Following the announcement by the WHO in March 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus seems have created a pandemic-like phenomenon in the academic world. As this issue is being produced, we are witnessing an explosion of papers, reports, workshops, and even conferences appearing with the term COVID-19 to be found somewhere in the title, abstract, or text. The pandemic has had transnational impacts, with governing measures being called for from different organizations and countries. In academia, its impact crosses disciplines. The emerging scholarship consists not only of basic research into the virus, studies of its mechanisms of spread, its treatments, and so on; it’s also rousing the humanities and social studies, with their different perspectives.1
As part of the academic world, we welcome this phenomenon. At the method level, John Law may have well predicted it in his classic 2004 paper “And If the Global Were Small and Noncoherent? Method, Complexity, and the Baroque.” To see the global as noncoherent complexity is no fantasy; it can serve as a productive, conceptual foundation for STS interventions. The pandemic is not new in human history; what is new about COVID-19 is the ways in which we perceive it, the frequency and intensity of the information fed to us, and the various discourses coping with it. With the efforts of this emerging scholarship, a seemingly confusing and chaotic world has been presented, and is awaiting further interpretations.
Meanwhile, we have reservations. Law may be right in proposing alternative methods to understand the materially heterogeneous, specific, and sensuous globality from within. Our concern here, as we see from the COVID-19 pandemic in the academic world, is the extreme versions of that global complexity. We agree that the world as we perceive it is not neutral. Nonetheless, without convincing qualifications, these academic works create what Joseph Dumit (2004) would call “virtual community,” where fact and information are produced, spread, clustered and mingled across social, political, cultural, and medical realms at every scale. Journal metrics do not help much in solving this problem—on the contrary, they can be an enhancer of the problem as employed in the publishing industry’s global marketing plans.
Fully aware of this challenge, we have taken a conservative yet prudent editorial approach, again following Law and Dumit. As readers will see, in this issue we carefully curate cases that are empirical and historical. These cases include inspiring essays by Wayne Soon and John P. Dimoia on Taiwan and South Korea, respectively, and a book review by Qiliang He on Lyle Fearnley’s new Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter, an ethnographic account on influenza viral research and practice in China (Fearnley also contributed an article to issue 14.3). They come at the right time, but are not “tailor-made” for this occasion. The authors have spent years building specialties in the history of science and cultural anthropology and working on global health. For them, the COVID-19 pandemic is not strange but one of the latest episodes of animal-human disease in Asia. Dimoia traces in his essay the quarantine measures used against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Korea when the virus invaded in 2015. Considering Taiwan’s experience in coping with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Soon relates the political infrastructure and international relations that are necessary to understanding Taiwan’s success in blocking out the COVID-19 virus. Fearnley’s book starts with the conventional narrative that features China as the epicenter of emerging diseases. Yet what he presents in the end is a “virtual community” centering bird flu epidemics back to the mid-twentieth century. As Fearnley shows, this ecology of knowledge consists of the landscape of Poyang Lake, the duck farming system, and scientific accounts by virologists and veterinarians who operate between field and laboratory.
There is no doubt that, as public intellectuals, historians have engaged in contemporary debates with the lessons of the past. An example of such an occasion can be found in Daedalus’s 1989 special issue “Living with AIDS,” in which the historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg set out how AIDS could be perceived as a modern epidemic in the postmodern era. Nonetheless, the articles presented here in EASTS engage more with the past rather than take it as mere background. Their empirical nature echoes Law’s methodological suggestion of a baroque divergence of the global. They use the past as a means to speak directly to current controversies and confusions, following Dumit’s (2004) notion of “ethno-history” that treats the past with a clear sense of present concerns and standpoints. These characteristics are also nicely observable on the cover of this, an issue created by our new curatorial team of scholars in history, sociology, and anthropology—“Chimeric Antibodies” is a 2011 work by Hong Kong–based artist Angela Su, and we carry an inspiring interview by Harry Yi-Jui Wu, a cover-team member also based in Hong Kong, on its meaning to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rest of this issue is more or less in accord with the spirit of presenting cases empirically and historically. Jongyoung Kim, Heeyun Kim, and Jawoon Lim’s article “The Politics of Science and Undone Protection in the ‘Samsung Leukemia’ Case” presents a legal case of labor health that took over ten years to reach a settlement. History—or in this case workers’ lives and working experience—is always contested in the dispute process. While the Korean government and Samsung Electronics used epistemological studies to counter workers’ accusations, labor groups established their claims by recalling their experiences in the workplace. Both sides formed scientific narratives very different in style and rationale; nonetheless, as the authors points out, science alone could not help workers win public recognition and compensation: it had to go hand in hand with arguments of “undone protection” which demonstrated the industry’s failure to protect its workers’ lives and health, so that a path toward a resolution could be built.
