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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie

ZANTHRO Comments Nr. 3


While the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent ‘lockdown’ in Switzerland has been a challenging time for everyone, it has been particularly demanding for those who are (far) away from home. In this first part of the new series ‘Pandemic Perspectives’, four international scholars currently based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich reflect on their experiences of these strange times. Quang Anh Phan and Lisa Ludwig illustrate how the lockdown interfered with their visiting fellowship plans – Quang Anh as a postdoc pursuing new academic connections and Lisa as a PhD student conducting research into how knowledge is produced at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. Both show, however, how they managed to find new and creative ways to conduct research and remain connected. The reflections of PhD students Huajing Yang and Wahyu Kuncoro highlight quite different experiences of the Swiss response to the virus. Huajing shows how receiving constant information from China during the initial phase of the outbreak in Zurich informed her eventual decision to leave the country. Going into his and his family’s experiences of everyday life under lockdown, Wahyu instead highlights ‘what went well’ and describes new forms of solidarity and conviviality. Taken together, the comments illustrate how a disruption in our daily lives and routines can lead to newfound wisdom about not only our diverse systems of governance and societal structures, but also ourselves.


“Corona is stupid”, image by Rasande Tyskar (Licence under creative commons CC BY-NC 4.0)

Breaking out of the outbreak: An unorthodox postdoctoral experience

By Quang Anh Phan


Quang Anh Phan grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam. After completing his PhD in Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, he is now a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zurich Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies. His research focuses on the black and grey markets of video games in Vietnam. However, the lockdown threw a spanner in the works of his plans for this one-year fellowship. His comment reflects on how he has dealt with this challenging situation.


Postdoctoral fellowships are appealing because they allow novice researchers to become more independent, improve their teaching and researching skills, and thus gain a stepping stone to an academic career (Åkerlind 2009). My belief in that appeal oriented my academic compass: a fellowship gave feathers to my wings for a smooth takeoff that would bring me back to continental Europe after five years living and studying in Singapore. It was a bona fide perfect plan, until it was not.

The novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 changed everything swiftly. From a society where the only concern seemed to be if there would be enough snowfall for a full day of skiing and sledging, Switzerland was quickly pulled into the eye of the turmoil that has been haunting the world for almost half a year. Being trapped in this unprecedented situation, I have been exposed to some strange yet critical juxtapositions. For example, while some people still thought that the pandemic was either a hoax or an exaggerated version of influenza, a wave of panic buying strained retailers in the first two months of 2020. Or the (partial) lockdown, which has pandered to claustrophobia and germaphobia to the level that some people would label as absurd, that has existed alongside angry protesters who fill the streets, afraid that their next bills can only be paid by faith. The job market has been frozen, layoffs and retrenchment are right around the corner, the possibility of an economic recession is not theoretical. Some industries are being hung out to dry while online sales and digital entertainment have been seizing the throne. In the midst of this, I saw a call for donations to prostitutes in Switzerland. Their stomachs have been empty for weeks, and they do not have enough savings to pay their (insanely expensive) rent. Assistance provided to vulnerable subjects is not something new, but in places like my home country of Vietnam, a public call for donations to prostitutes would be unthinkable.

Some incredibly contrasting nuances are the likes of those normally only featured in dystopian movies, reminiscent of common motives that Hollywood directors prefer when depicting a failing Earth. Precarity is real; and for some people, resistance is futile. Being thrown into this unplanned vortex, I have found myself most of the time in a poorly constructed daily routine: waking up; checking the increasing number of infected patients and how many more casualties are reported; going to a supermarket in the manner of a thief, wary of everyone around; cooking like a self-identified MasterChef; sleeping like the walking dead (as my sleep has been fragmented to a chain of several 2-hour sessions); and continuously wondering when the moment might come that I can return to my normal life. The only moment of the day when a smile appears on my face is when I come across articles and posts on Facebook that tell stories about the untiring endeavors of the medical staff who fight on the frontline, or the empathy that people show to each other amidst this outbreak. This epidemic-turned-pandemic has showcased some shadows, but it has also unveiled some resplendent light, which still fuels my faith in the kindness of humankind.

