Learning from 2021 to achieve “equity everywhere” in 2022

Published on 27 December 2021

Melissa Leach

Emeritus Fellow

Hayley MacGregor

Research Fellow

Tabitha Hrynick

Research Officer

Megan Schmidt-Sane

Research Fellow

Annabel Fenton

Communications Coordinator

Olivia Tulloch
Eva Niederberger
Stephanie Bishop

There is no doubt that as the world tentatively looks towards 2022, we are at a crossroads. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, with continued uncertainty. The global community will need to draw on local knowledge and evidence in a rapid and engaged way. This sits at the very core of SSHAP’s approach. We have thus taken this opportunity to reflect on our work in 2021 and call for all efforts to work towards achieving “equity everywhere” in 2022.

“SSHAP is intentionally designed as a very flexible and adaptable model. This feature of the platform is essential for allowing SSHAP to respond effectively when epidemics (and pandemics!) occur and to help us navigate uncertainties. What this means in practice is that we have the freedom to allocate time and resources if our support is needed urgently in a crisis.” – Olivia Tulloch, co-principal investigator (PI) of SSHAP and Chief Executive Officer, Anthrologica.

Informing emergency responses

SSHAP’s briefings, blogs and working papers have been used by policy and operational actors to inform responses relating to Covid-19 and beyond. In some instances, informing responses took the form of “co-designing technical assistance workshops with partners in Africa and the Middle East to support them to better use socio-behavioural insights,” as described by Olivia. Other times, SSHAP’s work involved synthesising evidence. As Eva Niederberger, a Senior Research Associate at Anthrologica explains:

“This highlighted the value of generating and using country level datasets while also revealing the methodological challenge of comparing large and complex datasets with each other. Data is most useful at local level and efforts should be made to support research investments at the national and sub-national level.”

SSHAP’s work has continued to integrate a social sciences perspective into humanitarian responses. As Hayley MacGregor, co-PI and Research Fellow at IDS, reflects:

“SSHAP’s work has underscored that the structural underpinnings of epidemic preparedness – the ‘staff, stuff, space and systems’, in Paul Farmer’s words – are critical for effective responses in an emergency. SSHAP work has also pointed to the importance of supporting local-level action to address the health and other impacts of COVID-19.”

Work on vaccines

“2021 has been the year of Covid-19 vaccines,” explains Tabitha Hrynick (SSHAP and IDS Research Officer). As the rollout of vaccines accelerated, SSHAP addressed questions of equity, access, and hesitancy. “Our briefs have explored how and why questions of social difference, citizen-state relations and trust are so important to vaccine confidence,” Melissa Leach (co-PI, SSHAP and Director, IDS) explains.

While vaccines have reduced hospitalisations and deaths, Tabitha highlights that “we have failed catastrophically to ensure vaccine availability for everyone everywhere – resulting in preventable individual, family, community, and national tragedies. We have allowed for the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and the nationalist sentiments of wealthy countries to trump the moral imperative of ensuring global vaccine equity.”

This has been explored in internationally-focused briefings, as well as rapid ethnographic research in London, UK which “highlighted how histories and experiences of ongoing exclusion, racism and economic precarity shape people’s abilities and willingness to engage in Covid-19 vaccination. People’s trust in authorities and medical experts is mediated by such experiences, as well as how the pandemic response, itself, unfolds,” Tabitha explains.

Reflecting on the impact of this research, Melissa says:

“[SSHAP’s work on vaccines] has fed too into two successful awards from the British Academy for research on how to build vaccine confidence in UK, European and US settings. Such work in the Global North is helping to bring a ‘decolonial’, universal focus to SSHAP – emphasising that the problems we address are relevant everywhere, albeit with diverse local textures and implications.”

The SSHAP Fellowship

Another key milestone in 2021 was the establishment of the SSHAP fellowship. As Megan Schmidt-Sane (Researcher, SSHAP and Postdoctoral Researcher, IDS) highlights: “The fellowship programme brought together public health and humanitarian practitioners with social scientists from low- and middle-income countries.”

The benefit of the fellowship has been bringing humanitarian actors from across the world together, building networks and bridging disciplinary differences. One of the fellows in the second cohort, Stephanie Bishop (Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, UNICEF Office for the Eastern Caribbean Area) reflects:

“The SSHAP Fellowship above-all demonstrated the importance of partnerships and establishing strong/relevant networks as we navigate the complexities of humanitarian response. By virtue of working with such a diverse group of social scientists and humanitarian practitioners from across the globe, this was evident during our group discussions, presentations and interaction.”

The design of the fellowship enabled this according to Eva: “There is a great demand from both social scientists and humanitarian practitioners to learn about and exchange on social science in humanitarian crisis – the fellowship approach using peer-to peer based learning worked well to facilitate such learning and exchanges.”

Non-covid responses

While responding to Covid-19 has been a focus of SSHAP’s work in 2021, there was also a lot of crucial work done on other epidemics, health, and humanitarian action more broadly. Key examples of this have been SSHAP’s work on Ebola in Guinea and preparing socio-behavioural tools for Cholera in East and Southern Africa.

Melissa explains the significance of this work:

“In many countries, other health conditions have significantly greater impacts on health and mortality than Covid-19. Important SSHAP briefings and work this year have highlighted the wider health and livelihood impacts of narrowly-focused Covid-19 responses, and the importance of supporting systems, policies and practices that respond to the multiplicity of health and socio-economic needs on the ground in particular places.”

Towards 2022: “Equity for Everywhere”

Continuing the adaptive and flexible approach into 2022 is going to be critical as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. Reflecting on how the lessons learned in 2021 may inform SSHAP’s work in 2022, the team’s concluding remarks are:

  • “Looking forward to 2022, the issue of global equity is increasingly urgent. We hope to expand SSHAP networks and influence to continue our advocacy for social science perspectives in health emergencies, drawing attention to historical and ongoing injustices that need to be addressed to advance commitments towards improving wellbeing for many more people across the globe.”
    Hayley MacGregor
  • “The Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over, and many uncertainties prevail. Amidst such deep uncertainties, several lessons from SSHAP’s work over the last year will be even more significant: the need to respond rapidly and flexibly to emerging events and evidence needs; the importance of a wide range of perspectives across the social sciences; the value of cross-learning between people and places, and the importance of a ‘decolonial’ approach that attends to diverse local knowledges and priorities, and challenges the problematic power relations that underpin one-size-fits all, risk-based approaches that we have learned do not work in real-world settings.”
    Melissa Leach
  • “The emergence of the Omicron variant, further cements the importance of vaccination as a critical priority everywhere. We must continue to demand global vaccine access, while recognising and working to correct inequity and injustice in our own backyards. Furthermore, it’s critical to remember that although Covid-19 vaccines have been the primary focus of this fight in 2021, the principles and imperative of justice and equity in health apply far beyond them. Otherwise, efforts to secure singular interventions like Covid-19 vaccines simply ring hollow and reveal themselves to be just another example of the self-preservation efforts of the more powerful echelons of our societies – on global, as well as local scales.”
    Tabitha Hyrnick
  • “In the coming year we will [work to ensure] that the capacity to apply social science is better embedded. We believe this work will allow partners to be better placed to prepare for and respond to epidemics.”
    Olivia Tulloch

This reflective blog was originally published on the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform website.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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Supported by
UNICEF Wellcome Trust


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