COVID-19 pandemic provides backdrop for returning BU course

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BRANDON – Students will get a global view of an event they are all experiencing in a Medical Anthropology course returning to Brandon University (BU) in January 2021.

Anthropology of Global Public Health (BU course No. 12:456) has been re-introduced because of its relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic and added to BU’s Winter Term schedule. The course will adopt a critical social science approach to explore the efforts worldwide of governments, organizations, and agencies to mitigate COVID-19’s worst effects and curtail its onward spread.

Whether in well-resourced and secure or impoverished and unstable settings, COVID-19 has yielded catastrophic results, including high rates of infectivity, severe illness, and death. Its incidence is exponentially greater than the SARS-Cov2 epidemic of 2003, and its lethality far more severe than the H1N1 — or ‘Swine Flu’ — pandemic of 2009. In turn, COVID-19’s many socio-economic and political repercussions have given rise to a wide range of public health crises, including increased rates of substance abuse, social isolation and depression, and homelessness and hunger.

Anthropologist Ranjanaa Yadav, left, speaks with a maternity ward patient during research fieldwork in India in 2019. Yadav was a member of a research team led by Dr. Emma Varley of Brandon University and Dr. Rob Lorway of the University of Manitoba. The team placed emphasis on empathy and direct contact with patients and healthcare providers in its work. (Photo by Dr. Emma Varley)

The course, which will be held online in the 2021 Winter Term, will be taught by Dr. Emma Varley, a Medical Anthropologist and Associate Professor and Chair of BU’s Department of Anthropology.

“Since the start of the pandemic, medical anthropologists have worked independently and in collaboration with public health officers, epidemiologists, virologists, and clinicians to document and develop solutions to COVID-19’s harshest impacts,” Dr. Varley said. “The results of their research, outreach, and activism serve as the foundation for this course.”

As a senior-level course, Anthropology of Global Public Health has pre-requisites (one of courses 12:257, 90:357 or 90:356), but students who are interested in taking the course for credit or for auditing the course may request that the pre-requisite be waived by contacting Dr. Varley in advance at

Among the topics students will explore are the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic’s trajectory and effects have been either mediated or worsened by the cultural, economic, and political forces at-stake in public health systems. Students will learn, for instance, about the ways that political trends — such as populism in the United States, Russia, Brazil, and the Philippines — fuel anti-science protests and COVID denial. The course will also assess how public health interventions harness cultural beliefs, value systems, and notions of identity to more successfully mobilize populations to comply with risk-reduction measures, as happened in New Zealand, South Korea, and Singapore. The course will also focus on what happens when public health efforts countering the pandemic are suppressed or even criminalized, as the example of Turkmenistan confirms.

Throughout, the course will maintain a close focus on the persons and populations served and underserved by these interventions. Attention will be paid to communities’ experiences of lengthy shutdowns, the struggles faced by those sickened by the virus, and the challenges faced by public health and medical personnel working in overburdened healthcare systems, ranging from Italy, to New York City, to Mumbai.

“We have all seen the effects on our own lives of COVID-19 and efforts to slow the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Lisa Robson, Acting Dean of Arts at BU. “The Anthropology of Global Public Health will expose our students to some important global impacts of the pandemic and give them a wider perspective that they can compare to their own experiences.

“It’s a very timely subject and will be a great learning opportunity for students.”

Dr. Varley brings her expertise and insights to bear on the entirety of the course. For more than 20 years, she has undertaken research on health, illness, and disease — including epidemics — in unstable and volatile settings in South Asia. In addition to her long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan and India, Dr. Varley has served as a Technical Expert on numerous international public health interventions, including UNICEF’s polio eradication campaign in Afghanistan.

In February 2020, when COVID-19 was still contained enough to be classified as an epidemic, Dr. Varley was in India supervising the completion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project on maternal health she’s co-led since 2018 with Dr. Robert Lorway (Centre for Global Public Health, University of Manitoba). When the World Health Organization announced in March 2020 that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status, her research shifted to explore the ways that South Asia’s public health and medical systems worked to protect populations and healthcare systems from the crisis’ direst complications.

Dr. Varley has recently worked with Dr. Adrienne Strong, a colleague from the University of Florida, to organize a special collection of online articles on COVID-19 and sexual and reproductive health for Medical Anthropology Quarterly ( Some of the articles from the collection will be featured in the course’s syllabus. The course will also include a series of guest talks, when students will have the chance to learn directly from anthropologists and public health personnel working on the frontlines of the pandemic.


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