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episode 173: Emily Mendenhall, "Unmasked: Covid, Community, and the Case of Okoboji" (Vanderbilt UP, 2022)


Unmasked: Covid, Community, and the Case of Okoboji (Vanderbilt UP, 2022) is the story of what happened in Okoboji, a small Iowan tourist town, when a collective turn from the coronavirus to the economy occurred in the COVID summer of 2020. State political failures, local negotiations among political and public health leaders, and community (dis)belief about the virus resulted in Okoboji being declared a hotspot just before the Independence Day weekend, when an influx of half a million people visit the town.

The story is both personal and political. Author Emily Mendenhall, an anthropologist at Georgetown University, is a native of Okoboji, and her family still lives there. As the events unfolded, Mendenhall was in Okoboji, where she spoke formally with over 100 people and observed a community that rejected government guidance and public health knowledge, revealing deep-seated mistrust in outsiders and strong commitments to local thinking. Unmasked is a fascinating and heartbreaking account of where people put their trust, and how isolationist popular beliefs can be in America's small communities.

Sharonee Dasgupta is currently a graduate student in the department of anthropology at UMass Amherst.

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   33m