The experience of working from home is also a striking feature of pandemic life. Although our office is located inside a modern, gray box, and its general aesthetic pales in comparison with sumptuous offices that inherit classical beauty, I have just realized how much I am used to working in a monotonous setting that attends to efficiency. Working from home entices me with possibilities for procrastination and relaxation, while the office turns out to be a safe place that offers some relief, hope, significance, and accomplishment (Miller, Casey and Konchar 2014). A certain sluggishness has possessed me, a feeling perhaps shared by other more-or-less hodophilic anthropologists who face difficulty in accepting the current forced stagnancy.

The need for physical interaction has been offset by technology facilitating online meetings. We might profitably engage in the entanglements of the virtual and the real world, while at the same time questioning the ontological demarcation between the two spheres. I do not deny that the digital environment has its own value. The true sense of existence, though, might only be found in materiality and in a spatial location in which we can physically be present.

I have been trying my best to live with this extraordinary situation, patiently waiting for the day to break out. Seefeldt (2017) suggested that waiting is a concept built upon the foundation of time, which does not exist naturally since it is organized socially around rituals and other facets of life (Zerubavel 1976). My time bank here in Switzerland is hardly bigger than a piggy bank, since I have only four months left to enjoy the fresh breeze blown from the Lake Zurich. I will, thus, try to find ways to be amused by the subtle meaning of waiting. Although waiting might imply submission (Bourdieu and Nice 2000), bowing down and being incognito are not bad strategies at the moment. Perhaps they will bend me into a ready position for a later leap.


Åkerlind, G.S. 2009. "Postdoctoral research positions as preparation for an academic career." International Journal for Researcher Development 1 (1): 84-96.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Richard Nice. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Seefeldt, Kristin S. 2017. "Waiting it Out: Time, Action, and the Process of Securing Benefits." Qualitative Social Work 16 (3): 300-316.

Miller, Rex, Mabel Casey, and Mark Konchar. 2014. Change Your Space, Change Your Culture: How Engaging Workspaces Lead to Transformation and Growth. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1976. "Timetables and Scheduling: On the Social Organization of Time." Sociological Inquiry 46 (2): 87-94.


The entrance of the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich with a poster about protecting against COVID-19. Picture by Molly Fitzpatrick.

Tactile Horizons

By Lisa Ludwig


Lisa Ludwig is a German PhD student in the “Exhibiting Knowledge | Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group, a collaboration between the Georg August University Göttingen and the University of Zurich. Despite having her current field site – the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich - closed due to the lockdown, Lisa describes in the following comment how the pandemic also provided her with new and fruitful avenues of ethnographic research.


In October 2019, I started my year-long doctoral research fieldwork at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich (EMZ). The year is the practical part of the four-year doctoral programme “Exhibiting Knowledge | Knowledge in Exhibitions. An Epistemic History of Exhibitions in the Second Half of the 20th Century” at Georg August University in Göttingen in Germany.

The aim of my PhD project is to identify structural conditions, contexts and contact zones of ethnographic exhibitions and their knowledge production by analysing case studies of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The field research at the EMZ is like a current, in a way experimental, reference to knowledge traditions of ethnographic exhibitions of the former GDR, which I analyse using historical source material and interviews with contemporary witnesses in Leipzig and Dresden. What kind of knowledge is produced, introduced, processed and developed by whom and how? Through participatory observation/ observational participation and self-reflective collaboration at the EMZ, I would like to understand knowledge, work and decision-making processes, with a focus on the skills that are not written down, in the different work areas of an ethnographic museum in Europe with its various professional groups.

