Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Sung Joon Park


Seminar für Ethnologie

phone: +49 345 55 24 199
fax: +49 345 55 27 603

room 306
Reichardtstraße 11
06114 Halle

office hours:
Tue 3 - 4 pm

postal address:
Sung-Joon Park
06099 Halle (Saale)

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Dr. Sung-Joon Park

The future preparedness: histories of unpreparedness, zoonotic disease outbreaks and the anthropology of open preparedness

My research is mainly concerned with zoonotic diseases and seeks to explore the futures of preparedness for Ebola epidemics and the Coronavirus pandemic. This project builds on my ongoing field research on Ebola epidemics, most notably the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (2013-16) and the more recent outbreak in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (2018-2020) and future field research on the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite of enormous global health efforts to improve preparedness for emerging infectious diseases, epidemics and pandemics show how global health preparedness again and again fails to anticipate the circumstances under which pathogens spread and become large-scale emergencies. The history of Ebola epidemics is in this regard a notable history of unpreparedness. Since 1990s, about 20 outbreaks have been emerging in sub-Saharan Africa. After an initial transmission from animals to humans, Ebola viruses are transmitted between humans through contact with body fluids. These transmissions are usually addressed by infection prevention and control methods, contact tracing, and the isolation of Ebola patients. Case fatality rates of about 70% were regarded to be normal in the absence of effective therapies. The West African Ebola epidemic (2013-16) dramatically revealed the limitations of this approach making it to the largest Ebola epidemic in history with an estimated number of 28.000 cases of which approximately 11.200 people lost their lives. Promises to learn from the failures of the response to the West African outbreak did not necessarily improve preparedness, as the current Ebola epidemic in Eastern DRC shows, which by now is the second largest in history. In the current Ebola epidemic in Eastern DRC, the emergency response is for the first time trialing out vaccines, new therapies, and patient-friendly designs of Ebola Treatment Centers. However, the effect of these new technologies is dwarfed by the unpreparedness of global health for the specific situation of insecurity in Eastern DRC. Both, the history unpreparedness of global health and technological innovations in the field of emergency responses pose important questions about the future of Ebola epidemics and other pandemics: Why is global health preparedness repeatedly failing to contain Ebola epidemics? How are recent medical innovations changing the approach to Ebola epidemics and other pandemics? Or, in the opposite will Ebola epidemics and most notably pandemics like the Covid-19 pandemic continue to reach unprecedented scales? What preparedness is required for future outbreaks? And what alternative futures of health can be anticipated? My project argues that anthropological research is crucial for developing an in-depth understanding of the realities of epidemics and pandemics. Social science research has been and still is skewed towards the support of public health emergency interventions during a crisis. Typically, in emergencies, citizens, survivors and relatives of patients are only asked the most urgent questions without reflecting on who defines what needs are urgent. My project stresses that anthropological informants are not simply a source of information but the most important experts from whom we can learn how epidemics and pandemics are entangled with ruinous histories of medicine, war, poverty, and global transformations of natural and built environment. Such insights are crucial for improving preparedness. My project wishes to show that anthropological research, committed to an openness for the unexpected and the possible, can help us to go beyond simplifying representations of the realities of unexpected and contingent encounters between viruses, animals, and humans.

Duration: 2016 -

Funding: DFG, Elhra (Wellkom Trust, DFID, NHS), VW Foundation

Mentoring: Prof. Dr. Olaf Zenker

Current Research Projects

Humanizing the design of the Ebola response in DRC: Anthropological research on humane designs of Ebola treatment and care to build trust for better health

Principal investigators: Dr. Sung-Joon Park (MLU Halle-Wittenberg) and Dr. Nene Morisho (Pole Institute, DRC)

Partners: Robert-Koch-Institute, Germany; Durham University, UK; Oxford University, UK; Bayreuth University, Germany; GOARN, WHO

Funding: R2HC - Elhra, UK AID, Wellcome, NIHR

Research: The study will examine how humane designs of treatment and care at Ebola Treatment Centres (ETCs) influence the formation of trust into the response to the EVD epidemic in DRC. The research aims to develop user-friendly recommendations for “Operationalising, Optimising and Humanising treatment and care for EVD” to provide hands-on recommendations to build trust. The study will address an urgent need to help address community trust in the current response to the Ebola outbreak in DRC. The study team will produce clear recommendations on improved treatment and care for EVD patients, and how to overcome key challenges, directed at operational partners. Dissemination events will be held in Beni, Mabalako, Mandima.


