Living with coronavirus: lessons from pastoralists?

Moments of surprise can expose deep uncertainties and even ignorance. They also uncover issues of contested politics, unequal social relations and the capacities of states and citizens. The unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is one such moment.

 

We don’t know what will happen where and when; our normal ways of doing things are massively disrupted, so we must adapt rapidly and radically. This is now life with the coronavirus. For those of us used to predictability and stability, with systems that function continuously and reliably, this sort of uncertainty – now being experienced the world over – is unsettling, provoking anxiety, stress, dislocation and sometimes panic.

But for many people, living in highly variable environments, where shocks of drought, flood, snowfall locust swarms or human and animal disease are regular occurrences, uncertainties are always part of everyday life. Indeed, uncertainties are not only lived with, but lived off, as variability, mobility, flexibility are a central part of livelihood systems.

A question we have been asking in our European Research Council-funded PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Lessons from the Margins) is: Can we learn about how to address uncertainties within wider society – including around disease pandemics – from pastoralists who live with and from uncertainty? What are the logics, practices, strategies and social and political arrangements that allow for adaptive, flexible responses in the face of uncertainty, generating reliability in turbulent times?

Of course, the spread of a global pandemic virus of massively lethal potential is very different to the regular problems faced by pastoralists, whether in mountainous Tibet, lowland Ethiopia or the hills of Sardinia, but there are some themes that emerge from our research that offer pointers. Here we outline four of them.

  1. Multiple knowledges

In navigating uncertainties, pastoralists must engage with multiple sources of knowledge, triangulating between them.

This may involve engaging with expert, scientific knowledge, derived from, say, weather reports; or expert advice on pasture condition or animal disease. It may involve referring to local, embedded traditional knowledges, consulting local experts such as traditional healers, prophets and soothsayers — involving, for example, predictions around the seasons from signs in nature or messages from the spirit world. And it may involve informally-shared updates and locally-rooted practical knowledge from friends, neighbours, relatives and others – these days often via mobile phone through Facebook or WhatsApp groups. These may include information on the state of grazing, the availability of water in a well or the source and quality of forage, for example.

All these sources – formal, informal, real-time, predictive – are combined, reflected upon and, in turn, feed into action. No one source is relied upon alone. This sometimes frustrates development experts who spend huge amounts of money providing sophisticated forecasting systems or satellite monitoring, with user-friendly online mobile interfaces, such as those used in climate/weather forecasting, drought early warning or market information systems. Why is it that these are not used as expected?

It is the same with disease response systems: again, huge efforts are made to predict and prepare, and communicate expert advice. But this must be incorporated into local-embedded knowledges in order to become part of regular practice. Yes, we know that hand-washing and ‘social-distancing’ are important, but such changes only happen when other sources of knowledge and advice combine. Just relying on formal models and accredited expertise (‘the science’) is not enough, in the context of deep uncertainties. Reducing everything to directive risk management is insufficient, and is in fact misleading, as uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance must be embraced.

Pastoralists know this when they hear a climate forecast and an early warning message from the government. Local experience and assessment is an essential complement to the official message. Only when such a message is fully trusted will it be accepted. Today, publics everywhere are grappling with how to respond to public health messages about the risks of COVID-19, along with orders to isolate and quarantine. In these situations, people’s personal, experienced, embodied uncertainties have to be addressed too. Accepting the existence of plural knowledges, even some that may be regarded as ‘unscientific’, is essential when navigating uncertainty and ignorance.

2. How time is experienced

Very often external interventions – whether around disease or drought – are constructed around the notion of an ‘event’ and a timeline around which a staged series of risk management measures are deployed.

Forecasts that assess the probabilities of something happening assume that, based on past experience or modelled futures, we can predict and manage people and things. So, whether it is the varying level of ‘early warning’ alert around a drought or the stages of a response in an unfolding epidemic, the planning system imagines time in a linear, ordered, managed way. The result is the sequential deployment of interventions, managed by ‘emergency’ teams and ‘rapid response’ facilities.

But this isn’t the way most people experience time. The ordered, hierarchical administrative time of crisis and emergency management has to articulate with the more complex flows of lived-with time in everyday life. Whether this is people responding to a pandemic disease in their family or neighbourhood, or a group of pastoralists managing highly variable grazing over far-flung territories with mobile herds, the experience of time may be quite different to those of preparedness planners and early warning system administrators.

How the present, the future and the past are experienced may vary dramatically. Memories of past droughts or disease outbreaks loom large, while expectations of the future are affected by current conditions, as well as deeper cosmologies. Futures are not just simply a linear extension of the present, as in the liberal modernist view, but are deeply intertwined with memories, experiences and histories. These will differ across class, gender, age and race, affecting how different people anticipate and respond. Everyday, unfolding time is therefore a flow, not an event.

