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Humanitarian inversions: COVID-19 as crisis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Clare Herrick, Ann H. Kelly, Jeanne Soulard

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)850-865
Number of pages16
JournalTransactions of the institute of british geographers
Issue number4
Early online date28 May 2022
Accepted/In press21 Apr 2022
E-pub ahead of print28 May 2022
PublishedDec 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: Within global health, the ‘sentinel’ logic of pandemic preparedness (Lakoff, 2010 ) has been predicted on the same hope of ‘linear temporality of pandemic emergency management’ (Grove et al., 2022 , p. 15) that has been so upended by surge and retreat of COVID‐19. Yet the pandemic has also mainstreamed epidemiological reason as a means to place present crisis in context and predict future emergencies (Anderson, 2021 ). While the ‘metricisation’ of human life has been a forceful critique in global health (Adams, 2016 ; Reubi, 2018 ), the same concerns now need to be taken seriously by humanitarians beset with an increasingly ‘templated' logic of needs assessment. The faith in metrics comes out in full force in ‘Anticipatory Action’, ‘the humanitarian ’ (Lentz et al., 2020 , p. 11). This ‘forecast‐based' way of anticipating crisis is reliant on ‘humanitarian diagnostics’ (Lentz et al., 2020 ) that offer the possibility of bringing global health's concern with surveillance and epidemiology into conversation with Development and Disaster Risk Reduction. Proponents of anticipatory action argue that the majority of crises are ‘predictable’ based on a series of ‘triggers’ and thresholds (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2021 ). This shift to predicting and acting in advance of crises reflects the structural constraints on the humanitarian ability to ensure ‘future continuity’ (Anderson, 2017 ): rigid funding cycles, strict guidelines on what UN Central Emergency Response Funds can be used for, and limits on its use during early stages of disease outbreaks. There remain few examples of anticipatory action in the context of epidemics, with the Start Fund (supported by the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Jersey, and the Ikea Foundation) one of the few exceptions filling a gap for rapid‐release funding to address ‘local crises’ among countries at greatest risk. As a temporal inversion, the call for more ‘early action’ shows just how lacking durable infrastructures of humanitarian response are under conditions of global emergency. This is even more so when COVID‐19 is figured as a disaster (Hilhorst & Mena, 2021 ) that requires cross‐working between the ‘public health, education, economic, humanitarian and development sectors’, as well as ‘urgent and long‐term solutions’ (UN OCHA, 2020 , p. 24). The problem, as Grove et al. ( 2022 ) remind us, is that without any clear linearity to its temporal path, even the distinction between the ‘urgent’ and ‘long‐term’ (and the infrastructures called up for these) gets frayed. idée du jour Funding Information: This research was funded by a King's College London ‘King's Together’ award. The authors would like to thank Randolph Kent for being part of this project and the stimulating conversations that helped generate the ideas that animate this piece. Thank you also to the three reviewers for the incredibly helpful and challenging comments that have greatly improved this paper. Publisher Copyright: The information, practices and views in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). © 2022 Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers).

King's Authors


COVID-19 is a multi-spectral crisis that has added an acute layer over a panoply of complex emergencies across the world. In the process, it has not only exposed actually-existing emergencies, but also exacerbated them as the global gaze has turned inward. As a crisis, COVID-19 straddles and challenges the boundaries between humanitarianism, development, and global health—the frames and categories through which emergencies are so often understood and intervened upon. Reflection on these fundamental categories is, we argue, an important geographical endeavour. Drawing on Geoffrey Bowker's analytical lens of the ‘infrastructural inversion’, we explore how humanitarianism has been upended by COVID-19 along two axes that are of core concern to geographers: (1) the spatial and (2) the temporal. We first contextualise current debates on the humanitarian endeavour and its future within recent geographical research. We then set out the complex structure by which COVID-19 has been both imagined and intervened upon as a humanitarian emergency. In so doing, we then pave the way for a deeper empirical analysis of the spatial and temporal inversions that have been brought forth by COVID-19. The paper concludes by examining the conceptual value of the ‘inversion’ in developing geographical research agendas better attuned to the increasing porosity of humanitarianism, development, and global health.

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