Radical care in times of COVID-19: lessons from Puchuncaví

Time for caring

Haunted by an invisible threat that yet harms their bodies in very concrete ways—especially those of the elder, the poor, and the pregnant. A threat that is biochemical in principle, but economic, social, and affective in practice. An ubiquitous harm that roams a fuzzy geography, suspended on airs, sedimented on soils, flowing through waters. A threat that they know when it started, but cannot know—not even estimate—when it will end. A harm that while suffocates the lives of entire populations and ecosystems, is kept at armchair distance by governments more interested in keeping the economy going than in halting violence.

The above description resonates with the somatic anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political challenges it poses. The ubiquitousness, the unknown unknowns, the inequality. And yet it summarizes the non-event reality of a specific territory, long before the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s the daily experience of men and women living in the Puchuncaví valley in Chile, home of the infamous Complejo Industrial Ventanas, the Ventanas Industrial Complex (VIC). The construction of a copper smelting plant in 1964 was the starting point of what became the largest industrial district in Chile. Today the VIC is the home of 27 petro-chemical industries, and the effects of contamination on bodies, watercourses, marine ecosystems, soil and plants are still to be assessed. Harm is so severe and ubiquitous that suffering has become a normalized feature of daily life: not a spectacular disruption lived in the excitement of the eventful, but a chronic, silent and creeping condition that is inseparable from life’s ordinariness. Once a quiet location, Puchuncaví has become a “sacrifice zone” (Lerner, 2010), a permanently impaired, impoverished and isolated community in the name of progress and national economic development. 

In times of radical uncertainty, what can we learn from the people of Puchuncaví as they strive to persevere in the face of systemic toxicity? In 2017 we wrote a paper about what we thought was a crucial element in the daily struggles of neighbours trying to cope with industrial harm in Puchuncaví: the role of care and caring practices as forms of political action and social endurance (Tironi and Rodríguez-Giralt 2017). Care, to be sure, not in the romanticized and moralising guise of (feminized) medical attention, but related to the intimate actions of containment, solidarity, and reparation for and with those we feel concerned —human or otherwise. Inspired by feminist science studies, we hence take care not as a coherent programme, but as a fluid and adaptable ethico-political set of practices and potentialities always concerning specific individuals facing specific problems in specific circumstances. This makes possible—and necessary—not only to identify the multiple configurations and arrangements of care (Sánchez Criado and Rodríguez-Giralt, 2016; Mol, Moser, & Pols, 2010) but also to examine the whole worlds it carries with it (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011, 2017).

Revisiting the practices of care we bear witness in Puchuncaví, we reckon how they resonate with many of the challenge posed by this pandemic —as we realise how, maybe, they offer some cues for valuing care and imagining more caring worlds in times of COVID-19.

Puchuncaví: caring practices for ethical endurance

After spending time in Puchuncaví—sharing meals with housewives, attending meetings, and discussing with activists[1]—we were able to identify two variations of care as an intimate practice for knowledge production and political practice. The first is ethnographically anchored in the monthly meetings organised by former workers of the smelting plant and is related to self-care and mutual support as a way to articulate a common experience of solidarity and dignity. While these meetings were convoked to discussed legal actions against the plant, they were in practice a therapeutic attempt at making bearable the afflictions faced by these poisoned ex-workers: a space to talk about their situation and share experiences, anxieties and anecdotes, hence a moment of healing, self-care and attention. it was through the exchange of stories and testimonies that the ‘green men’[2] reinforced their emotional ties, affinities and identifications with each other. Finally, the act of sharing, supporting and feeling-with also forged a shared social identity, since it validated and enriched what these men were: in recounting their stories, a resilient, dignified, persistent, humble and caring subject was unearthed.

The second form of care is what one of us has called elsewhere hypo-interventions (Tironi 2018), and is ethnographically articulated in those forms of domestic and intimate care – cleaning, repairing, mending, sheltering, healing– with which people (mostly women) in Puchuncaví coped with chronic harm. By taking care of their companions—husbands, gardens, grandchildren— people in Puchuncaví opened up a space for knowledge production and political speculation. The attention paid to the minute alterations affecting their loved ones, the dedication granted at healing wounds and washing fluids, helped to elicit all the wrong done to care-needing bodies, and to reconstruct the trajectory of harm. The practice of care helped  to join the dots: it rendered visible and palpable the suffering that expert analysis often conceal. Through care, they made connections, identified actors and established a larger vision about causes, consequences and liabilities.

