Iterations of the COVID-19 Pandemic:
Themes and Problem Spaces in Turkey, Iran and Germany
Authors: Katja Rieck, Melike Şahinol, Burak Taşdizen
31 July 2020
The spread of SARS-CoV-2 took place along the arteries and capillaries of globalisation. Hardest hit were thus major nodal points of such global flows, centres of commerce, travel and tourism like New York, Paris, London, but also Istanbul. Places of pilgrimage like Mashhad and Qom in Iran have counted among the early global COVID-19 hotspots as well. Officials around the world have been faced with the analogous task of managing the spread of the virus to prevent the collapse of national health care systems and large numbers of fatalities. Consequently, formulating and implementing hygiene protocols and social distancing measures have formed the cornerstones of public health interventions nearly everywhere. However, local contexts circumscribed by past experiences with disease, socio-cultural specificities, demographics, communication infrastructures, knowledge landscapes, legal frameworks, political cultures, etc. present highly varied topographies shaping how the pandemic is perceived by both officials and local populations as well as the kinds of interventions pursued and their effects.
As a response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, an online workshop entitled “Iterations of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Themes and Problem Spaces in Turkey, Iran and Germany“ was held by Orient-Institut Istanbul on June 25th, 2020 and brought together 23 scholars from Iran, Turkey and Germany. The interdisciplinary workshop was convened to discuss rapidly emerging social sciences and humanities research concerning the pandemic and to begin to map themes and problem spaces arising from the specific challenges faced in each of these countries. With participating scholars grounded in disciplines ranging from sociology of health and medicine, to science and technology studies (STS), law, religious studies, anthropology, linguistics, history and media studies, the papers presented a broad spectrum of perspectives on the challenges faced in the three countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Religion during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a challenge to public health? Lessons from Iran
Papers were clustered into five broad topics, which corresponded to the five workshop sessions. Following the welcoming remarks made by Prof. Raoul Motika and Dr. Katja Rieck, the first session entitled “Religion and COVID-19: Reconciling Bodily and ‘Spiritual’ Health” focussed on the tensions between religion (as the locus of spiritual health) and measures to safeguard bodily health. In many countries around the world, including the United States, South Korea and Germany, religious gatherings bringing together large crowds of people in enclosed spaces presented a public health challenge to those trying to contain the COVID-19 threat. In Turkey and Iran, where religion has become a focus of projects of political nation-building, this presented a particular challenge, since the open and free practice of Muslim religiosity has been made a cornerstone of the social contract between state and key (regime-supporting) segments of the population. Limiting religious practice in these countries threatened to break this social contract and thus challenged state and the government’s legitimacy at a time when both states were struggling with numerous other socio-economic difficulties. But aside from this political dimension, religious practice is an important means of navigating crisis and coping with life’s contingencies. It gives such contingencies meaning; it brings together communities of solidarity; it provides a repertoire of practices to confront or process existential threats. Hence, especially in times of crisis, like during the pandemic, people feel the particular need to come together in religious practice. Consequently, the Iranian government’s decision to close the Shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, for example, was met with protests. Two papers in this session, presented by Neda Razavizadeh (Assistant Professor, Sociology of Tourism, ACECR Research Institute of Tourism, Mashhad, Iran) and Rasool Akbari (Department of Comparative Religion, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran), dealt with the impact of the closing of this seminal site of (Shi’a) religiosity on religious practice and community, on the life of the city of Mashhad as well as analysing popular responses to it, such as the development of online forms of religiosity or the spatial displacement of religious practices either to other areas of public space or to the private sphere.
Pandemic? What you see depends on where you are socially
The second workshop session, “Social Constructions of a Pandemic”, shifted focus to how social context shapes perceptions of the pandemic and thus responses to it. In their presentation “Me, my family or others? A cross-cultural study on COVID-19 risk perception” Ayse Öncüler (ESSEC Business School, France) and Emine Öncüler Yayalar (Bilkent University, STS Program, Turkey) summarised the results of their comparative exploratory study on attitudes to and risk perceptions of COVID-19. They observed that these perceptions differed between countries, with marked differences in data from the United States compared to other countries surveyed, such as Iran, Turkey, France and India. Preliminary results suggest that such differences may be attributed to socio-cultural contexts where conceptions of national citizenship entail strong notions of collective (national) good – as is the case in Iran, Turkey, France and India – a prosocial attitude is more likely, and public health measures such as mask wearing or physical distancing are more accepted. In the United States, on the other hand, the data showed there to be weaker notions of the collective good and rather stronger emphasis on individual responsibility. Consequently, information campaigns that present disease prevention as a public good may not be effective in all contexts, as has been shown to be the case in the US. The data presented thus suggests policy makers should shape public information campaigns according to local models of citizenship and social identity. Shifting the focus to Turkey specifically, İhsan Çetin’s (Department of Sociology, Namık Kemal University, Tekirdağ, Turkey) paper “Conceptualization of the Coronavirus pandemic by refugees in Turkey” again highlighted how socio-cultural differences have impacted understandings of the pandemic. The paper argued studies are needed that use qualitative discourse analysis of sociolinguistic interviews to analyse the perceptions and conceptualisations of refugees (in this case, specifically Syrians) regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Echoing the previous paper presented by Öncüler & Öncüler, it showed how cultural differences are not only relevant on an international scale, but an intra-national one as well, and that empirically grounded understandings of how different socio-cultural groups (particularly those without formal citizenship status) conceptualise the COVID-19 pandemic are integral to formulating and appropriately framing effective policy responses and public health measures.
