‘Playing to type’ – an anthropologist’s view of the Covid crisis

Does the ethnicity of Kerry people explain the exceptionally low number of COVID-19 cases in the county?

here is a widely held view that COVID-19 never got a hold in Kerry.

Despite having the second-highest number of staycations, the current surge in community transmission is not reflected in infection rates.

Gov.ie listed 362 cases in the county on September 18, 1.1 per cent of all infections in the state. This put Kerry in 23rd place in terms of cases, even though it is in 10th place by population.

This article asks why and looks to early anthropology for answers, especially research that used blood type to analyse racial variation in Irish populations. Tom Barrington reviewed the research in 1976 and concluded that blood type made Kerry people ethnically distinct.

This is relevant to COVID-19 because current research shows that blood type influences infection rates and outcomes. This connects with other research into the relationship between ethnicity and COVID-19, and that throws up some uncomfortable facts about the impact of COVID-19 in Ireland.

The idea that Kerry people are ethnically distinct may seem absurd, but anthropologists have always treated the modern Irish population as a product of invasion and colonisation.

Before DNA, anthropologists had to rely on biological markers like complexion, skull shape, and blood type in their efforts to unravel the racial origins of the Irish, a significant aspect of anthropology between the 1860s and 1950s.

In 1957, Wilton Krogman wrote that “The Irish, bless ’em, emerge as one of the best-known (anthropologically speaking) peoples of our time.”

Tom Barrington summarised this research and published his findings in Discovering Kerry, his 1976 guide to the history, heritage and topography of the county. Barrington focused on skulls and blood type and concluded that the original population was mostly Type O but had an infusion of just over 10 per cent of European Type A genes, “compared with 26 per cent for the 26 counties as whole.”

He used this to portray the Kerry people as an older and ethnically distinct population.

That was an interesting finding in the context of COVID-19 because blood groups have become a hot topic in COVID-19 research, and the question now is whether or not this explains the low rate of infection in Kerry.

In July 2020, Kim Schive of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported on possible links between blood type and COVID-19.

The first hint came in March, when researchers in China observed that the number of individuals with Type-A blood who became ill and died was higher than the incidence of Type-A in the population.

The opposite applied to Type-O. Researchers at Columbia University subsequently observed that individuals with Type A were more likely to test positive for the Coronavirus.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that analysed genetic data from Spain and Italy and found that a variant in the region of the human genome that determined blood type was associated with a greater risk of severe illness and death.

Schive concluded that blood type and COVID-19 are linked and that, in turn, connects the racial origins of Kerry people, the historical dominance of Type O and, possibly, the low number of COVID-19 cases in Kerry.

The problem here is that anthropologists had become wary of race as a biological category in the 1890s and began to think of populations in socio-cultural terms, that is ethnicity. The relationship between biology and ethnicity has become a controversial aspect of the pandemic.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in Black, Asian and Middle Eastern (BAME) communities focussed attention on possible links between ethnicity and COVID-19 on the one hand and biology and ethnicity on the other.

Zubaida Haque of The Guardian argued that any link is the result of pre-existing socio-economic inequalities and racism rather than biology.

The Centre for Disease Control in America warned that the relationship between ethnicity and COVID-19 is uncertain, even if there is a body of evidence that individuals from BAME communities have worse outcomes than white individuals.

The Lancet defined ethnicity as a complex mix of genetics, social/cultural identity, and behavioural patterns, and described it as a crude tool for analysing differences amongst populations.

Dr Rosita Zakeri of King’s College London is sure that there is link, but admits that “the researchers are still scratching their heads as to exactly what might be going on”, whether biological factors, interaction between ethnicity and underlying health conditions, or socio-economic factors are driving higher rates of infection in BAME communities.

In this context, the predominance of Type O blood in Kerry points to a biological factor, but researchers agree that socio-economic factors cannot be ignored.

To conclude, there is something going on in Kerry. Early anthropologists established subtle differences in ethnicity in Irish populations, but experts agree that the link between ethnicity and COVID-19 is not fully understood and is complicated by socio-economic factors.

If anyone is in any doubt that this applies in Ireland, take a look at the situation in the meat plants, mushroom farms, and the direct provision centres.

This points to a much wider problem, which Dr Maeve O’Sullivan, writing for Brainstorm, identifies as the precarious position of the lowest-paid workers in this country and, as research by credible agencies shows, associated socio-economic drivers of infection.

As O’Sullivan points out, “recent OECD data show that the problem of low pay…is much greater in Ireland than in most EU countries”

In this context, linking COVID-19 and ethnicity exposes a bigger problem: the structural inequalities that put people in harm’s way.

Ballyheigue-based Dr Ciarán Walsh is a freelance curator and visual anthropologist. His work draws on the scientific study of race in an historical context to create a scientifically robust platform to challenge racism in a contemporary context, creating an interface between academic anthropology and civil society activism by employing a range of public-engagement strategies.

The article was also published this week on the RTÉ website.

Independent.ie – News