During the first six months I had familiarized myself with the field and colleagues, especially the curator of the Americas collection, was assigned my own projects like a provenance research on arctic collections and got to know the archives in this context. It was planned that during the year I would get to know all departments of the EMZ, not just curation, the typical working place of an ethnologist. I had the feeling that I had arrived and was able to work independently, more like a local doctoral student than a guest researcher, but I missed the experience of working practically with the restorers. Fortunately, at the end of the working day on March 12, 2020, I packed all my working material, as colleague meetings were due in Leiden, Amsterdam and Hamburg the next two weeks. What a happy coincidence: after that evening, I neither went on a research meeting nor did I return to the doctoral office at the EMZ for months. Instead of field research and collaboration at the museum, the University of Zurich announced a few days after I had packed my things that only operations with minimal presence in an extraordinary situation was permitted.[1]

“Home Office” suddenly became obligatory. Public events were cancelled until the end of the semester – as was my lecture on social activism in the context of forced disappearances in Mexico at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies of Zurich – and few days later all buildings at the University of Zurich were closed. An exception was only possible if attendance was absolutely necessary. My field – the museum – for which I had come to Switzerland, was closed overnight. As a guest doctoral student I from then on worked from home, which in these times meant spending most of the day in a 12 square metre, all-in-one room in a shared apartment, until further notice. Home office in the middle of field research on implicit and practical – non-written – knowledge production of a museum, means that I cannot access my field site during the pandemic. But my research focus, the non-written knowledge of experience and practice, depends on the site, the community of practice and participation in it. What about the provenance research which I had just begun? What will happen to the exhibition on Ayoreo bee and honey knowledge that I am working on in order to research an exhibition process?

Lunch breaks and corridor conversations, a central informal place of exchange at the EMZ, have ceased because my research partners disappeared into their own homes or were supposed to work alone. The production of knowledge at the EMZ for me has changed places with messaging apps, homepages and virtual meetings. A further perspective was added when I found out I could work at the external depot in Schlieren. I had planned to work there some during my year at the EMZ, but not as long or as often as the pandemic made it possible. The normal approach to museum objects I had had at my desk, e.g. for provenance research, had begun for me mostly on written or 2D visual sources like pictures rather than by seeing the objects themselves. The depot, however, provides sensory and technical perception of the objects in a first step, which I contextualize in a next one. New data material opens up ahead of schedule, thanks to the possibility of working intensively with the restorer/ conservator in the external depot of the EMZ. Is the material of plant or animal origin? Is it woven or braided, and what does that tell me about the context and the origin? And if I produce storage packaging for the objects, the restorer/ conservator shows and explains the manual skills and knowledge of materials and conservation to me, literally learning by doing. This physical approach to the objects expands my perception, allows me to change my perspective on objects, learn new skills and experience more dimensions that include the historical part of my work.

After the initial feeling of getting stuck, not being able to do site-related research in the middle of the project, new horizons and questions have opened up which are now of great value for my analyses and expansion of my practical skills. Meanwhile, the preparations for the exhibition on Ayoreo bee and honey knowledge continue, and experiencing the smell and texture of folding a beeswax wrap at home triggered an idea for the exhibition. Has the hands-on approach to the objects in the depot in Schlieren provided a more precise elaboration of my research question?


[1], accessed on 20th of May 2020.


An abandoned face mask. Photo by Olgierd Rudak (Licenced under creative commons, with a CC BY 2.0 license)

Observing Chinese and Swiss Public Response to the First Stage of the COVID-19 Outbreak

By Huajing Yang


Huajing Yang is a PhD student from China. She joined the University of Zurich Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies in September 2019 to research post-socialist transformations and social change in Uzbekistan. In this comment, she reflects on how the different responses to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Switzerland and China influenced her to (temporarily) leave the country.


Several reasons led to my decision to leave Switzerland temporarily before the full outbreak of COVID-19. As I followed the development of the Swiss epidemic continuously and checked whether there were any confirmed cases in Zurich, I actively shared the general development trends of this epidemic in China and the world. I also shared information about controls and precautions with my friends and colleague via WeChat and WhatsApp, and advised them to reduce going out and wear masks if possible. I did not intend to increase panic, but I wanted to send a kind reminder to be cautious of the potential risk of infection – to little effect. As for myself, I gathered epidemic prevention supplies, such as face masks and disinfectant, and began working from home.