Pandemic as a Challenge to Cultural Practices of Coping and Care
In the session “Living and Dying with COVID-19” scholars from Iran highlighted how the pandemic imposed itself on the fundamentals of living and dying. Azam Naghavi’s (Faculty of Education and Psychology, University of Isfahan) paper “Life in the lock down: The lived experiences of the elderly people in Iran” focussed on the elderly, who in Iran, as in most other places around the world, were identified as being the most at risk for life-threatening COVID-19 case trajectories, and how particular practices of care commonly deployed in the context of life threatening diseases like cancer that entail the withholding of ‘worrisome’ information regarding the exact nature of the threat from those actually at risk provoked additional unease and distress among the elderly. It raised questions of how to navigate between culturally accepted forms of care and the unintentional infliction of further distress among at-risk groups. Mehrdad Arabestani’s (Department of Anthropology, University of Tehran) presentation on “Complicated grief during the Corona epidemic in Iran” shifted attention to how the pandemic has impacted cultural responses to death and dying. Concerns over the epidemiological risks involved in traditional Shi’a funeral practices that include not only washing of the corpse, but also a series of family gatherings that involve large numbers of people and the sharing of meals, moved the government of the Islamic Republic to prohibit such ceremonies and rituals, leaving families at a loss as to how to deal with their grief. Whereas in countries like the United States of United Kingdom a commercial funeral industry began to develop alternative practices of grieving to offer to clients, the very dominance of the Islamic republic in the burial practices of citizens leaves no such space for the development of alternatives. Instead, the state itself must take on this role to provide information and counselling on new ways to grieve. In both talks it became clear that in the pandemic conventional models of coping may break down or may cause further distress. In this sense they highlighted the on-going need for social science analysis to reassess and formulate alternatives to conventional practices.
Centrality of Communication to the Handling of the Pandemic
The fourth session picked up on yet another theme that globally has been quite prominent in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The session entitled “Dynamics of (Dis)information in the Context of Public Health Interventions” dealt with the problem of information dissemination in light of its role in promoting the effectiveness of public health measures. Erkan Saka (Media and Journalism Studies, Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey) in his paper on “Changing dynamics of disinformation during the pandemic” analysed the spread of ‘fake news’ online and its conditions of possibility offline in Turkey. His observations of media usage, sources/actors and content in Turkey suggest that the pandemic seems to have changed patterns of disinformation and that present-day ‘fake news’ phenomena are qualitatively different and now reach widely into mainstream society, rather than being sub-cultural phenomena. This echoes observations in other countries and underlines the importance of closer scientific study of the dynamics of (dis)information as it becomes an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. Ruth Bartholomä (Research Area Linguistics, Orient-Institut Istanbul, Turkey) highlighted the challenges faced by the Turkish state in trying to navigate between the realities of needing to communicate vital public health information (and instructions) to a multilingual/multi-ethnic nation-state with large non-Turkish speaking groups and a refugee population against the background of a strong understanding of the Turkish state’s role of preserving the unique status of Turkish as sole official language of the Turkish (nation-)state. Her paper showed how an ideal of mono-lingualism presented a challenge to informing socially marginalised groups but also highlighted how civil-society actors have stepped in to fill the informational void. Martina Baumann (Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany) contributed insights from her work on the role of (dis)information in the adoption of new technologies to help contain and control the spread of COVID-19, namely through tracking and tracing apps. Her talk on the discussions surrounding the development and implementation of tracking and tracing apps, especially the tracing app in Germany, once again highlighted the importance of communication practices in implementing public health measures and combatting the pandemic. In Turkey, the rallying phrase “evde kal!” (stay home!), which became a popular rallying call to encourage each other to minimise social mobility to contain the spread of the virus, was taken up in the promotion of the Turkish tracing app, the HES (Hayat Eve Sığar, “life can fit into the house” – echoing the popular call to stay home) that is required for all Turkish citizens wishing to travel domestically. The case of Turkey, in particular, shows clearly how discursive framing can facilitate the acceptance of public health measures like social distancing, mask wearing and even tracing apps. Further discussions integrating insights from other workshop participants underscored the importance of underlying state-society relations and an underlying general acceptance of state legitimacy for minimising (dis)information phenomena like conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ and more effectively delivering messages that promote the acceptance of and compliance with public health efforts. Where such conditions are not met, responses to the pandemic are further complicated and their effectiveness undermined.
