COVID-19 – the social science response to the pandemic

Published on 23 March 2020

The global pandemic COVID-19 is impacting the lives of people in many and varied ways.  Social scientists, including those from IDS, are working to respond to the outbreak.  This includes sharing lessons learnt from Ebola and SARS and the initial outbreak in Wuhan, as well as underlining the importance of pandemic responses from the ‘bottom-up’, understanding the impacts on people in slums and informal settlements, and exploring the impact of the virus on religious practices.

© JB Russell/Panos Pictures
© JB Russell/Panos Pictures

An anthropological response to COVID-19

Can we learn about how to address uncertainties within wider society – including around disease pandemics – from pastoralists who live with and from uncertainty? What are the logics, practices, strategies and social and political arrangements that allow for adaptive, flexible responses in the face of uncertainty, generating reliability in turbulent times?

Read more from Ian Scoones and Michele Nori Living with Coronavirus Uncertainties: Four Lessons from Pastoralists

The dynamics of the virus, infection and immunity, not to mention on-going efforts to revise and improve clinical care, and endeavours to develop medical treatments and vaccines, are a critical part of the unfolding story. So, too, are peoples’ social responses to the disease and interactions with each other. COVID-19 is revealing, reinforcing, and catalysing new social and cultural relations.

Read more from Hayley MacGregor, Melissa Leach, Annie Wilkinson and Melissa Parker in this blog COVID-19 – a social phenomenon requiring diverse expertise

Science, uncertainty and the COVID-19 response

Pandemics are best defeated through local forms of solidarity, mutual aid and innovation grounded in particular settings, and the scientific models and emergency plans must work with such processes. Disease responses may be informed by science (or rather multiple sciences), but they must be led by people.

Read more from Ian Scoones in his blog Science, uncertainty and the COVID-19 response

This outbreak has again revealed the tendency for shoe-horning of social science into significant but narrow operational questions related to how to enable containment, enforce behavioural change and adherence to public health messaging, and counteract ‘misinformation’ in risk communication.

Read more from Hayley MacGregorNovelty and uncertainty: social science contributions to a response to COVID-19

COVID-19 and Africa

Research from the International Centre for Tax and Development demonstrates that at the local level, underfunded systems in low-income countries rely heavily on user fees and informal taxes, which are very regressive. In a crisis, when tax revenue falls, local governments cut back on public services, and aid shifts to emergency response, the fiscal burden on citizens is exacerbated.

Read more in Vanessa van den Boogaard’s piece “Fill the gaps, feel the pain: Insights from Sierra Leone on an epidemic’s impact on local taxation, public services, and the poor.”

In the aftermath of Ebola, broad-based health system strengthening and trust-building have become central priorities in global and national epidemic preparedness, and rightly so. Yet these efforts remain far from complete. COVID-19’s epidemic economies promise to be even more intensive than Ebola’s, and in African settings, even more disruptive.

Read more from Melissa Leach in this article Echoes of Ebola: social and political warnings for the COVID-19 response in African settings. 

COVID-19s impact upon precarious and informal work

COVID-19 is having huge economic impacts, which are felt across all segments of society and all sectors of the economy in countries across the world. But hardest hit will be those working in the gig economy and informal sectors.

Read more from Ayako Ebata, Philip Mader and Gerald Bloom Precarious and informal work exacerbates spread of coronavirus

COVID-19 in slums and informal settlements

As we in the global North brace ourselves for the coronavirus pandemic we are being told to wash our hands (for 20 seconds!) and self-isolate if sick. But what if you cannot do either of those things? One billion people live in slums or informal settlements where water for basic needs is in short supply – let alone 20 seconds worth – and where space is constrained, and rooms are often shared.

Read more from Annie Wilkinson in her blog The impact of COVID-19 in informal settlements – are we paying enough attention?

Connecting policy networks in the response to COVID-19

The policy response to COVID-19 across the world is unprecedented. There are many reasons for this, not least because this is no longer perceived by powerful nations as one of those epidemics that mostly affects “the other” far away, poor who are unlike “us”. This othering of victims and their governments becomes harder once your own government, school and workplace start seriously mobilising in response.

Read more from James Georgalakis in his blog The UK’s policy response to COVID-19 must overcome powerful networked behaviour.

COVID-19 and religious practices

Many of the practices and rituals of religions around the world directly contravene public health advice on coronavirus since they can include congregating in large public spaces, hand-based greetings and touching objects considered sacred.  It is essential to understand how people express their religion and the ways in which communities can adapt their religious practice in order to comply with public health concerns.

Read more from Mariz Tadros in her blog Countering the Coronavirus: can people remain safe and still practice their faith?

Responses to COVID-19 in Brazil

Alex Shankland and Rachel Dixon discuss a recent series of events to bring together leading academics, policymakers, civil society and business leaders from the UK and Brazil to discuss potential collaborations around creating more equitable and sustainable societies both in Brazil and globally. Strengthening Brazilian partnerships in the face of Covid-19 from

Brazil has attracted widespread praise in recent years for achieving rapid progress towards Universal Health Coverage and significant reductions in health inequalities (pdf). IDS has worked with Brazilian partners including Cebrap, Fiocruz, and the Federal University of Pernambuco to understand how this has been achieved, and how the country’s health system has responded to recent infectious disease outbreaks such as the recent Zika virus epidemic.

Read more from Alex Shankland Lessons from Brazil for the global response to COVID-19

Responses to COVID-19 in Zimbabwe

In thinking about COVID-19 in Zimbabwe, and in Africa more broadly, three dimensions are important – fragility, resilience and inequality. It may be that obvious fragilities are counteracted to some extent by capacities to adapt and be resilient, but this depends on who you are and where you live.

Read more from Ian Scoones Surviving COVID-19: Fragility, Resilience and Inequality in Zimbabwe

Responses to COVID-19 in South Africa

A designated Emergency Hardship Fund is needed that will deliver an effective and guaranteed safety net for those whose livelihoods will be cut off during the lockdown in South Africa. Instead of putting in seed money and soliciting donations, the government must guarantee to replace the lost income of all individuals who face the prospect of “no work no pay”.

Read more from Stephen DevereuxWill COVID-19 increase poverty and hunger? What can South Africa do?

Further reading, viewing and updates


The Social Science in Humanitarian Action are producing a variety of useful briefings and resources relevant to the Covid-19 response.

Key Considerations: Quarantine in the Context of COVID-19  has been published by the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP).  It sets out practical considerations relating to the design and impact of measures that restrict human movement patterns in the context of COVID-19.

IDS’ response to COVID19 in its own operations.


What is the best way to stop a pandemic. As we have seen with the recent outbreaks of coronavirus, Ebola and Zika, governments sometimes exercise right to impose exceptional measures to protect public health during global health emergencies.  – Dr Hayley Macgregor speaking at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


  • The Institute of Development Studies
  • Annie Wilkinson – Anthropologist studying how people, cities, diseases and health systems interact. Research fellow @IDS_UK and #SSHAP
  • Melissa Leach – IDS Director, anthropologist, passionate about global development, sustainability, social justice and. Expertise in social science dimensions of pandemics.
  • Ian Scoones – Professorial Fellow, co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex and principal investigator of the ERC Advanced Grant project, PASTRES.
  • James Georgalakis – Director of Comms and Impact @IDS_UK and Doctoral Candidate in Policy Research @uniofbath

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