Social Science shines through in Ebola reports

Published on 28 January 2016

UK parliamentary reports recently published on Ebola all cite the crucial role that social science and anthropology played in mounting an effective response to the unprecedented crisis.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa that resulted in thousands of deaths and left a devastating impact on the lives of survivors has been examined by inquiries aiming to learn lessons about the unprecedented disaster and the events that unfolded.

Social evidence-based advice

IDS presented evidence to each inquiry, including the International Development Committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the Africa APPG. The evidence highlighted the collective work of the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) and its social evidence-based advice on community engagement, identifying and diagnosing cases, managing death and funerals and understanding the social resistance and violence against health workers that worsened the epidemic.

IDS Director Professor Melissa Leach also provided evidence to inform the inquiries reports from her role as the social scientist on the UK Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and directly advising the government Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist.

Social science ‘important in almost every aspect of what we did’

It has been a significant achievement to have anthropological research recognised as a vital component of humanitarian emergencies. For example, the Science and Technology Committee states: “Many of our witnesses emphasised that establishing the ‘Ebola Anthropology and Social Science sub-Group of SAGE’, and ensuring that the membership of SAGE included social scientists, were ‘extremely important in controlling [the] outbreak’. Professor Chris Whitty described social science as ‘important in almost every aspect of what we did’ in West Africa. This included understanding the ‘history of inequalities and economic policies that left people distrustful of foreigners and the state in many areas’ as well as the ‘social routes’, such as burial practices, through which Ebola was transmitted.”

Also, the WHO Director General, Dr Margaret Chan discussing lessons learned, acknowledged that “A significant obstacle to an effective response has been the inadequate engagement with affected communities and families…” calling for “multidisciplinary approaches to community engagement, informed by anthropology and other social sciences.”

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