This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.
Focussing on Numbers During the Corona Crisis
Semra Meray, RMA Forensic Linguistics (VU)
In times of the corona crisis in the Netherlands, and probably in other countries as well, we hear the number of new corona deaths and new corona infections everywhere. The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) releases new numbers on corona deaths and infections every day. These numbers are supposed to tell us how many people have gotten infected and how many people have died today, and more importantly; what the differences are compared to yesterday.
Focusing so much on these numbers could be a way to work around what Neimanis, Åsberg and Hedren (2015) call “the problem of alienation and intangibility” (73). Especially the intangibility part of this problems seems to apply here. As they explain, “humans can find it difficult to relate to environmental issues that are predominantly sensible at other scales” because our understanding of the world is primarily based on our “human-scaled existence” (73). As examples for these “other scales” they mention particles of microscopic size such as microplastics and the “extended time lags” that occur between a cause and a visible consequence of toxification processes. These two examples fit very well with the intangibility of the microscopic sizes of viruses and the gap that occurs between infection and actual visible effects of this virus.
Even though these numbers are most likely not precise and often taken out of context, we use these numbers to create some sort of overview of how the country is doing compared to other countries or to get a picture of how the entire world is doing. By attempting to keep a precise record of how exactly this virus affects our country and our world, we try to maintain a certain grip on reality. These numbers, after all, are based on our “human scales,” which we usually can understand, and turning what we have trouble grasping into something we can work with could provide us with a sense of a better understanding of and control over what is happening around us.
Neimanis, A., Åsberg, C., & Hedrén, J. (2015). Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities: Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene. Ethics and the Environment, 20(1), 67-97. doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.20.1.67
The revealed patterns
Ruiting Chen, RMA Forensic Linguistics (VU)
Jones wrote about Charles Rosenberg’s argument about an “archetypal structure” (Jones, 2020: 2) of an outbreak, which reminds me of my own experience. Based on my own observation, people’s reactions to COVID-19 can reveal a certain pattern.
In the beginning, there are only subtle signs and people tend to ignore them. When there were early signs of coronavirus in china at the end of 2019, only a few people, who were mostly doctors, talked about it on the Internet. When the virus had an outbreak in China at the start of this year, there were only subtle signs in Europe, and European citizens seemed to pay little attention to it, just as Chinese did two months ago. As a Chinese student who studies in the Netherlands, I felt more relatable and concerned about the situation than my fellow students who do not come from china. In different countries, at the same beginning stage, citizens felt somewhat distant to the problem – they talked about it but did not change their behavior.
In the second stage, people ask for and provide explanations; and we can see a lot of interactions between the public and government. people demand truth: more specific infected personnel numbers, more scientific explanation about prevention measure, etc. For instance, in the Netherlands, RIVM plays a very important role in informing the public via social media, as we can see from the fact that the official twitter account of RIVM attracted a large number of new followers. In the last stage, people can act in a dramatic and disruptive way. I notice that people in many countries started hoarding toilet paper, which is proof of dramatic behavior.
David S. Jones, “History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19,” New England Journal of Medicine, 16 March 2020