Despite these actions, I eventually decided to leave Switzerland at the beginning of March. The main reason for this was that, while the real-time information on epidemic prevention that I was receiving from China informed me that I should be very cautious, I observed that people in Switzerland were not taking any precautions. In fact, European countries in general took hardly any action and appeared to be overconfident about the abilities of their medical and infrastructural systems in coping with the outbreak. In various online forums and social network groups throughout February, Chinese students and scholars living in Switzerland were discussing the development of the epidemic in Europe, the rising number of new diagnoses in Switzerland, and how to implement self-protection measures. In particular, there was an increased worry about the news that people of Asian descent had been attacked because they were wearing masks to protect themselves in public. Moreover, I was worried about living with one of my roommates, who had to go to class every day but did not wear any protective measures. He thought other roommates were being overly cautious and conservative in their responses to the virus crisis. One roommate even shared valuable information about multi-channel infectious virus protection that his mother, a medical worker, had learned from working on the front lines during the SARS outbreak with him, but it did not play a role.

Although I left Switzerland in March and therefore did not observe people’s behavior during and since the loosening of lockdown, I would like to share some of my observations before my departure. These are mainly based on my own intuitive feelings and experiences with local people’s attitudes toward the outbreak which I have summarized in the following chart:


These attitudes towards the outbreak of the virus stood in marked contrast to those of my family and friends back home, as well as those reported in the Chinese media more generally. While it is not my place to analyze Switzerland’s epidemic response, I am interested here in the question of why Swiss and Chinese people have shown such a difference in public awareness and response to the spread of COVID-19.

This is maybe most obvious in relation to the face mask. The Corona crisis has exposed a diversity of meanings behind and reactions to wearing a face mask in different countries. In China and other East Asian countries, when an epidemic occurs, whether you are infected or suspect infection, wearing a mask is often a spontaneous act. It both protects oneself and reduces the chance of cross-infection. In response to this sudden and uncontrollable COVID-19 outbreak, I also decided to wear a face mask, both out of self-protection and as an action of solidarity against the virus. But the public use of the face mask is much more controversial in this part of the world. In Europe and America, face masks seem to be almost a symbol of pathogens, a sign of danger or even disorder. The World Health Organization specifically defined that “Masks should only be used by healthcare workers, caretakers and people who are sick with symptoms like fever and cough…there is no evidence that face masks will effectively protect you.”[2]

Of course, some objective factors cautioned the Swiss public use of face masks on a large scale, such as the expected lack of mask supplies, the priority to save them for front-line medical staff, and the effort to curb possible capitalization from commercial price increases. These factors may also explain why officials initially did not recommend healthy people to wear masks and regarded frequent hand washing as a more important anti-epidemic measure – even though there now seems to be a shift in attitude.

Another often mentioned aspect in the different responses to the COVID-19 outbreak is related to different interpretations of public power and public order. Experience with SARS and avian flu outbreaks has helped countries like China to quickly install measures to combat the epidemic: strict travel restrictions, the tracing and quarantining of infected persons and their close contacts, the publication of relevant personal information and previous activities to limit the virus’s spread, and the dissemination of information to prevent unrest and allow others to protect themselves. I found, however, that China's national quarantine in response to COVID-19 was often described as “sensational”.[3] In the media, China’s approach has been described as a “trample on human rights”[4] and “an excuse for authoritarianism”.[5] And it has often been argued that this so-called Asian model is difficult to implement in European and American countries because of its disregard for civil liberties and human rights. Yet, one may ask, is this not based on a one-sided (Western) understanding of the concept of human rights and freedom? In light of the experience and lessons learned from the fight against SARS and the specific time of the outbreak right before Chinese New Year (typically involving huge internal migration flows), these measures were taken to put the lives of Chinese citizens first. Indeed, when the epidemic spread in various countries and lockdown measures were generally adopted, some of these criticisms abruptly disappeared.

