This article is more than 4 years old

Pandemics are social phenomena, demanding breadth of expertise

British Academy Fellow Melissa Leach sets out how social science and arts and humanities disciplines help to tackle Covid-19.
This article is more than 4 years old

Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

For those living in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most enduring images will be that of the rainbow.

Peppered across front room windows and chalked on pavements, the rainbow has come to symbolise our support for the NHS and other frontline workers, as well as the hope and togetherness that has emerged in our collective response to this once-in-a-generation crisis.

But, with the focus on the NHS and on hospitals, vaccines and masks, it is easy to forget that this is not simply a medical and scientific issue. As Dominic Abrams – co-chair of the British Academy’s pandemic response work – recently said, we need “science” in the broadest sense of the word. Epidemics are fundamentally social phenomena, and those working in the humanities and social sciences too have key roles to play.

Social science

As an anthropologist who has spent a substantial part of the last decade working to tackle the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and then in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I know how crucial the social sciences are in slowing the spread of a disease, and ensuring that public health responses are socially sensitive, effective and humane.

Among a range of initiatives, my colleagues and I in the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform in Sierra Leone identified key social practices, associated with care and burial, involved in the spread of Ebola, and worked with local leaders and villagers to find alternatives which balanced the need for infection control with the socio-cultural importance of these rituals – for instance, replacing physical ceremonies with non-face-to-face ones. We also identified community-led actions – such as village-organised quarantines – that eventually proved more important in “bending the epidemic curve” than the hospitals initially advocated by external health agencies.

Together, my colleagues and I highlighted how the histories of conflict and inequality in Ebola-affected countries had generated a distrust of authorities that was hindering the response, and how these problems might be addressed. This work would have been impossible without the insights and expertise not just of anthropologists but also political economists, sociologists and geographers.

The Covid-19 response from social scientists across the globe is similarly interdisciplinary. I am now co-leading the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, a successor to our Ebola work, in which anthropologists, political scientists, geographers and others are bringing evidence in accessible forms to public health and operational agencies, showing how response efforts need to be attuned to diverse, real-life contexts and vulnerabilities across the world. How does one adapt physical distancing to the overcrowded conditions, lack of running water, and hand-to-mouth livelihoods of people living in low income settlements in Africa and Asia, for instance? One size does not fit all.

Meanwhile, social scientists everywhere are delving deep into their own unique areas of study to unearth new insights vital to overcoming this disease. In the UK, Daisy Fancourt, Professor of Psychobiology and Epidemiology at University College London, is leading a study into the effects of social distancing measures on mental health and loneliness.

Sociologists in Asia, such as Peter Baehr, are feeding expert advice into global conversations on mask wearing.

In the US, the economist Matthew Kahn (Johns Hopkins University) is compiling invaluable data on the various ways that companies around the world are adjusting to the crisis – accounting for differences in supply chains and restrictions.


But what of the humanities? How can academics working in the fields of politics, history, English Literature or philosophy contribute to the fight against Covid-19?

As so often seems to be the case, it pays to look to Germany, where in April a humanities working group from the Leopoldina – Germany’s independent National Academy of Sciences – presented a report to the federal government that played a crucial role in the easing of restrictions. Collaborating via Zoom, the group – which included historians of industrialisation, an expert on the philosophy of law, and ethicists – addressed a range of issues, from the impact of school closures on children from poor backgrounds to whether restrictions on basic freedoms were legitimate.

Similar initiatives are underway in this country (though, regrettably, the social science and humanities are only narrowly represented in the UK’s formal Science Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) committees and processes).

In April, the British Academy announced a package of measures designed to support the government’s strategies. These include a policy project harnessing the collective expertise of the Academy’s Fellows and researcher community, providing insights on key short and long-term questions, such as how to address regional inequalities, how to (re)build a purposeful economy, and how to live more sustainably. The Academy has also announced a round of Special Research Grants for researchers in the humanities and social sciences examining the impact of Covid-19; opportunities that complement fast-track social science awards by the UK Research Councils.

Alongside all of this, the humanities and social sciences play another crucial role in getting us through this strange time. Whether it is literature, psychology, history or languages, it is to the humanities and social sciences that we turn to make sense of, and escape from, the world around us. Now more than ever, we need the insights, stimulation and comfort they provide.

3 responses to “Pandemics are social phenomena, demanding breadth of expertise

  1. This is an argument that we are also making in Ireland too, and that an all-of-society-problem needs an all-of-society set of ‘solutions’. In Ireland, we have the additional need to re-think this crisis not just in national terms, but also within an all-island cross-border context if we are to manage it as safely as possible for all citizens on the island of Ireland.

    The Irish Humanities Alliance has a series of blog posts on this that might be of interest to colleagues here too: and the Moore Institute at NUI Galway as well: and our AHSS Covid-19 webinar series:

    My own contribution is that we need a ‘hive mind not a herd mentality’ to help with this crisis:

  2. Indeed pandemics require a breadth of expertise. As we have seen COVID-19 is impacting many spheres of life, and we need to understand it in its widest context. It is reshaping social relations, cultural practices and norms, political alliances and integrations; it is rupturing economies and reshaping the global order as we knew it before. It is unfortunate that we have not done enough
    by taking stock of experiences from Ebola in addressing the social aspects of this pandemic. Nevertheless we still have an opportunity to make a difference based on past experiences from other pandemics

Leave a Reply