Social Research for a COVID and Post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda

All social research, whether it is directly focusing on the pandemic or not, is now inevitably changed. We are now dealing with a COVID world and a post-COVID world lies in our future.

As an academic who had initial training in health sociology and medical anthropology and then went to complete a Master of Public Health and a doctorate in the sociology of public health awarded by a Faculty of Medicine, I have been studying the social aspects of health and medicine for my entire career.

Among many other health-related topics, I have conducted research on two major global health topics that received major policy and public health as well as mass media attention. The first was the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which emerged in the early 1980s. The second was the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’, sparked by public health announcements and mass media reporting in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s that levels of ‘obesity’ were rising dramatically worldwide, accompanied by major health problems. HIV/AIDS and the obesity crisis generated an enormous research momentum among not only social researchers but also social activists, community groups and artists, all of whom played a vital role in helping to understand the social, cultural, psychological and political consequences and impacts of these phenomena.

My contribution to social research on HIV/AIDS began with my doctoral thesis, which investigated how the Australian press covered the pandemic from its first mention to 1990, a period marked by dramatic shifts in who was considered to be ‘at risk’ from infection (the thesis was published in book form in 1994 as Moral Threats and Dangerous Desires: AIDS in the News Media). While I was completing the doctorate part-time, I was employed full-time as a researcher on a public health project investigating the sexual behaviour and prevalence of HIV and other STDS among multi-partnered heterosexual Australians. I went on to be involved in several other major HIV/AIDS projects, including co-authoring a second book that addressed televisual portrayals of HIV/AIDS.

In the wake of the massive attention devoted to the obesity crisis from the late 1990s onwards, I wrote my book Fat in an attempt to provide a sociological perspective on the fat-shaming, social discrimination and stigma that were so evident in government health campaigns and news reports. I also authored numerous other publications exploring the social aspects of this ‘epidemic’ and edited a special journal issue on digital media and body weight.

Now the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has erupted, affecting all regions of the world, and the news media are dominated by reporting developments and effects. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of lives have already been lost worldwide, and many healthcare systems are straining under the burden of caring for unprecedented numbers of seriously ill patients with pneumonia. Everyday lives have been disrupted: schools and workplaces are closed, many people have lost their jobs, vast populations have been confined to their homes, people are cut-off from face-to-face interactions and worried about their own health or those of their family members.

Social research is again urgently needed to document people’s everyday experiences of living in this moment, how different countries and governments are addressing the pandemic and what social changes are occurring now or will be happening in the post-COVID world. Social researchers need to be contributing to understandings of how people have been affected by living in the pandemic, both physically and mentally, and what measures and policies have been most effective and helpful. There are likely to be dedicated funding calls and schemes directed at supporting social as well as medical and public health research into COVID in the future, just as there were for HIV/AIDS and obesity, and this is the time for those of us who have the relevant expertise and interest to be considering what we can offer to this much-needed research response.

The current pandemic shares some features of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and obesity crisis, but there are many differences as well. All three health crises received world-wide media attention and affected many countries. All have involved the identification of social groups deemed both ‘most at risk’ and ‘risky to others’, accompanied by scapegoating, victim-blaming, stigmatisation, marginalisation and neglect. These groups have differed across the health crises themselves, but also changed over time for each health crisis. All three crises are intensely political, involving claims and counter-claims about authoritative knowledge, whose advice should be trusted and the best way to inform and manage publics and ‘at risk/risky’ groups. The HIV/AIDS and obesity crises have also involved the development of innovative grassroots support systems and activist networks that have played a major role in supporting ‘at risk/risky groups’, countering stigma and marginalisation and generating and sharing citizen-led knowledges. There is already evidence of these systems and networks emerging in response to the COVID threat.

The COVID pandemic differs in many crucial ways from the HIV/AIDS and obesity crises, however. One difference is the sheer scope and rapid expansion of its effects beyond the health-related impacts. COVID is a truly global health problem that erupted and spread extremely quickly, meaning that organisations and individuals had little time to make sense of it and respond adequately to it. Another key difference is the economic and other social effects of the COVID pandemic beyond the immediate health effects of contracting or passing on the virus. The quarantining, social isolation and physical distancing measures required to limit the rate of spread of the COVID virus (SARS-Cov-2) have suddenly and unexpectedly made millions of people unemployed in most parts of the world.

