Research updates

A sampling of online anglophone discussions on COVID-19

In the context of our project, I have been tracking the many lively online discussions involving physicians and scholars of Sowa Rigpa that have taken place since the emergence of a “novel coronavirus” in December 2019. Even though SARS-COV-2 can no longer be called “new”, I believe there is still much to learn from the unprecedented amount of materials that circulated in these digital spaces: to analyze the multiplicity of Tibetan medical perspectives on COVID-19, to see how practitioners positioned themselves in relation to biomedicine and public health measures, to understand the ways in which they drew on Buddhist prophecies of degenerate times and more-than-human cosmologies to interpret the root causes of the pandemic, and so on! Keep an eye out for upcoming publications next year to find out more. Here, I would just like to share links to some of the Sowa Rigpa pandemic resources in English that remain available to give a sense of what was going on.

Pioneering posts (February 2020)

The earliest English-language items appeared online in the first week of February 2020, at a time when the virus had barely spread outside China. These contributions were by Tibetan medical physicians in Tibet (translated and introduced by William McGrath) and in Dharamsala, and their focus was mainly on prevention and protection.

The first wave: spring 2020

As many across the world were under lockdown, the period from March until June 2020 saw the largest outpouring of contributions: personal blog posts (see for example here), podcast episodes (such as this one), virtual interviews (here), the launch of a webinar series by the US Shang Shung Institute, and several live discussions. Together with the American Tibetan Medical Association, Kunde Institute (California) hosted the Encountering COVID-19: Perspectives From Tibetan Medicine panel series, and the UCSF Division of Palliative Care held an event which included a guided meditation and visualization for overloaded healthcare professionals.

Anthropologists and historians working on Asian medical traditions also played their part around this time, such as by editing and authoring an extensive collection of early pandemic responses and reflections (That’s us!), and through writing a think piece by Barbara Gerke.

The second wave: fall-winter 2020

A second, considerably smaller wave of COVID-related items emerged after the summer of 2020, perhaps corresponding to yet another global peak in the number of infections. In several cases more specific topics were addressed in dedicated sessions: the role of spirit provocation and environmental destruction in understanding epidemics (here, see also this spring-time panel on the same topic), “immune boosting” and how to prepare the body for a long-term pandemic (Nida Chenagtsang and Herbert Schwabl), COVID-19 in Himalayan communities (part of the Shang Shung series), obesity and age as risk factors (Anasuya Weil), and more. Tawni Tidwell also presented at the second IASTAM webinar (see here for the two other webinars), which mainly featured academic papers on East Asian medicine.

Another pandemic year (2021)

The second pandemic year was much less productive than the first in terms of the quantity of relevant output, but several highly insightful journal articles came out: Craig et al. and Tidwell & Gyamtso (both in an Asian Medicine special issue on COVID-19), as well as an extensive interview with senior Men-Tsee-Khang doctor Dorjee Rapten Neshar. The latter is part of a noticeable trend in this year of contributions by Tibetan practitioners living and working in India, including a blog post by a younger-generation practitioner on the apotropaic Nakpo Gujor pill, a panel on mental health (a commonly recurring theme), and a Shang Shung webinar with senior doctor Namgyal Qusar. (Refer to the YouTube channels of Men-Tsee-Khang and CCTM, amongst others, for related Tibetan-language recordings). A single translated statement by a Russian physician is also worth mentioning here.

Later reflections

By 2022, the interest of the anglophone Sowa Rigpa community for COVID-19 was no longer significant, at least in the form of the kinds of publicly broadcast or published online media shared above. Now it is up to us researchers to analyze, compare, and contextualize these pandemic narratives, and also to account for what was left unspoken, and for those groups who barely had a voice on these international platforms.


Welcome to our new project website!

The Pandemic Narratives team would like to welcome you to our new website. As an introduction to our project, feel free to have a look at the following two blogposts which have already been published by us elsewhere.

First of all, you can check out our CoronAsur research blog entry hosted by National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute: Thinking about Contagion and Epidemic Disease in Tibetan and Himalayan Medical Contexts: Introducing the “Pandemic Narrative” Research Project.

Detail of Yutok Yönten Gönpo (20th c.; HAR #77181), edited by the “Last Classical Man” (最后的古典人). Seen on WeChat (February 2020)

To get a first glimpse of our preliminary fieldwork, you can also browse a selection of photos and anti-COVID materia medica specimens exhibited in a small expo at University of Vienna’s Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist studies. This post was first shared at the Potent Substances project website, and is syndicated here:

We are excited to start this project. Stay tuned for more content!