We Need More than Just Scientists to Document the Pandemic

This crisis is as much about society and politics as it is about virology, immunology and economics

https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0421/1132824-why-we-need-more-than-just-scientists-to-document-the-pandemic/, posted 21 April 2020.

Remarkable efforts have been made by a host of researchers in Ireland to address the Covid-19 crisis, ranging from studies in immunology to symptom-tracking technology, development of reagents for testing, and a number of engineering solutions to address the need for ventilators and other essential equipment. The urgency and importance of this work is unquestionable, and all of us will benefit from breakthroughs and successes as research continues.

Without doubt, the immediate requirement of reducing the death toll and the demands on hospitals remain of utmost importance. But if we are to rise to the challenge presented by coronavirus, we must recognize that science and healthcare represent only one part of the equation. The rest of the story is essentially social, political and economic. In this trio of concerns, economic issues will dominate discussion as we attempt to navigate through a huge contraction of the economy, attended by massive job losses, business closures, and a remarkable strain on fiscal resources during a severe global downturn. Fortunately, institutions like the Central Bank and government departments have the resources of the ESRI to turn to and opportunities to draw on academic expertise.

The risk is that in the midst of these demands and discussions we neglect the urgent responsibility to understand the social and political conditions underpinning the unfolding crisis. Only by coming to terms with these questions can we hope to avoid future calamities on this scale. The search for a vaccine constitutes a crucial remedy, but it will not in itself identify strengths and weaknesses in how governments have responded and how societies mobilize to confront a pandemic.

To date, major funding calls in Ireland have emerged from Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board in partnership with the Irish Research Council. Some welcome scope existed in the latter call (with a deadline of April 9th) for “social and policy countermeasures”, but we clearly need a much more wide-open approach that invites investigation of a series of complex, interrelated phenomena. Here is a list to be getting on with.

We have rich comparative information to harvest in comparing how different political systems have confronted the crisis. Techniques adopted in China to fight the virus, where it broke out, relied on an authoritarian government, even as that very system and lack of open reporting encouraged local officials not to indicate the gravity of the threat to public health. (The lack of openness in Iran also deepened the disaster there.) Other governments with different models have had success in mitigating the outbreak, in South Korea, Taiwan and Germany. In Europe, the Netherlands and Sweden have taken very different approaches by thus far refusing major lockdowns – we will need to understand the strength and weakness of their methods and how their social expectations and compliance have been managed.

But the staggering example of political dysfunction is the United States, now the world leader in terms of confirmed cases and the number of deaths. The Trump administration’s undermining of agencies and departments, the lack of coordination between the states and the federal government, and opposition to healthcare reform have all played a part. Understanding these problems is vital because the country’s capacity to recover will determine the economic fate of many parts of the world.

In Ireland the acute consequences of having two jurisdictions on the island have presented new challenges to cooperation and consistency. We have much to consider in how we coordinate our activities going forward since the virus is no respecter of Brexit and the border.

Public understanding of the Covid-19 crisis requires news media and reliable outlets for information. But this is the first pandemic in the era of social media, a wellspring of misinformation, rumour and supposed cures. The decisive role of trust and expertise demands renewed attention, even as crippling political attacks and polarization have occurred, notably in the US. At the same time, the harvesting of data and systems of surveillance calls for much greater ethical reflection and assessment.

Social issues that come into play include not only the logistics of achieving isolation but also the uneven effects of the lockdown – determined by differences in physical space and resources such internet access and computer equipment or family structures (affected by divorce and separation), people living alone, provisions for care, and the organization of domestic space, not least to facilitate home schooling. Social attitudes to aging have taken on new significance as well as views about those occupying the frontline (not just in hospitals but in stores and delivery services) – many of them in low paid positions. The arts have taken a backseat, by and large, but how have people accessed culture in the time of crisis and, perhaps more importantly, why do they continue to do so? More generally, what is the experience of virtualization and its impact on work and social life? How can we write the history of the current response and how it compares to past pandemics?

As the health crisis unfolds around the world, hard truths once again surface about the realities of our relationship with what is termed the Global South. When the disease escalates in Africa, what will be the response? President Trump’s politically motivated halt on funding the WHO will have serious repercussions in this context.

Some attention has been given to the fate of those living in crowded migrant camps, and here in Ireland to Direct Provision, but we have a new opportunity to study the effects of inequality, migration, and resources. We are simply lucky that Covid-19 is not as virulent as Ebola (which has an average rate of fatality of 50% according to the WHO). If coronavirus claimed lives at that rate, the losses inflicted by it would be extraordinary. Arguably, we failed to act to set proper systems in place because Ebola was largely confined to Africa. New lessons in racism abound at this time.

We all hope that a vaccine will be devised as soon as possible. Immunology, virology, and epidemiology are at the forefront of efforts. But if we don’t get on top of the political and social challenges we will be right back where we started the next time a crisis of this kind happens.

Funding research is the first step in what needs to become a coordinated effort, across all the disciplines – the Sciences as well as the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ireland can take the lead and show just how much this shared effort matters.


Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of English and Creative Arts. He is a Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy and a board member of the Irish Research Council. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.