A third major difference is that digital media and devices are playing a far more crucial role in the COVID pandemic compared with the HIV/AIDS and the obesity crises, when the internet, mobile devices and social media either did not exist or were in their early days. We have already seen how social media have contributed to the spread of misinformation and panics but have also played a crucial role in helping people deal with the impact of physical isolation by offering mediated forms of social connection that have alleviated boredom and loneliness. Finally, social research methods and plans have had to be rethought. Physical distancing measures mean that for the time being, traditional modes of in-person research cannot take place. Digital technologies (or even old-school pen-and-paper methods) offer some solutions for conducting fieldwork in a pandemic.

Bearing all these issues in mind, below I have come up with a list of research questions as a way of kick-starting a social research agenda for a COVID and post-COVID world. (Please note the important caveat that these are only my initial thoughts based on the current situation in these early months of the pandemic where conditions are rapidly changing.) Researching these topics will generate better understandings not only of the current social impact of COVID, but also continuing or new impacts into the future. Findings will have immediate and long-term applications for contributing to policy and service delivery and development to better support publics as they deal with and recover from the myriad challenges they are experiencing to their ways of life and health status. They will also offer ways forward for how to deal with and manage new large-scale health crises in ethical and effective ways.

Key social research questions

· What are the situated responses of government agencies and healthcare organisations to the pandemic, and how do these differ between countries? Which agencies and organisations have been most effective in countering the spread of the COVID virus among their populations?

· How are people from diverse social groups and geospatial locations responding to the crisis? What are their lived experiences and social relationships as the pandemic’s effects continue to unfold and into the future of the post-COVID world? How do attributes such as location, age, gender, health or disability status, ethnicity/race, income, educational background, employment status, housing situation structure their experiences and wellbeing?

· Which individuals and social groups are the target of neglect, stigmatisation or marginalisation? How has this been recognised and dealt with (or ignored) in different socio-geographical-political environments?

· What were the rationales behind the widespread panic-buying that emptied supermarket shelves of essentials for weeks on end, and how can such responses be better managed in the future?

· How have people’s general wellbeing and mental health been affected by the current conditions of the crisis and into the future, and how can they be better and more ethically and effectively supported?

· How have family relationships been influenced by confinement to family homes for long periods, and what are the positive or negative consequences (e.g. increased risk of being a victim of family violence for women and children, post-natal women losing hands-on help with their new infants from extended family members)?

· How are children and young people coping with the disruption to their usual routines, education and social relationships, now and into the post-COVID future?

· What are the lived experiences of healthcare workers and other key support workers in dealing with the working conditions they are faced with, and what are the implications for their current and long-term health and wellbeing? How can they be supported now and into the future?

· What socioeconomic support systems offered by government and non-government agencies have best managed the crisis and how should they deal with support into the post-COVID future?

· How are digital technologies contributing to disseminating information — which are most helpful and useful for publics?

· What digital media and devices have been most helpful and useful for publics in dealing with physical isolation conditions?

· Which digital health technologies have been most effective and helpful for offering self-diagnosis and healthcare? What are the experiences of patients and healthcare workers in offering these mediated forms of diagnosis and care?

· What is the role played by novel digital technologies such as ‘smart’ devices, drones and automated decision-making software in health surveillance and diagnosis systems?

· How have educational and working-from-home arrangements been supported by digital technologies, and which have been most useful and helpful?

· How have the working practices of teachers at all levels of the education system (primary to tertiary) changed? What are the losses and gains for both students and teachers in moving to online teaching and learning?

· How will education and work systems change as a result in the post-COVID world?

· How have major internet companies as well as start-ups responded to the crisis?

· Which forms of grassroots organisation and networking have emerged and which are most helpful and effective for communities, now and into the future?

· How have more-than-human agents contributed to supporting people’s health and wellbeing in conditions where they have been forced to be physically distant from other people (e.g. companion animals, plants, natural landscapes, bodies of water)?

· What research methods can we use to understand the more-than-representational dimensions of people’s lived experiences (their affective and sensory responses, experiences of space and place)?

· What social and cultural theories can help us understand the COVID and post-COVID worlds?

Let’s get started!

Photo by Liam Richards on Unsplash

SHARP Professor and leader of the Vitalities Lab, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney

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