A Positive Side to COVID-19 Xenophobia

A Positive Side to COVID-19 Xenophobia

Tony V Pham

Non-anthropologists sometimes mythologize ethnography as the alluring product of lone wolf research. In preparation for an upcoming year of Fogarty International Center funded ethnographic research, I soaked-in the voluminous ethnography which captured the intersection between Nepali traditional healers and mental well-being since Nepal open its research doors roughly 40 years ago.

However, unknown to me but self-evident to most in the trade are the partnerships which must bridge and stabilize the international ethnographer. As someone with no formal anthropological training, it took a destabilizing pandemic to show me how paperwork and administration, however ostensibly unalluring, can offer feelings of safety, inclusion, and community.

In this article, I offer the story of my ethnographic and largely internet-less 2019-2020 research life to encourage other non-anthropologists undertaking anthropological research who must, preceding their actual fieldwork, trek through the seemingly dull lulls of grant applications and regulatory approvals. For my research project, I investigated Nepali traditional healers and their varying relationships with conventional psychotherapy using ethnography, structured interview protocols, and observational rating scales.

My research went swimmingly until seven months in. At that time myself and my research colleague, Ustav, had just settled into our field site, high within the far-western regions of Nepal’s Karnali Province. This was during a COVID-19 peak of which we had been blissfully unaware. Prior to this, and during rare moments of cellular coverage, we had caught wind of the existence of COVID-19, but the outbreak seemed a far cry from the pandemic it would become.

I certainly wasn’t in a rush to go home to the US, partly because of ongoing travel restrictions, and partly because, as an Asian-American, the US news seemed increasingly littered with xenophobic slurs against Asian-Americans for “bringing” COVID-19. Luckily we had made a few friends in our current community setting, so we continued our work without trying too hard to think about the future.

But then suddenly a local community member and friend broke the inconvenient news – people began talking and well… everyone agreed that I had brought COVID-19 to their village. Initially Utsav and I thought the comment had been a joke because we hadn’t exhibited COVID-19 symptoms at that point, but eventually we took the hint, and on what turned out to be the last leg of our ethnographic  journey, we began our demoralized descent back to the previous village.

Looking back, it seems to me that the human mind has a notoriously negative bias towards the self. In a fantasy world, at my weakest moment, I can craft a self-identity accurately rendered from four years of psychiatry residency and what little anthropology I had taught myself. Back in the less idealized and more biased reality, I self-identified using the most reductionist of terms, “Asian-American,” and with that my prospects seemed bleak. I could stay and be made to feel like a foreign harbinger of disease or return home and feel just the same.

As all cultural anthropologists would know an individual’s humanity holds more nuance than a two word hyphenation and, if I had to right now, I could rattle off other equally valid self-categorizations. To name a few that I worked towards before COVID-19: Duke Global Health Fellow, Fogarty Scholar, and friend of a few really amazing Far-Western-Nepalis.

In the end, the stereotypes I created for my twin homes were no more true than the two hastily created for me. As we descended downhill, my demoralizing self-stereotypes nonetheless slowly self-cannibalized off what little optimism I had left which, while defeating, didn’t completely eat away at the “work” me.

We reached the next village and following another completed interview we noticed an ominous group of community members walking towards us. The front-man, hair slicked back and dressed in all black leather, appeared ready to show us out in spectacular fashion. Instead, and in a surprising display of humanity, he alerted us to what everyone with a radio already knew;  COVID-19 had become a pandemic on a scale no one had predicted and that local officials had mandated an immediate cessation of communication with outsiders to the village. Suddenly, clear as day, hate took a different hue.

The group warmly encouraged us to continue trekking without, to our regret, stopping to do research. The next village transformed into another emotional relay point when we discovered cellular coverage and with it a new, and encouraging, reminder from our university that we weren’t working in a vacuum. It was clear that administrators and supervisors had been planning our future steps long before we were even aware that they were necessary, and the message was clear – we needed to simply “return back.” This was good news.

With a complete lock-down on our hands, and, having recently misplaced a wallet and phone, with no cash and no nearby ATM, we turned to our collaborative NGO, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal (TPO Nepal), our home university, Duke, our grant funders, Fogarty, and to old familiar faces from the local community for directional and emotional support. A village elder planned and paid for our transportation back to Kathmandu with a calm ease. Our in-country supervisor payed a local community health worker to pay back the village elder.

Despite scarce cellular coverage, our university administrators and supervisors even tracked our manual descent with a carefully crafted Google Map, dubbed the “Tony Tracker,” which, if not for my time of deep need, would have thoroughly troubled me as a non-Google user. My university program director called each afternoon and had the foresight to check the US Embassy’s website which revealed a multi-media campaign, in the face of strict lockdown measures, to fly myself, along with all other foreigners back home free of any up-front expenses.

Now in the US, and back at the keyboard, I no longer subscribe to the misguided image of ethnography as a singular effort. I can now appreciate the hidden and multiple actions which interconnect beneath the surface of the research process. Also, I can now anticipate a future of ethnographic planning, administration, and collaboration, with all its files and forms, without the dread or disillusionment with which I previously associated it.


Acknowledgments: I thank Utsav Koirala, Rishav Koirala, Brandon Kohrt, Nathan Thielman, Tara Pemble, Cynthia Binanay, Donna Ingles, Allison Henry, and Doug Heimburger among many other administrators from the Duke Global Health Institute, Hubert-Yeargen Center for Global Health, Duke Master of Science in Global Health, VECD Global Health Fellowship, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal, and U.S. Embassy in Nepal.

Tony V Pham studied medicine at Tulane University and Psychiatry at Duke University Hospital. He is currently a Global Health Fellow at Duke Global Health Institute and is funded under the VECD Global Health Fellowship. His work examines the intersection between spirituality and local notions of mental wellness.

Image credit: Tony V Pham