In short, I felt obvious differences between China and Switzerland even at the early stage of the outbreak. These differences contributed to what I felt as a “culture shock” which illuminated radically different expressions of values. However, in the globalizing world, epidemics are not simply events in a region or a country. This virus, which has infected millions of people around the world, did not choose its target because of differences in culture or governance. Humankind is a community of destiny in a pandemic – we can only support and unite each other to overcome difficulties. When it is over, this history will be a shared memory for all of humankind.


A poster about solidarity in times of corona. Photo taken by Wahyu Kuncoro.

Solidarity over Distance: My Experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Switzerland

By Wahyu Kuncoro


In the following piece, Wahyu Kuncoro, a PhD candidate at the University of Zurich Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, reflects on his experiences of the pandemic while searching for positive meaning in a very challenging situation. Originally from Indonesia, Wahyu has lived in Zurich for the last two years with his wife, Hesti, and their daughter, Kalani. He is currently writing his dissertation about transnational networks of Islamic missionaries between Indonesia, India and Cambodia.


How can we find positive meaning in a distressing situation like a pandemic? This question has had my mind spinning ever since the Swiss government officially enforced social distancing measures by temporarily closing all non-essential workplaces, closing down schools, and restricting access to all university facilities in mid-March, 2020, to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak. This move by the government impacted me in more than one way because the university-owned daycares closed their doors, too. If I had to work from home, then, this meant I also needed to deal with my three-year-old daughter, who loves jumping around the house, running here and there all day. The mild sense of panic that I felt at the idea of combining “home office” with childcare was shared by some of my colleagues – at least in the early stages of this working-from-home scenario. We had no choice but to adjust to this new situation, and although the prospect of it seemed daunting, we all considered ourselves lucky compared to the many men and women who faced unemployment due to the temporary closure of their workplaces.

As an Indonesian living in Switzerland, my understanding of this global pandemic has been shaped by my observations of each government’s measures, the steps taken by both countries, and how the people of each country responded. I have a generally positive impression of how the Swiss have handled this pandemic. This impression may have arisen due to my lack of exposure to criticism, rumors, and gossip. As a migrant with a lack of knowledge of the local language, combined with the stay-at-home regulations, I was alienated from the daily lives of Swiss people. Meanwhile, I was flooded with news about how the Indonesian government was struggling to build awareness of the dangers of COVID-19 among its people, be it from online media or social media. My reflections of how the Swiss government and its people handled the pandemic was mainly based on information provided by Bundesamt für Gesundheit (BAG)[6], and the local newspaper Tagblatt, as well as observations of public spaces in Zurich.

The awareness that humans had become the host of COVID-19 prompted the governments of many countries to exercise their power more extensively over citizens’ private lives. In Switzerland, the first step taken by the federal state was campaigning the importance of washing hands, using tissues or arms while sneezing/coughing, and maintaining physical distance between individuals. This campaign was presented through various media platforms and also translated into non-national Swiss languages in order to reach broader audiences, like me and some of my colleagues. In line with the government regulations on preventing the spread of COVID-19, most supermarkets in Zurich have adopted a new shopping protocol for their customers. Disinfectant spray, often identical to that used in hospitals, can now be popularly seen at the entrance doors of the supermarkets. Also, people’s movement inside the building is now being regulated. The number of people inside at any one time is limited, and stickers on the floor indicate the minimal physical distance required between queuing customers in waiting lines.

All of these health and hygiene protocols, as well as the campaign urging people to “Stay at home now. Save lives.”, have been used by the state to construct new criteria of good practice during the pandemic. In short, these practices have an attached moral value: those who follow the rules of behavior outlined by the state help “save lives”. However, entrusting individuals to be disciplined enough to obey the rules was not an easy task, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Therefore, the Swiss government took the dramatic step of declaring a “national extraordinary situation” based on the Epidemics Act.[7] Such a decision, which was followed by closing public schools, prohibiting all public and private events, closing all non-essential shops, restaurants and leisure facilities, and deploying up to 8,000 members of the armed forces to assist with healthcare, logistics and security, had not been made since the end of the Second World War in 1945.[8] Through this decision, the state symbolically showed society that COVID-19 is an actual threat and is indeed around us.

