SMA President Charles Briggs re: emergency aid for SMA members and other COVID-19 related measures

Dear SMA members,


I hope that you are holding your own during these difficult times. In my experience, COVID 19 feels like an uncanny challenge as a medical anthropologist: it is as if the focus of my research jumped off the page and now surrounds me. SMA members have been bringing the tools and perspectives that we have been developing for so many years to create webinars, shape policy and media discussions, provide informative PowerPoints and other materials, transform curricula, and much more. At the same time, medical anthropologists—including some who are clinicians treating COVID 19 patients—are hardly immune to SARS-CoV-2 or the effects of measures taken to limit its transmission.


The SMA Board has extensively discussed what it can do to support its members. We are particularly concerned about those who may have suddenly lost most or all of their income due to COVID 19-related measures. We are thinking especially of graduate students whose TA positions, research funding, or other support may have sudden disappeared. Some members depend on precarious academic employment and may be facing the cancellation of their summer classes. Some SMA members have lost employment or contracts with NGOs or multilateral, activist, or other organizations. New PhDs may be looking forward to widespread hiring freezes rather than hooding ceremonies this spring.


At-Large Board Member Danya Glabau suggested that SMA create a fund to provide small emergency grants to assist SMA members in need; after extensive discussions, the Board has embraced the proposal and is currently working out the details. We thus plan to solicit requests for $500 in emergency funding from SMA members who are facing current or immanent acute economic hardship as a result of COVID 19-related measures. Our goal is to find the resources that will be needed to respond in a timely fashion to all requests from SMA members who find themselves in acute need through a simple, streamlined process. The Board voted to allocate $10,000 in SMA funds for this purpose, and the current and past SMA presidents have promised donations amounting to an additional $5,000. Once a mechanism is in place, we will be inviting SMA members to contribute to a fund that will be used exclusively to fund these emergency grants, but we do not wish to engender any sense of pressure or obligation.


The AAA leadership embraced SMA’s idea, and it is discussing the possibility of creating a fund that would address the needs of AAA members as a whole. At the same time that we applaud this response and will coordinate as closely as possible with AAA leaders, SMA’s emergency grant program signals the Society’s commitment to the wellbeing of its members and its dedication to the future of medical anthropological research, teaching, and practice as well as to that of the Society itself.


As I mentioned in a previous message, SMA will be proceeding with the process of receiving nominations and bestowing 2020 prizes and awards; many deadlines have been extended. I hope that you saw the message to AAA members from Executive Director Ed Liebow. He announced that even as the AAA hopes to hold a meeting in St. Louis in November, it is exploring contingency plans. Importantly, the deadline for submissions has been extended until 15 May; registering for the meeting will not require up-front payment of registration fees or renewal of AAA membership dues, which will only be requested once the preliminary program is available in the summer. The SMA Board is holding its own discussion of contingency plans to ensure that a robust exchange of ideas between SMA members will take place, regardless of what form the meeting takes. My own sense is that a strong virtual component will be required, no matter what decision is made about the St. Louis meeting. We thus strongly urge you to submit sessions and papers for review by SMA/AAA Meeting Committee members Nolwazi Mkhwanazi and Eugene Raikhel. We also ask you, if you are able, to renew your SMA membership this year whether or not you are able to participate in the meeting, thus helping SMA play an active role in supporting the presents and futures of medical anthropologists.


In closing, I thank all of you for the efforts you are currently undertaking to keep yourselves and those around you safe, to sustain programs of research, teaching, and practice, and to use perspectives grounded in medical anthropology in assisting all of us in facing the pandemic’s many challenges.


Best wishes and stay healthy!




Charles L. Briggs

Professor of Anthropology

Co-Director, Berkeley Medical Anthropology Graduate Program

University of California, Berkeley

President, Society for Medical Anthropology