What is Syndemic?

The pandemic of 2020-21 can be analysed as an unpredictable natural event, akin to a hurricane or an earthquake, an accident of global dimensions for which humanity was unprepared. Yet, as Dr. Richard Horton of The Lancet suggests, a more appropriate term might be “syndemic,” combining three elements: “the virus, the chronic conditions that make people more susceptible to it, and a situation of deepening poverty and inequality.” In this broader sense, Covid-19 was not just a natural occurrence, but assumed the proportions it did because it took place within a global socio-economic order whose very structure guaranteed its worldwide impact. The Wilson Institute’s Syndemic Series takes up his idea in developing five key conversations about the pandemic. The first focuses on the unnatural history of Covid-19: how it arose within, and was disseminated by, a globalized system of trade whose factory farms, mass deforestation, and the conversion of much of the world into profit-generating resources for particular people in the Global North. The second is about the political and cultural experience of Covid-19 as it was formulated and debated within neoliberalism, that theory and practice of politics and economics privileging individualism and the competitive marketplace. The third is about the ways in which pandemic has revealed social divisions within our society, so that the propertied and the privileged experienced very different pandemics than those consigned to inferior positions. The fourth is about how the state, opposed by many since the 1980s as intrinsically repressive and irrational, has re-emerged in 2020 as a necessary, but deeply conflicted, guarantor of public health and safety, in ways that may put neoliberalism in question. And the fifth is about the pandemic as a spiritual and intellectual crisis, a situation of “cognitive chaos,” that places many of the assumptions about the individual, success and failure, liberty and democracy, under considerable strain. Syndemic encapsulates how Canadians, and people around the world, have wrestled, not with one isolated crisis, but a series of inter-related crises. Can we imagine a modern world not prone to such recurrent catastrophes? 

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