Impact Story

Our work strengthens responses to epidemics

Published on 28 August 2020

Hayley MacGregor

Research Fellow

Integrating social science perspectives into epidemic responses is now an established area of IDS expertise. Our work has helped to shape the Global Task Force on Cholera Control, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) R&D Blueprint process, and UK government and international agencies’ responses to outbreaks of Ebola and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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From the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, IDS researchers were working with the World Health Organization and UN agencies to provide advice and analysis to strengthen the global response as the novel disease spread from China, across the global North and beyond.

IDS Director Professor Melissa Leach and Research Fellow Dr Hayley MacGregor contributed to a WHO forum in February 2020 that gathered stakeholders to discuss using social science expertise in the pandemic response, alongside other key thematic research areas. Their contribution built on wider work by IDS researchers through the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) and the Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme. SSHAP is a partnership between IDS, Anthrologica and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

SSHAP hosted a timely roundtable meeting in February on Covid-19 that brought together researchers from China, the UK and Singapore. They explored themes of social contexts and dynamics of transmission and spread; public health responses; communication and messaging – all central to managing the pandemic.

Since then SSHAP has continued to bring real-time evidence and analysis of the social dynamics of pandemics to help shape responses by, among others, the UK Department for International Development, multilateral institutions and academic organisations. For example SSHAP’s work has shaped the development of the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Covid-19 in low-resource and humanitarian settings. We have also contributed input to home care guidelines for Covid-19 in low-resource settings and with consideration for different health system realities.

Informed by Ebola insights

IDS work in this area began during the West African Ebola outbreak when researchers collaborating with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Sussex and Njala University set up the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform. This work and collaboration has continued with the Pandemic preparedness in Africa project, led by Professor Leach and Dr MacGregor with a collaborative award from the Wellcome Trust, and SSHAP to inform what they have described as ‘a more sensitive and effective response’ to epidemics that focuses also on understandings of ‘preparedness from below’ at local levels. They see social science as increasingly integral to ensuring pandemic and epidemic preparedness.

Formed in 2016, after the West African Ebola outbreak, SSHAP had early support from UNICEF. It supports networks of social scientists and practitioners with regional and subject expertise to provide insight, analysis and advice on the social, political and economic contexts of emergency responses.

From January 2020, the Wellcome Trust and DFID provided additional funding, both to support the core platform and to enable further expansion to respond to the increasing demand for material relating to epidemics.

Impact and reach

SSHAP provides technical support to operational partners and agencies on aspects of response strategy and on contextual issues. It was actively involved in recent Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with work here led by Anthrologica. In providing support SSHAP develops and draws on multidisciplinary expert advisory groups with in-depth knowledge of key geographic areas, at-risk communities, and thematic issues that are significant for preparedness, response and recovery. Its Ebola and Covid-19 work has been quoted in media including The New York Times, The Guardian and The New Humanitarian.

Alongside its work on acute response issues the platform provides input into preparedness, for example it has fed into the Community Engagement component for cholera, drawn up by the Global Task Force on Cholera Control, and the WHO Blueprint’s disease prioritization process as well as now the WHO Covid-19 Roadmap process. SSHAP also extends its impact by connecting and collaborating with other networks, such as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and the SoNAR GLOBAL network led from Institute Pasture.

For more information, please click the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform link.

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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