Covid-19 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Superstition and Covid-19: How the Retreat into Belief Opens Fault Lines in Our Rationality

By Laurie Parsons, Royal Holloway, University of London

At first, they came in ones and twos, but soon they were more numerous. Masked, behatted figures silently observing passing motorists from house after house: hands folded insouciantly into pockets, caps blowing in the wind and dark glasses shielding unseeing, painted eyes. Stuffed, clothed and carefully positioned in greeting, these rarely seen figures became, for many Cambodians, the first and last line of defence against the new and deadly coronavirus sweeping through Asia.

A “Ting Mong” scarecrow erected to ward off Covid-19 in rural Cambodia. Source: Facebook. 

A variation on the traditional Ting Mong scarecrows used in rural Cambodia, the carefully dressed, anthropomorphic figures that appeared at household gates in early March are no innovation of Covid-19, but are a traditional means to ward off illness from the home. The scarecrows have no medical pretentions, yet like the Kru Khmer, traditional healers who continue to thrive across the country, they deal with the spiritual “causes” of illness, rather than its corporeal symptoms. 

This spiritual approach to the Covid-19 pandemic is especially common in Cambodia. Not only Ting Mongs, but spirit houses and even disembowelled monkeys have adorned barriers erected around villages, as Cambodians have joined so many around the world in retreating not only into their homes, but also into deep seated beliefs which belie the objectivity of (Western) medical science. 

A monkey used as a charm to ward off Covid-19 from a Cambodian village. Source: Facebook.

Yet this is a phenomenon neither limited to Cambodia, nor the global South. Disease and pandemics, in particular, have always been associated with superstition and spiritual logic. Medieval paintings of plague depict demons as the arbiters of illness; agents of spiritual will in the trajectory of pestilence. Only since the 19th century has the science of epidemiology begun to isolate specific causal factors in the spread of disease, marking a departure from the long predominant miasma theory but not the spiritually infused uncertainties that accompanied it. As Tim Adams put it in the Observer earlier this year: 

‘All pandemics trail a ready market in superstition, quackery and prejudice – a sense of powerlessness generates in some the need for catch-all theories, however deranged’ – The Observer, 26/04/2020

Indeed, contemporary incarnations of pandemic superstition have survived the medical rationalisation of illness by taking on a scientific, rather than an outwardly spiritual, veneer. As the recent ‘infodemic’ of conspiracy theories,  including the 5G conspiracy theory, which has drawn British celebrities from Amir Khan to Eamon Holmes to its defence, and the growth of “anti-vaxx” vaccine scepticism, espoused  by globally recognised figures such as Novak Djokovic and Woody Harrolson, superstition feeds on fear wherever it is found.

A Retreat into Belief

What links the uptick in conspiracy theories to the scarecrows and spatchcocked animals erected by Cambodian villagers is their shared retreat into systems of belief detached from the mainstream knowledges of modernity, a process vital not only because of what it reveals about responses to Covid-19, but about the undergirding systems of belief that shape society more broadly. Religion and spirituality are not the preserve of the overtly religious or spiritual alone. Indeed, many non-believers can recall at least one occasion of high stress when they have uttered a prayer to God, gods, or the universe more generally and they are far from alone in doing so. 

The use of prayer as a coping mechanism, even amongst avowed atheists, is a noted phenomenon, serving to ‘‘bridge the worlds of belief and nonbelief’’ where it occurs. Yet it is a bridge that tends to be burned after use, with the connection between the material and non-material realms brushed aside after the event: dismissed as the product of a stressed and pressured mind both distinct from and irrelevant to the more familiar systems of thought with which we navigate normal life.

The Dans Macabre. 16th Century. Koper Regional Museum. Public Domain.

As outlined in our recent paper in Transactions, however, adversity is – for many in Cambodia – the norm rather than the exception. As we outline in the context of debt bonded brick workers, injury and illness is so much a part of everyday life that the spiritual agency of fate and its material manifestation blur into a single entity. This dislocation of responsibility from the people who own and run labour sites, to the spirits that live within them, is a key tool of disempowerment by brick kiln bosses. 

Yet as we conclude, it is not only an instrumental imposition, but a logical response to capricious circumstances. To rely comfortably on an objective, scientific, modern world view is to anticipate predictability; to have faith in one’s own capacity for correct expectation. Where everyday life is more uncertain, alternative accounts may feel more appropriate, the desire to explain events by attributing agency and personified intentionalism to processes beyond personal control. 

Everyday adversity, like crisis, therefore, acts as a portal between worlds, opening ‘interstitial cracks’ in our objective understanding of the world. Yet this is a process of revelation rather than creation. A cursory look around any space of work, leisure or transit provides evidence of religious symbolism: from the crucifix necklaces and religious tattoos commonplace in Europe, to the ubiquitous spirit houses and shrines of Southeast Asia. Far from being the hangover of a fading past, these nods to the non-material are alive, thriving and constantly reproducing, a testament to the ongoing relevance of the spiritual in everyday life. 

Learning from the Epistemology of Crisis

Nevertheless, although the presence of such spiritual logics is difficult to deny in the world at large, they are invariably absent from the frameworks we utilise to analyse the economy and its participants. Labour geography has barely engaged with spirituality, arguably to its detriment given the rich accounts of contestation between the capitalist and spiritual worlds outlined in the anthropological literature. The persistent sense is that “modern” systems of economy and governance are overlaying and replacing what came before.

However, as the Covid-19 pandemic reveals, the objective frameworks according to which we analyse our lives exist in dialogue with the immaterial other, linked via the interlocutor of spiritual agency. Whether God, angry spirits, or shadowy conspiracies, the specific belief systems may be different, but the rejection of material objectivities is consistent. Adversity, whether everyday or crisis driven, encourages a retrenchment into familiar cultural values and with it a retreat along the spectrum from knowledge (a position justified by more tangible evidence) to belief (a position justified with less tangible evidence). 

Rather than dismissing the beliefs that emerge in times of crisis as aberrations, large scale social coping mechanisms such as these should be valued for the vital insight they offer into the hidden underwiring of society. When crisis hits, or ‘crisis ordinary’ persists, the safety to which they turn is revelatory. As a phenomenon of rare universality, the Covid-19 pandemic opens up a fault line in our objective rationality, presenting a unique portal into our relationship with the spiritual, the believed, the “irrational” and the half-known. 

Though more prominent when the certainties of everyday life break down, the world of belief is always present and always influential. Far from a rebuttal of scientific objectivity, understanding it as such is a key step in uncovering the geographical inconsistencies and commonalities that drive human behaviour. Not only in a crisis, but in the course of everyday inequalities, injustices and exclusions, understanding the undiminished influence of supernatural knowledges saves lives.

About the author: Laurie Parsons is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London and Principal Investigator of the Project The Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Imports and Investment Overseas. Previously Co-Investigator of project Blood Bricks: Untold Stories of Modern Slavery and Climate Change from Cambodia, which examined brick kiln work in Cambodia, Laurie Parsons’s work examines the contested politics of climate change on socio-economic inequalities, patterns of work and mobilities. His first book, Going Nowhere Fast: Inequality in the Age of Translocality, will be published by Oxford University Press in August 2020.

This paper is based on Laurie’s recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, co-authored with Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London):

Parsons, L, Brickell, K. (2020). The ghost in the machine: Towards a spiritual geography of debt bondage and labour (im)mobility in Cambodian brick kilns. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: 1– 15.

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