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The experience of epidemic: A difficult life test or an opportunity to bake bread?

Photo by Marcus Cola

Publish Date: 16.05.2022

Category: Interdisciplinary research, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 3 Good health and well-being, 10 Reduced inequalities, 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions, 17 Partnerships for the goals (Indicators)

In an extensive ethnographic study, which examined the social, political and economic impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic in Slovenia, researchers at the University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Arts (UL FF) and the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ) established that the epidemic exacerbated the existing vulnerabilities of various social groups and created a number of new ones.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the extraordinary measures to contain the spread of infection interfered significantly with everyday life and had an impact on the entire society, although not on everyone to the same extent. For some individuals, this was a rather positive period because the lockdown provided opportunities to engage in activities they previously did not have time for, such as baking bread. However, the experience of many people was not so positive during the epidemic. Based on 214 interviews conducted in Ljubljana and Murska Sobota with surrounding area in 2021, the researchers found that the epidemic created new inequalities and exacerbated some of the already existing vulnerabilities because the problems of those who were already vulnerable before the epidemic increased significantly over the past two years. In addition, completely new, unexpected vulnerabilities emerged.

The aim of the qualitative study titled "Covid-19: Ocena ranljivosti in vključevanje skupnosti" (Vulnerability Assessment and Community Engagement), which was conducted as part of the medical anthropology consortium SoNAR-Global headed by the Pasteur Institute in France, was to determine how both urban and rural residents coped with the COVID-19 epidemic. The vulnerability assessment in Slovenia was conducted by three researchers at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Arts. Simultaneously with the Slovenian study, a vulnerability assessment was also carried out in four other European countries: France, Germany, Italy and Malta. Data was collected through a field survey using a demographic questionnaire and in-depth semi-structured interviews, which took one to two hours on average.

The study included 82 men and 132 women aged between 18 and 91. A wide range of people were invited to participate in the study, including the most marginalised individuals who are usually not covered in statistical research. The respondents included individuals in stable employment on the one hand and precarious workers and the unemployed on the other, urban single-parent families and elderly people living on isolated farms, members of the middle-class and homeless individuals from the lowest level of society, as well as Slovenian citizens, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

The analysis of extensive ethnographic material revealed various social, political and economic impacts of the epidemic, indicating that a multitude of vulnerabilities developed during this time. Among the numerous findings, the researchers can briefly highlight three. First, the respondents dealt with complex and interconnected vulnerabilities that could not be interpreted through the concept of vulnerable groups. Therefore, this concept should be transcended, while both studies and measures in this area should be based on understanding the intersections of various vulnerabilities. Second, the ethnographic material clearly shows that future research must explicitly distinguish between those vulnerabilities directly associated with COVID-19 as an illness and those resulting from the containment measures that were adopted. Most vulnerabilities detected in this study resulted from these measures and not the illness itself. Third, the findings also showed that one of the main reasons for the vulnerability of individuals in Slovenia was excessive institutionalisation. Total institutions (e.g., retirement homes, safe houses and psychiatric hospitals) often turned out to be the centre of outbreaks of COVID-19 and their residents stayed confined in their rooms for several months, which exacerbated their health problems.

The study was carried out as part of the project SoNAR-Global: A Global Social Sciences Network for Infectious Threats and Antimicrobial Resistance funded under the European Commission's Horizon 2000 programme. For more information, go to

Written by: Anja Brunec (NIJZ), Uršula Lipovec Čebron (UL FF) 

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