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Think Pieces

Vol. 7 No. 1: April issue

Thinking through complex webs of potency: Early Tibetan medical responses to the emerging coronavirus epidemic: Notes from a field visit to Dharamsala, India

  • Barbara Gerke
March 9, 2020


The epidemic of COVID-19 caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been in the headlines since December 2019. This Think Piece presents ethnographic vignettes from a recent (February 2020) field visit to Dharamsala, where the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and a Tibetan exile community reside in the northwestern Indian Himalayas. At that time there were no COVID-19 cases in India except in Kerala, South India, which had three confirmed cases. There were no cases in Tibetan communities in India, but they were considered vulnerable because of the influx of Buddhist pilgrims from China. My ethnographic focus is on traditional Tibetan medical responses of prevention and conceptions of contagion prior to any outbreak. I explore what counts as prevention, protection, and contagion in a Tibetan medical public outreach context during pre-epidemic days, and how politics and fear of ‘the other’ merge with the preventive aspects of traditional medicinal products and public health announcements in Dharamsala. Taken together, these ethnographic vignettes illustrate how local epidemic imaginaries draw on complex webs of potency. These combine, for example, substances and their smells with mantras, protective oils, and facemasks in varied ways, all in an effort to reduce anxiety and prevent contagion.

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