological and the social together. So that’s something I’m quite passionate about.
PAULINE: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for joining us here today on Pandemics Reflected.
HEATHER: Thank you very much for having me, Pauline.