Disasters as crises of care

COVID-19 is not just an abrupt epidemiological emergency. It’s already a disaster, or a swarm of disasters that unfold and unravel (and frequently intensify) much deeper and slower processes—which usually refer to issues of inequality and the neglect of sociotechnical, and socio-natural, assemblages and infrastructures (in this pandemic, mostly health and care infrastructures). We’ve learned from Puchuncavinos that, in these contexts, care practices can be extremely important to create spaces of healing, self-care, awareness and empathy. As epistemic and political tools, care practices also make visible—and allows to think with—undervalued lives and geographies, thus enabling a minimal yet fundamental act of justice in the face of convergent violence. Across the  long temporalities of disasters, care facilitates moments of recognition, knowledge and resistance, untangling and contesting the abandonment, indifference and unequal protection of these chronically contaminated communities (Rodríguez-Giralt & Tironi, in press).

In times of “confinement” and “social distancing”, we are again reminded of how vital care is. Of how important is looking after each other, physically, socially and emotionally. One of the questions this pandemic renders relevant is how to recognise and value these crucial and diverse forms of care, and not just in and for the context of the crisis, but for our common cohabitation at large. How to place care at the centre of our lives and social organization? One possible answer, as Puchuncavinos taught us, is to approach this crisis as a fundamental crisis of care, that is, a crisis in and against the extended solidarities required for living a good life, at multiple scales. This is a crisis of the state as it abandons its responsibilities with regards those that suffer, and that fails at preventing further exclusions and isolations among those already marginalised or discriminated by age, (dis)ability, gender, ethnicity, etc. It’s a crisis in the capacity to recognise—and celebrate—collective life as mutual vulnerability, always and everywhere, in our homes, streets, and farms. It’s a crisis of our dismissal to recognize, let alone engage, in the routine yet crucial actions for maintaining and cultivating our daily existence. It’s a crisis in the capacity to remember our intimate and emplaced interdependencies with a plethora of beings existing beyond the human. A crisis, in brief, in the meaning and labour of being in-place together divergently.

[1] One of us (Manuel Tironi) has spent nine years doing ethnographic work in Puchuncaví.

[2] The hombres verdes or  ‘green men’ is how people in Puchuncaví call ex-workers form the smelting plant due to their greenish lacerations caused by sulphatated copper.


Lerner, Steve (2010). Sacrifice zones: The front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press,.

Mol, A., Moser, I., & Pols, J. (2010). Care: Putting practice into theory. In A. Mol, I. Moser & J. Pols (Eds.), Care in practice: On tinkering in clinics, homes and farms (pp. 7–25). Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2011). Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science 41: 85–106.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Rodríguez-Giralt, I. and Tironi, M. (in press). Coreografías del abandono: cuidado y toxicidad en zonas de sacrificio. En X. Guillem-Llobat & A. Nieto-Galan (Eds.). Tóxicos invisibles. La construcción de la ignorancia ambiental. Barcelona: Icaria.

Sánchez Criado, T. and Rodríguez-Giralt, I. (2016). Caring through design? En torno a la silla and the ‘joint problem-making’ of technical aids. In C. Bates, R. Imrie & K. Kullman (Eds.) Care and design: Bodies, buildings, cities (pp. 198–218). London, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Tironi, M. and Rodríguez-Giralt, I (2017). Healing, knowing, enduring: Care and politics in damaged worlds, The Sociological Review 65(2_suppl): 89–109.

Tironi, M. (2018). Hypo-interventions: Intimate activism in toxic environments, Social Studies of Science 48(3): pp. 438–455.


08 May 2020 — Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt

Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt

Puchuncaví, Chile

Manuel Tironi is an Associate Professor and co-convener of the Critical Studies on the Anthropocene group at Universidad Católica de Chile. He is a principal investigator at the Center for Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Reduction (CIGIDEN). His work leverages science and technology studies, cultural anthropology, and  the environmental humanities to investigate how environmental justice, more-than-human ethics, and the politics of the non-living are imagined and articulated in the context of climate change. Working with indigenous communities in northern Chile, his current project examines alternative theories and practices for ecological reparation at the intersection of extractivism and geo-climatic disruptions. Email: metironi@uc.cl. Twitter: @ManuelTironi. // Israel Rodríguez-Giralt is Senior Researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), where he coordinates the CareNet Research Group (Care and Preparedness in the Network Society). His work revolves around the forms of social experimentation and political mobilization of citizens, concerned and affected groups in environmental crisis, disasters and public technoscientific controversies. Working with elderly, disabled people and children and young people, his current research examines alternative conceptualisations of disasters from an ethics of care. Email: irodriguezgir@uoc.edu Twitter: @birrabel