For people responding to a disease, or managing mobility and seeking out pasture, time may therefore not be so obviously punctuated with distinct events, and responses may not appear in neat sequences. Instead, a host of other considerations apply – people’s lives, livelihoods, spiritual need, or mental states. All of these can affect what is done when, and by whom.

3. Reliable systems

Uncertainties provide major challenges to standardised systems that assume stability. Following Emery Roe, we can understand pastoral systems as ‘critical infrastructures’, with the objective of reliably delivering desired outputs (milk, meat, hides, services and overall wellbeing) in the context of multiple uncertainties. Just as an energy supply system aims to keep the lights on, and a health system aims to provide effective healthcare, pastoralists also must generate reliability through a range of practices. And they seem to be quite good at it.

What are the features of this? Reliability emerges from an understanding of the wider system and its vulnerabilities, as well as insights into local contexts. Horizon scanning must combine with the day-to-day practices that allow rapid, adaptive responses. Herders and market traders must do this all the time, regularly checking on grass, water, prices and so on, while having a good sense of the overall system. They will not rely on an ‘expert decision system’ from outside, but they must build reliability through their own networks, among individuals, kin, age-groups and communities. Communication and deliberation is central, facilitated these days by mobile communications. When a disaster strikes, knowledge, resources and labour can be mobilised rapidly, and animals can be moved, fodder purchased or water supplied.

Most standard, engineered systems designed for stable conditions are poor at generating reliability under such variable conditions. A health system relies on a regular flow of patients with a standard set of ailments requiring a prescribed array of treatments. This is fine under ‘normal’ conditions, but when a disease outbreak occurs, such systems quickly become overwhelmed, and there is a need to think differently.

Part of this is basic capacity, particularly in systems that are under-funded, but it also relates to the capacities of the professionals involved. Very often it is the frontline workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are left to innovate, to create reliability on the move. Managing an intensive care unit in a hospital may be more similar than we think to the embedded skills, aptitudes and practices of pastoralists, who must make agile, sometimes difficult, choices when facing variability.

4. Collective solidarities

If states cannot provide, businesses struggle and experts are overwhelmed, then what can we turn to?

Because externally-defined, top-down risk management based on predictive science is always insufficient under radical uncertainty and ignorance, we must also rely on ourselves – on community action and forms of solidarity and mutuality. Such initiatives are emerging during the coronavirus pandemic, including the explosion of locally-organised ‘mutual aid’ groups helping those in self-isolation and quarantine. Across Europe, a new, re-discovered moral economy is confronting the crisis.

How such arrangements work will, of course, depend on the setting and the challenge, but in pastoral areas, collective approaches to herd and flock management have always been vital in responding to variability. For example, a common tactic is to split a herd between young and vulnerable calves and milk cows who remain at home with additional fodder, and those that must migrate to distant pastures for the dry season. Mobility, flexibility and modular approaches to managing livestock and territory are the watchwords. These responses only work if they can mobilise labour, and this requires reciprocal relationships across kin and age groups and across communities.

In the past, east African pastoralism was characterised by extensive redistributive practices, as livestock were shared, loaned and redistributed across multiple ownership arrangements, facilitated by segmentary lineage structures and age-groups with specific responsibilities. This allowed for horizontal redistribution, friendship alliances across territories and marriage contracts that allocated stock. While such arrangements have declined, due to the individualisation and commoditisation of pastoral production, the cultural values and embedded practices still remain, and are often remobilised in times of severe crisis.

The revival of community and neighbourhood solidarities around COVID-19 are an example of how such social relationships are crucial in responding to uncertainty. Even in the commercialised, individualised West, they can still re-emerge around a re-defined sense of collective responsibility. In tackling a pandemic, working across nations, individual and collective actions must combine, public and private interests must converge, and centralised and local decision-making must interact.

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COVID-19 is changing everything: how we live, how we relate, how we engage with expertise and how states and citizens interact. Deep uncertainties and extensive ignorance, as well as contested ambiguities, necessarily reshape society and politics.

In Western countries, we are learning to adapt fast. In the future – for this will not be the first or last time such a shock emerges – perhaps we can learn from others, including pastoralists, who have long embraced uncertainty as part of life.

This post first appeared on the PASTRES blog (www.pastres.org). It was written by Ian Scoones and Michele Nori, drawing on research on pastoralism and uncertainty

in Amdo Tibet, China; Borana, Ethiopia; Isiolo, Kenya; Gujarat, India; Sardinia, Italy and southern Tunisia.

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