Of Law and Legitimacy
The final session of this day-long workshop, “Legal Aspects of COVID-19 Public Health Interventions“, drew attention to the legal dimension of COVID-19 responses. The pandemic threw all states into a “state of exception” (Agamben). The need to respond to the disease’s spread swiftly seemed to demand ignoring or circumventing the framework of the law. Gottfried Plagemann’s (Orient-Institut Istanbul, Turkey) paper discussed how Turkish responses to COVID-19, most specifically the series of curfews imposed to stop the disease’s spread, lacked foundation in Turkish constitutional law but strangely enough did not meet with the sort of resistance that milder restrictions (like masking or social distancing measures) met with in other countries, like the United States or Germany. What Turkish measures lacked in legal foundation they seemed to make up for in speaking to a public consensus regarding the ethics of citizenship that required all to “stay at home” (#evdekal!). This suggested how states of legality/illegality are not necessarily defined so much by the letter of the law, but by other factors. Again, state-society relations and perceptions of legitimacy are salient here. The prominent role played by the Turkish minister of health helped frame measures like the curfews as ones of technocratic necessity for the public good. Further, the measure simply gave state force to the already popular public outcry to “stay home”, echoing a moral stance already widely spread in Turkish society. Further supporting an accepting attitude to the curfews seems to have been a conception of citizenship that validates personal sacrifice for the public good.
What have we learned and where to head now?
The presentations and the discussions they provoked provided numerous insights into how the pandemic has profoundly impacted social life at the collective and individual level in Turkey, Iran and Germany, as well as in other countries around the globe. It has upset long-standing religious and socio-cultural practices and, in many cases demanded creative adaptive responses at the state and civil society level. Legal orders have also been challenged when governments, under pressure to respond quickly and effectively to the disease’s imminent threat, have stretched the limits of the law, or gone beyond them. Interestingly, not everywhere in the world were such state ‘transgressions’ met with popular resistance. While in some countries people have been and are going to the streets against their governments’ imposition of public health measures (as was briefly the case in Iran when the government had to limit public religious practice), in countries like Turkey there has been no such popular response, despite the measures’ inadequate legal grounding. Such differences drew attention to the various factors at play hindering or helping states to formulate, communicate and implement effective public health responses. Socio-cultural contexts seem to matter in this regard and cannot be ignored, but so does the nature of the ‘social contract’ between state and society and how this has shaped pre-existing dynamics of state-society relations and interactions. However, there is a need for systematic study of how such contexts impact perceptions of and responses to the pandemic, at both the state and civil society level. Further, we must work to understand how such insights can be integrated to improve the effectiveness of responses to public health crises.
The papers presented seem to suggest that one critical site of intervention is that of communication. Emerging ethical, social, cultural and legal concerns in and around living and dying with COVID-19 undoubtedly have had an impact on the dynamics of (dis)information in the context of public health interventions, who is perceived as an expert, how we (culturally, medically, religiously) deal with disease and healing in uncertainties, which legal aspects are affected by which socio-technical imaginaries and which technologies, such as tracking apps, and when these are applied. It should be remembered that health and social cohesion are intimately linked. As long as the social, cultural, political and legal conditions are adequate, health is a public good attainable for all. Inequities, socio-cultural tensions, political alienation and erosion of the legal order all undermine public health measures by excluding certain groups, like the economically and socially weak and other vulnerable groups like elderly people, migrants, refugees, ethnic or religious minorities. It remains to be said that it is enormously important not only to carry out comparative studies but to generate globally relevant research results that move from research dominated by the West to studies in other socio-cultural and political contexts, such as the Near and Middle East. This workshop was a first step towards this desideratum. Only once we have analysed and come to understand both widespread commonalities as well as local iterations of global pandemics will it be possible to improve responses to public health crises on a global and local level. Nevertheless, COVID-19 remains a locally situated and globally dynamic socio-technical challenge for contemporary societies.
List of Workshop Participants (in alphabetical order)
Rasool Akbari, Department of Comparative Religion, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran
Mehrdad Arabestani, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Tehran
Ruth Bartholomä, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Gülşah Başkavak, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Martina Baumann, Research Associate, Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT-ITAS)
Bülent Bilmez, Professor, Department of History, Istanbul Bilgi University
İhsan Çetin, Department of Sociology, Namık Kemal University, Tekirdağ
Ivo Furman, Assistant Professor, Media Department, Istanbul Bilgi University
Sharzad Irannejad, Associated Researcher, Orient-Institut Istanbul / Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Robert Langer, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Maria João Maia, Research Associate, Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT-ITAS)
Raoul Motika, Director, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Azam Naghavi, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education and Psychology, University of Isfahan
Ayse Öncüler, Professor, ESSEC Business School, Cergy/Paris, France
Emine Öncüler Yayalar, Lecturer, Bilkent University, STS Program, Ankara, Turkey
Gottfried Plagemann, Jurist, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Neda Razavizadeh, Assistant Professor, Sociology of Tourism, ACECR Research Institute of Tourism, Mashhad, Iran
Katja Rieck, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Melike Şahinol, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Erkan Saka, Associate Professor, Media and Journalism Studies, School of Communication, Istanbul Bilgi University
Burak Taşdizen, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul
Esther Voswinckel-Filiz, Research Fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul