COVID-19 has reinstated the sovereign enclosures of corpse management that mothers of the disappeared had so successfully challenged in the past decade. To explore how moral duties toward the dead are being renegotiated due to COVID-19, this article puts forward the notion of biorecuperation, understood as an individualised form of forensic care for the dead made possible by the recovery of biological material. Public health imperatives that forbid direct contact with corpses due to the pandemic, interrupt the logics of biorecuperation. Our analysis is based on ten years of experience working with families of the disappeared in Mexico, ethnographic research within Mexico’s forensic science system and online interviews conducted with medics and forensic scientists working at the forefront of Mexico City’s pandemic. In the face of increasing risks of viral contagion and death, this article analyses old and new techniques designed to bypass the prohibitions imposed by the state and its monopoly over corpse management and identification.
The handling of the deceased during the COVID-19 pandemic, a case study in France and Switzerland
Gaëlle Clavandier, Marc-Antoine Berthod, Philippe Charrier, Martin Julier-Costes, and Veronica Pagnamenta
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an unprecedented global crisis. To limit the spread of the virus and the associated excess mortality, states and governing bodies have produced a series of regulations and recommendations from a health perspective. The funerary aspects of these directives have reconfigured not only the ways in which the process of dying can be accompanied, but also the management of dead bodies, impacting on the dying, their relatives and professionals in the sector. Since March 2020, the entire process of separation and farewell has been affected, giving rise to public debates about funeral restrictions and the implications for mourning. We carried out a study in France and Switzerland to measure the effects of this crisis, and in particular to explore whether it has involved a shift from a funerary approach to a strictly mortuary one. Have the practices that would normally be observed in non-pandemic times been irrevocably altered? Does this extend to all deaths? Has there been a switch to an exclusively technical handling? Are burial practices still respected? The results of the present study pertain to the ‘first wave’ of spring 2020 and focus on the practices of professionals working in the funeral sector.
Liliana Sanjurjo, Desirée Azevedo, and Larissa Nadai
This article analyses the management of bodies in Brazil within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its objective is to examine how the confluence of underreporting, inequality and alterations in the forms of classifying and managing bodies has produced a political practice that aims at the mass infection of the living and the quick disposal of the dead. We first present the factors involved in the process of underreporting of the disease and its effects on state registration and regulation of bodies. Our analysis then turns to the cemetery to problematise the dynamics through which inequality and racism are re-actualised and become central aspects of the management of the pandemic in Brazil. We will focus not only on the policies of managing bodies adopted during the pandemic but also on those associated with other historical periods, examining continuities and ruptures, as well as their relationship to long-term processes.
Presumed black immunity to yellow fever and the racial politics of burial labour in 1855 Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia
Michael D. Thompson
Epidemic disease regularly tore through nineteenth-century American cities, triggering public health crises and economic upheaval. These epidemic panics also provoked new racialised labour regimes, affecting the lives of innumerable working people. During yellow fever outbreaks, white authorities and employers preferred workers of colour over ‘unacclimated’ white immigrants, reflecting a common but mistaken belief in black invulnerability. This article chronicles enslaved burial labourers in antebellum Virginia, who leveraged this notion to seize various privileges – and nearly freedom. These episodes demonstrate that black labour, though not always black suffering or lives, mattered immensely to white officials managing these urban crises. Black workers were not mere tools for protecting white wealth and health, however, as they often risked torment and death to capitalise on employers’ desperation for their essential labour. This history exposes racial and socioeconomic divergence between those able to shelter or flee from infection, and those compelled to remain exposed and exploitable.
Four Conversations with Canadian Communications Officers
As the production, content and display of humanitarian images faced the requirements of digital media, humanitarian organizations struggled to keep equitable visual practices. Media specialists reflect on past and current uses of images in four Canadian agencies: the Canadian Red Cross, the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, the World University Service of Canada and IMPACT. Historically, the risk to reproduce the global inequalities they seek to remedy has compelled photographers, filmmakers and publicists in these agencies to develop codes of visual practice. In these conversations, they have shared the insights gained in transforming their work to accompany the rise of new digital technologies and social media. From one agency to the other, the lines of concern and of innovation converge. On the technical side, the officers speak of the advantage of telling personal stories, and of using short videos and infographics. On the organizational side, they have updated ways to develop skills in media production and visual literacy among workers, volunteers, partners and recipients, at all levels of their activity. These interviews further reveal that Communications Officers share with historians a wish to collect, preserve and tell past histories that acknowledge the role of all actors in the humanitarian sphere, as well as an immediate need to manage the abundance of visual documents with respect and method. To face these challenges, the five interviewees rely on democratic traditions of image-making: the trusted relationships, both with the Canadian public and with local peoples abroad, which have always informed the production and the content of visual assets. For this reason, humanitarian publicists might be in a privileged position to intervene in larger and urgent debates over the moral economy of the circulation of digital images in a globalized public space.
Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Refugees for the American Red Cross, 1918–20
Sonya de Laat
From June 1918 to April 1919, the American social photographer Lewis Hine made photographs of refugees in Europe. Refugees emerged as an unexpectedly humanitarian subject during World War I. Care for them was part of the American Red Cross’ (ARC) overall war relief activities, which Hine was hired to visually record. In this paper, I present the way in which refugees went from being framed in the ARC’s mass-circulated popular Red Cross Magazine as unique, innocent, idealized war-affected civilians to eventually being visually displaced in a shifting humanitarian landscape. For refugees who were, by 1920, making their way across the ocean to North America, visual displacement from the humanitarian visual sphere was tantamount to territorial displacement. Anxieties and negative rhetoric of the unassimilated alien prevailed, resulting in the temporary ‘closure’ of America’s borders and the ARC’s growing American-centric relief activities. Entwined with anti-Bolshevism, American immigration, and isolationist politics of the early twentieth century, Hine’s photographs and the ARC’s role in contributing to humanitarian photography are an early example of a rise and fall in sympathies towards refugees that would continue throughout the century.
This article introduces you to the general themes and questions of this special
issue. We argue that history and visual media have long been central to
humanitarian communication, but that the overlaps between history, visual media,
and humanitarian communication have seldom been addressed. A focus on those
overlaps, we suggest, not only demonstrates that critical historical inquiry has
much to offer for professional communication specialists, it also sheds new
light on the workings, changes and persistence of humanitarian narratives over
the twentieth century.