Expert Pitch

Anthropologists find Americans’ sense of community wanes as pandemic goes on, leading to increases in public incidents of rage and racism

Northern Arizona University
16-Dec-2020 12:55 PM EST, by Northern Arizona University

Anthropologist Lisa Hardy had to step away after the woman on the other end of the phone described how a man, whom she asked to put on a mask in the store where she worked, he unleashed a stream of racist insults, telling her he wished she were dead and that her children should go back to Mexico.

This story, although it is on the extreme end of experiences Hardy has heard in interviews with dozens of Americans in the last nine months, points to changing trends among Americans’ response to the pandemic: that the stories of coming together and sacrificing for the greater good that marked the early days of COVID-19 have given way to stories of frustration, anger, exhaustion and sometimes racism.

Hardy, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Social Science  Community Engagement Lab at Northern Arizona University and editor of Practicing Anthropology, and Leah Mundell, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology engaged in community-based research centered on migration, education and health, have conducted interviews with almost 60 people throughout the country, asking about their experiences and feelings related to the pandemic. 


Lisa Hardy

Leah Mundell

Talking points

  • The qualitative research is ongoing, but Hardy and Mundell report an increase in angry incidents, conspiracy theories, conflict fueled by economic anxiety and loneliness.
  • It’s not just the pandemic. As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grown, respondents have expressed different feelings about it; people who are not white or black aren’t sure where they fit in the racial reckoning in the United States and reported just feeling left out or left behind. On the flip side, an African-American respondent told interviewers her family had participated in BLM for years and to them this was nothing new.
  • The longer the pandemic goes, the more people express a desire for greater freedom, even the freedom to breathe. Paradoxically, some of the same respondents wanted better leadership and greater restrictions on people’s behavior.
  • With vaccines coming, the end of the pandemic may be closer, but there’s no end in sight for the effects. Beyond long-term physical effects, which remain a question mark, the financial impacts on many people and industries will remain; most Americans will feel greater insecurity about the future; and the individual and collective grief will remain.

Lisa Hardy quotes

  • “People’s feelings are enhanced by increased fear and isolation over a long time. People went from, ‘Isn’t it cool that we’re looking out for each other?’ to ‘People won’t even look at me.’ They feel we’re going backward as a human race because of racism and because of separation.”
  • “All of these things are coming together to create a situation where bad behavior seems to be more surfaced versus in the past, maybe it wasn’t quite as surfaced.”
  • “In our most recent interviews, it sounds like the kinds of hardships that people are enduring are not going to go away. I think it’ll be a long time before we understand what has happened and before people are able to make sense of all of this.”

Leah Mundell quotes

  • “It’s interesting in terms of what people want in government intervention and better leadership. In the beginning, people talked about the need for better leadership. Even though they talked about not being able to be free, they still wanted more government restrictions.”

Quotes from the interviews

  • “I want to reiterate that quarantine is very isolating both physically and spiritually and emotionally. It is not good for the health of social creatures like us humans, and I do hope as we transition that after going through this sort of pandemic, individuals you have will be really strengthened by existing personal relationships. So, I do hope that that sort of translates, sort of structures like parents partly teaching their children and checking in on your friends, and that would be nice to stay around. I would like to never do this again, no thank you.”
  • “Yeah, so they are, in the distilled form of what Black Lives Matter is saying, connected in the sense that if you start thinking, if you start to be more consciously think[ing] about the fact that Black lives matter, then we start to think about ways in which we as a society can do the best we can to support Black lives. I think that cognizance is important because … we are the population more susceptible to COVID-19, and we’re dying of those complications so much more, and the population, we are expected to deal with that on our own, and it's good to think about how a really insidious sort of racism pops up in society and the way that Black people are treated.
  • “My fear is that we are going to live like this for another two or three years and by the time everything is OK the kids are like in kindergarten and grade school where they’re learning the social skills. They’re not going to get that because everybody‘s at home. As a human race we are going backward. ... I feel like I have actually had people—a guy come in and tell me that he wished that I would die and that my sons—my kids, my sons—would go back to Mexico. I told him I’m not from Mexico; I don’t have family there so I don’t know what to tell you. It was at [work]. I asked him to put his mask on.”

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