The Anthropology of Illness

It’s often assumed the the story of a disease is universal. A nefarious germ hops around, infects someone, they spread it around, suffer from it, repeat.

Perhaps something like that goes on in scientific terms. The experience of disease and illness is something far more personal and filtered through a cultural lens.

The dangers of moving air

Even though I’ve been living in Eastern Europe for a decade, I’m still miffed at the skvozniak, a current of air caused by two open windows in a building. All manner of ill is caused by the dreaded skvozniak: sore necks, colds, flu and worse.

In practice this means that summer buses are sweltering and nobody will open a window, most buildings are poorly ventilated and finding a table at a restaurant is musical chairs to avoid sitting under the AC.

An airconditioning vent is mostly covered with tap in order to obstruct air flow
A common sight in Eastern Europe

This isn’t something that only affects old ladies. Among my circle of the young (ahem, middle-aged) and scientifically educated, I hear of skvozniak-related illnesses all the time.

I’m met with dismay when I suggest that skvozniaks are a cultural phenomenon. It’s not something that is provable, but there are some strong indicators. Currently, the most comprehensive Wikipedia article about the skvozniak phenomenon is in Russian . The only other languages with an article: Czech, German, Persian, Finnish, Macedonian, Portuguese and Ukrainian. Incidentally, the German article covers that debate about whether skvozniaks (or Luftzug in German) make you sick.

It’s a quirk of Central and Eastern Europe. Luckily, most Ukrainians seem to accept that my Yankee blood gives me some level of immunity to the skvozniak.


I grew up in the US, where everyone is a germaphobe. What’s more sinister about germaphobia is thin veil of science it’s wrapped in.

Watching the great debacle of 2020 highlights some of the absurdities. I talk to people who spend hours sanitizing surfaces that, by all accounts, seem pretty low risk. These same people argue vehemently against wearing face masks.

Germaphobia is an expression of extreme individualism. If I fulfill a few individual rituals and slather myself in hand sanitizer, I’m building a fortress around myself. The goal is complete personal protection.

Masks are precisely the opposite. They’re imperfect, but when implemented on a societal level have the potential to dramatically slow the spread of an airborne virus.

Heading for the hills

Another curious Americanism is the enduring belief in mayhem, chaos, anarchy and riotous looting. Even Americans who have lived abroad for decades ask me if I’m concerned about violence breaking out in Kyiv and mass looting.

None of my European friends share this worry. It’s culturally bound. In fact, in times of disaster people tend to pull together in ways that were perviously unthinkable.

Americans are terrified of a slave revolt. Even card-carrying leftists are in denial about how much of our gun culture and Rambo fantasies are born out of this.

While the working class hoard toilet paper and rush to buy guns, the wealthy are flocking to private castles in New Zealand. It’s the same culturally-bound story: society isn’t worth saving, but I can save myself.

Medical anthropology

We all think in stories, even if we pretend to have embraced a science that goes beyond stories to raw data.

The stories that cultures tell about medicine are being overlooked. That’s why we need storytellers who are anthropologists at heart. Not telling the right story has already cost lives.

Humans are part of a particular culture tell, and we all think in stories. It’s nigh time science and medicine journalism admitted they did too.