(funded by the German Research Foundation, German African Collaboration in Infectiology, 2016-2019)

Principal investigators

Prof. Dr. Uli Beisel (University Bayreuth)
Dr. Sung-Joon Park (University Halle)

Dr. Sylvanus Spencer (Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone)
Esther Yei Mokuwa (Njala University, Sierra Leone)
Dr. Grace Akello-Ayebare (Gulu University, Uganda)
Dr. John Kuumuori Ganle (University of Ghana)

Short description

The scale of the EVD epidemic in the West African countries has been unprecedented. Lack of trust in medicine has been identified as one of the major factors in the scientific literature, in media reports, and global health discourses, which accelerated the spread of EVD and posed a central challenge to the Ebola response. Our project investigates the social, medical, and historical conditions of the formation of trust in medicine in African contexts. Taking the EVD outbreak in Sierra Leone as our empirical starting point, we conduct a comprehensive case study of trust in medicine in Sierra Leone, a site of prolonged EVD epidemic and radical insecurity. This will be complemented by studies in Uganda and Ghana, evaluating previous experiences of short-term EVD outbreaks (Uganda) and recent preparedness interventions in a neighboring country (Ghana). In these three country case studies we analyze how and to what extent trust is built in health service delivery. We ask how trust relations have been shaped by the EVD outbreak, how trust is being (re)built in health service delivery after the EVD epidemic, and to what extent trust forms the social basis for epidemic preparedness. Comparing individual and collective experiences of the institutionalization of care in Sierra Leone with Uganda and Ghana enables us to produce a systematic and in-depth analysis of trust in contexts of radical insecurity and poverty. Such an analysis, grounded in the lived everyday realities in African countries, is urgently needed in order to devise culturally appropriate and locally accepted epidemic preparedness measures. To achieve these goals, we combine quantitative and qualitative research methods. Our research activities are embedded in a comprehensive framework of scientific capacity building in Africa.

International Summer School “From Disasters to Planetary Care:  What the August 2017 mudslide in Sierra Leone can teach us about  accountability, postcolonial urban experiences, and healthy cities in  the Anthropocene” funded by the by the Volkswagen Foundation “Knowledge for Tomorrow”

Date and place:  Fourah Bay College in Freetown (Sierra Leone); February 4 – February 14, 2019, funded

Organizers: Sung-Joon Park (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg,  Germany), Sylvanus Spencer (Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra  Leone), Susan Erikson (Simon Fraser University, Canada) , David  Kananizadeh (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)


The international summer school “From disasters to planetary care” is  concerned with the August 14 mudslide disaster that occurred in  Freetown in 2017. After the experiences of civil war (1991-2002) and the recent Ebola epidemic (2014-2016),  the mudslide is seen by Sierra Leoneans as yet another major national  tragedy in which over 1000 fellow citizens died. Unlike the Ebola  epidemic, it was a man-made disaster resulting from the massive  degradation of natural and cultural landscapes in and around Freetown.  Sierra Leoneans were not surprised that the mudslide took place, but  they were quite surprised at the unprecedented scale of the disaster and  they generally agree that it could have been prevented. How prevention  is to be achieved in postcolonial African cities like Freetown, though,  poses what urban planners have called a “wicked problem” (Rittel and  Webber 1973), and is the subject of the proposed short course.

The challenge – future prevention of natural disasters – is  inextricably tied up with issues of the wider urban contexts. Future  prevention will not happen without addressing the interlinked issues of  impoverished infrastructure, rapid population growth, land shortage, and  environmental destruction. In this respect, the mudslide even urges us  to radically rethink taken-for-granted assumptions about the  ways disasters, postcolonial urban lifeworlds, and infrastructures hang  together. This rethinking furthermore requires an engagement with people  inhabiting the city as well as with interdisciplinary scholars of urban  studies, public health, and the social sciences.

The summer school suggests that pressing theoretical and practical  questions about disasters can be answered by ethnographic evidence.  Ethnographic sensibilities and method help us see how inhabiting and  living with contradictory urban realities contribute to post-disaster  response and care. As Mary Douglas argued, we may not be able to  anticipate if anthropogenic transformations of nature, like global  warming, will lead to the entire collapse of the planet’s ecosystem or  not. The more pressing questions must address “what kind of society can  be envisaged that will be able to deliver the care” (Douglas 1992b, 259)  in response to environmental risks and disasters. Keeping with this  proposition, we aim to explore everyday practices of human and non-human becoming during and after disasters to illuminate ideas of human and planetary care.

In taking the mudslide as a case, we want to investigate how  practices of precarious becoming are accounted for through the  production of scientific evidence. In particular, we will interrogate  how scientific accounts of the mudslide disaster have been shaped by  methodologically and theoretical divergent modes of producing scientific  evidence. Here questions arise like What counts as evidence? How is the  credibility of scientific authority constructed? How do ethnographic  methodologies and sensibilities illuminate disaster metrics?