Social dimensions of the COVID-19 outbreak in China and beyond

Published on 18 February 2020

IDS Director Professor Melissa Leach and Research Fellow Dr Hayley MacGregor have been working with colleagues at the Wellcome Trust and the WHO on integrating social sciences into the COVID-19 response, as the virus continues to cause concern globally.

A new report has now been published on the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP), summarising discussions and research action points from a workshop of social scientists at the Wellcome Trust around; the social contexts and dynamics of transmission and spread; public health responses and communication and messaging.  As well as covering the preparedness and response in China the report also covers preparedness, capacities and political dynamics should an outbreak occur in Africa.

Social science to inform emergency responses

Professor Leach and Dr MacGregor’s contributions to a WHO meeting last week, which was opened by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, built on the discussions that took place at the recent workshop held by the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) at the Wellcome Trust in London, which the new report is based on.  SSHAP establishes networks of social scientists with regional and subject expertise to rapidly provide insight, analysis and advice to inform emergency responses.

The SSHAP meeting brought together researchers from institutions in China, the UK and Singapore to discuss the social contexts and dynamics of transmission and spread; public health responses and communications and messaging around the virus.  Moreover, how perspectives from the social sciences and humanities could inform the response, for example, bringing to bear the learning from previous epidemics and the political, social and economic impacts of government interventions in relation to these.

Indeed social science is increasingly recognised as having a vital role to play in ensuring pandemic preparedness, as Professor Leach and Dr MacGregor argued in a recent opinion piece on the issue.

“One key contrast with the SARS era of the early 2000s is the appreciation now given to social science in pandemic preparedness and response. Boosted by the experience of the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, when…social science insights…informed a more sensitive and effective response…”

Promoting mutual learning and exchange in epidemic responses

IDS researcher Santiago Ripoll highlighted how SSHAP and SONAR-Global, a global consortium led by social scientists specialising in emerging infectious diseases (EID) and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), have identified the following areas for mutual learning and exchange to further strengthen responses to epidemics including coronavirus:

  • Media tracking and encouraging reporting to avoid fear and stigma.
  • Strengthening regulation of public health aspects associated with animal and meat trade of various kinds.
  • The particularities of outbreaks in urban areas.
  • The social and historical aspects of quarantining, travel restrictions, social distancing and other forms of non-therapeutic measures across different contexts.
  • Community engagement and vaccine trials.

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