In their article “Reformulation and Appropriation of Traditional Knowledge in Industrial Ayurveda: The Trajectory of Jeevani,” Harilal Madhavan and Jean-Paul Gaudillière analyze the transformation of Ayurveda with the case of Jeevani, a pharmaceutical based on knowledge found in classical texts as well as in tribal healing practices in the Indian state of Kerala. History, or in this case tradition, has flexible meanings in the process of Jeevani’s reformulation from messy, uncertain information into a therapeutic commodity for sale. More importantly, as the authors point out, the traditional knowledge involved in the invention of Jeevani had to be patented so that a workable benefit-sharing scheme could be established between the drug company and local stakeholders.
Joshua A. Hubbard’s article “Invulnerable Facts: Infant Mortality and Development in Nationalist Gansu” is historical. It examines responses to high rates of infant mortality in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu during the Republican era. Fact, presented in this case as health reports, could not be separated from an ideology-driven political and economic agenda. As in Jongyoung Kim’s casting of the scientific narratives of “Samsung Leukemia,” we see in this case, too, a dominant narrative of development, notably by the technical advisor Andrija Štampar and local experts, in which the infant mortality rate served a purpose. What may surprise readers is the absence of dispute over the numbers in the construction of such narratives and institutional changes in maternal and child health services. It appears that it was not the facts per se, but rather age-old assumptions accusing vernacular healers’ unhygienic practices of killing women and babies which justified the government’s prioritization of public health interventions.
As readers will see, these articles establish a dynamic dialogue between past and present in a characteristically STS way. Holding firm to a clear sense of accountability and responsibility in science, history becomes crucial in understanding contemporary controversies, while present concerns reawaken us as to why the past needs always to be reinterpreted. To quote Stephen R. Graubard, who rightly indicated this in the case of AIDS (1989: xv), “What do we need to know that we do not now know if we are to cope with the serious social and economic problems created by AIDS? What do we need to say loudly that is now only whispered because gouty toes are likely to be stepped on, because candor in respect to an issue as sensitive as AIDS is enormously hazardous and always in short supply?”
Finally, viewing public health as a political economic agenda, Hubbard’s article may remind readers of previous EASTS issues, such as the thematic “Population Control and Reproductive Politics in Cold War Asia” (10.4) and “Care in Translation: Care-ful Research in Medical Settings” (14.1). In addition to the dialogue between past and present, these flag up the necessity of comparative perspectives in knowing science and technology in East Asia. In fact, “to compare, to know” is a primary motto of ours, and we welcome collaborations with other journals to achieve this goal. A recent example of this was a mini symposium on Joseph Needham’s influence on the history of science in Asia (14.2). While kindly writing for us a commentary along with our former associate editor Togo Tsukahara, the Director of the Needham Research Institute Jianjun Mei is organizing two issues in Cultures of Science(vol. 3 no. 1–2) which contain papers summarizing Needham’s intellectual enterprise. We thank Mei for his generous input, and would like to bring this work of his to the attention of interested readers (for an orientation of the two Cultures of Science issues and the research notes published in EASTS, see Mei 2020).
And last but certainly not least, I want to express my sincere gratitude to Duke University Press, which will end its publishing contract with our sponsor, Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology, with this issue. I have had the great pleasure of working with Rob Dilworth and his team at DUP since 2013, both as an editor and later as editor-in-chief. Together we dealt with promoting EASTS to a wider readership, reaching out to territories new to both of us, and facing the challenges raised by the trend toward open-access journals and citation metrics. In our ten-year partnership we had the occasional disagreement over the details, but with a mutual aim of making EASTS a great journal and an openness to finding the best strategy to achieve this, we always found a practical way through. It has been a splendid collaboration, and one I could not possibly treasure more.
And so business goes on. While welcoming Routledge, our new partner, who will starting working with us from volume 15, I hope the friendship between EASTS and DUP will remain firm. After all, we share the same STS spirit and we know that this complex world requires more intellectual efforts to make sense of it. So, a fond farewell to Duke University Press, and we look forward to a new era for EASTS.
Sociologist Deborah Lupton (2020) collects a list of peer-reviewed articles published in social science journals on the COVID-19 pandemic with topical mappings. According to this list, 161 such articles have been located as of 20 July 2020.