Amidst all these measures, a collective rise in awareness amongst members of society could be observed. This awareness was evident, in my opinion, in the number of people who abstained from using public transportation – I noticed that the number of people riding the tram had significantly decreased right after the state decree was released. The attitude of most passengers on the public transportation also changed. People automatically sought physical distance from others by leaving the seats next to and around others unoccupied.

Additionally, the national daily report on COVID-19 transmission successfully made people better understand that this virus does not fatally impact the young.[9] They began to understand that the younger generations are potential carriers who could transmit the virus to the elderly, the most vulnerable group. In this case, a new moral value appeared in which younger people need to take an active role in saving the elderly and other high-risk groups by staying at home. I also found a similar awareness in Indonesia, in which many young people working in urban areas chose to stay put during the Ramadhan and Eid celebrations, rather than return to their hometowns and celebrate with family, which is the norm. They were afraid of being a carrier and harming the elderly members of their family. This behavior showed that under the distressing situation of a pandemic, positive outcomes can emerge, such as the greater social awareness and care for the elderly exhibited among youths.[10]

Thus, my experiences during this pandemic in Switzerland have clearly shown me that solidarity is not formed coincidently, but is socially constructed. Health measures formulated by the state to stop or flatten the curve of infection rate have unconsciously built a standard of moral conduct regarding how people behave as individuals and as a group. The commitment of people to these health measures presumably led to collective awareness, which could also be defined as the act of social solidarity itself. This social solidarity has become an important factor in getting through the pandemic. Its importance was also highlighted in an open letter by the Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, which was released to the public four days after the announcement of the national lockdown.[11] In the last part of this letter, she expressed her gratitude to all citizens who continued to go to work to ensure the provision of essential goods and services:


“Genau das hat die Schweiz immer ausgezeichnet. Wenn es darauf ankommt, sind wir mehr als 26 Kantone und 8,5 Millionen Menschen. Wir sind ein Land. Und wir sind füreinander da.”

(This is exactly what has always distinguished Switzerland. When push comes to shove, we are more than 26 cantons and 8.5 million people. We are one country. And we are there for each other.)


I came across many more messages of solidarity during the lockdown in Zurich. As per 19 April 2020, there were as many as 1,130 initiatives from local aid groups observed on various social media platforms (such as These included youth initiatives, such as volunteering to help vulnerable groups by doing their grocery shopping, offering emotional and communicative support and even accommodation for cross-border medical workers. Meanwhile, the youth in my neighborhood chose an offline way to provide support: they hung up simple flyers with their mobile numbers in public spots such as tram stations or on vending machines to offer help and assistance with shopping. This left me wondering whether this practice of solidarity, which needs trust between both parties, only applied within small scopes of society, such as at the neighbourhood level or within one building apartment, or whether it could also work beyond the local level, such as at the cantonal level.

Although these questions have kept my mind spinning, one thing I have learnt from this COVID-19 outbreak is that, in both Indonesia or Switzerland, humanity still, more or less, drives people to act socially. While the state and its apparatus have been busy controlling the physical mobility of people, the people themselves have been creating new initiatives to care for each other to ensure the sustainibility of their kind. As the number of new positive cases reduces, the “new normal” is being sounded. Hopefully, people will slowly adjust to it.


[6] The recommendation made by the Indonesian Embassy in Bern to Indonesian citizens living in Switzerland was to keep updated on the Swiss government’s regulations related to COVID-19 by monitoring their official website,

[7], accessed on 5 May 2020

[8], accessed on 5 May 2020

[9], accessed on 18 April 2020

[10] This pandemic situation has actually resulted in much more complex relationships between young people and the elderly in Switzerland. The relationship is not always positive and is triggered by tensions between both groups. See, for example, Accessed on 25 May 2020.

[11], accessed on 19 April 2020