Epidemics like Covid-19 appear as abrupt events that come and go. Yet, each epidemic – and measures against them – leaves behind lasting traces. For example, graveyards, hygiene rules and water infrastructures developed in response to 19th century cholera are still there, and insect-borne tropical diseases were controlled in the mid-20th century by permanently changing landscapes and deploying insecticides that persist in soil and water. More recently, vaccination campaigns against childhood diseases built new, durable supply chains and routines, and HIV-care-and-treatment created new hospitals and community groups that outlasted the AIDS epidemic. Covid-19 will generate new digital surveillance methods and laws that will stay after the pandemic has abated. Such traces and remains can have long-term effects. Infrastructures or drugs developed against one disease may be adapted to counter new health threats. However, they may also create new health issues, when medicines enhance susceptibility to disease, insecticides cause cancer, or bad experiences with disease-control reduce compliance with new interventions. Thus, epidemics overlap and are linked over time, through lingering traces and their effects. The EpiTraces project uses social anthropology – studying people’s lives, practices, relations and institutions in the present - and medical history based on archives and oral sources, to trace how past epidemics and anti-epidemic measures in Africa - from colonial times to the recent past - shape conditions of disease control today and in the future. Looking at exemplary epidemics like sleeping sickness, riverblindness, HIV, Ebola or Covid, we follow traces they left in the present, the social, medical, political-economic and ecological effects these have, and how they interact with present health problems. This will contribute to a nuanced, historically grounded understanding of present epidemics, which will benefit the measures and strategies taken against them.
The project uses social anthropology and medical history to study how past epidemics and anti-epidemic measures in Africa - from colonial times to the recent past - continue to shape conditions of public health and disease control, today and in the future.
Africa’s 20th century history was marked by a sequence of major epidemics. Instead of studying epidemics as singular events, our project studies the continuous interaction of epidemics and the measures taken against them. The significance of relations between historical disease outbreaks and their control has become evident in responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, which mobilised social structures, technologies and infrastructures from previous epidemics, such as HIV AIDS and Ebola.
Methodologically, the project focuses on the material traces of past epidemics and anti-epidemic measures, i.e., the lasting remains they left, including architecture and technology, plant life and chemical residuals, residence patterns and agriculture, habitual practices of institutions and professionals, and physical changes of patient bodies, disease vectors and pathogens. Using an innovative methodology developed by the applicants with colleagues from science and technology studies and contemporary archaeology, the project will study these traces ethnographically, that is attending to social life, relations and interactions around them in the present - how epidemic traces are used, given meaning, and contested.
The project will produce new knowledge of the lasting effects of past epidemics and anti-epidemic interventions, on health conditions, public health and disease control, and the potential for future disease (re-)emergence. This will allow identifying present challenges and opportunities for public health and disease control work in relation to on-going epidemics. Moreover, creating awareness of the long-term impact of anti-epidemic interventions will help planning sustainable and responsible disease control for the future.