Thought Leadership

Shaping the COVID-19 Response: The Role of Social Science

3 Mins read

By Kenni Ndili

As the COVID-19 virus spread across the world in 2020, the world was gripped by the massive global health crisis. Countries around the world were plunged into chaos as the virus travelled at liberty across national borders. In response, people and governments turned to the scientific community for answers how to contain the rapid spread of the virus. From the laboratory in Wuhan that brought attention to the virus to the scientists and the pharmaceutical industry that developed the vaccines now being used around the world, scientists and epidemiologists worldwide rose to prominence as countries depended on them to guide the response, advising government how to keep people safe and healthy. As the pandemic evolved, governments relied heavily on the scientific opinions of medical professionals and scientists for ways to contain the spread of the virus and the necessary therapeutics to treat those who had been infected by the virus. The guidance provided led to the implementation of public health measures such as handwashing, social distancing and face mask wearing, with many countries eventually imposing lockdowns to slow down the spread of the virus in order to lower the infection rates around the world and protect already fragile health systems.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Social Consequences of The Scientific Response
However, the imposition of these policies enacted through a scientific lens gave way to unexpected social and economic consequences. As the crisis continued, it forced societies to enact large-scale behavioural change, placing significant psychological burdens on individuals. A UN study done in 2020 suggested that the imposition of lockdowns raised the levels of domestic violence calls to essential services and is reported to have raised the chances of women and children being exposed to violence at home. The increased pressure on essential services in response to the virus meant that vulnerable women and children were left without recourse. The large-scale loss of jobs and the resulting economic fallout led to recessions around the world, leaving many without employment and people experiencing negative mental and psychological consequences worldwide with surveys showing the increases in suicide, anxiety and stress levels and unveiling the increased pressures that communities experienced due to the pandemic. The strain on essential services meant that those in the medical community were also affected, with stress and fatigue becoming common symptoms amongst doctors and nurses in the frontline of the pandemic response.
The development of pandemic policies has highlighted the ways in which culture and behaviour can change scientific outcomes. The imposition of lockdowns had different implications across the world, with lockdown measures bringing an early end to the pandemic in New Zealand, while countries like Nigeria struggled to implement effective lockdown measures due to the large proportion of the population earning a living in the informal sector. Policies were seen to depend heavily on trust in governments, with the United Kingdom experiencing lower trust in the government COVID-19 policies after members of the government were caught breaking lockdown regulations.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Merging Science and Society in a Post-Pandemic World
As the vaccine response begins to unfold around the world, the importance of behavioural science in policymaking cannot be overemphasised. Social sciences include individual behaviour and cultural implications in the consideration of policy making and shapes the ways policy is rolled out in a manner that people will adhere to. A recent article by the LSE Centre for Economic Performance and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment suggests that the involvement of businesses and communities in the post-pandemic world will allow communities re-open in a manner that is beneficial for communities that have been ravaged by the virus.
Social science can aid in the pandemic response as it can help policymakers and scientists develop solutions that individuals are ready and willing to follow. As the vaccine rollout takes shape, the need for understanding of social underpinnings becomes paramount as there must be trust built between the scientific community, governments and citizens in order to ensure that people are willing to take the vaccine. It is not worthwhile to create policies that people will not follow. In a circumstance where there is perceived fear of the vaccine, it is imperative that governments and scientists liaise with social scientists to create policy and advocacy techniques that build trust in the vaccine and guide policy on how to reopen safely in the perception of a post-lockdown boom. Scientific policy without studying social implications may leave a situation where there are more unintended consequences. 

Behavioural and social science will help policymakers address underlying concerns surrounding the vaccine and find ways to guide discourse around the ever-changing face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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