The Role of South African Social Scientists in COVID-19 Responses: Why It Matters

The effects of COVID-19 have been devastating for economies around the world. This also applies to South Africa, where the unemployment rate has risen to almost 33%. The suffering is visible. In any city or place, one is struck by the number of queues of desperate people seeking help of all kinds.

In this situation, almost no one questions the proposition that science is the linchpin of recovery. In the immediacy of the moment, it is the time of the virologists, immunologists, vaccinologists, and public health professionals. To their great honor, they stepped on the plate.

While biological factors are the immediate cause of our problems, the effects are social. We have sick people, dying people, unemployed people, people who cannot get medical care. Less visible – but no less debilitating – are social trauma and stress in families and communities.

It is therefore not surprising that the role of the social sciences, humanities and arts is currently so critical.

The contributions of social scientists and humanities scholars were publicly recognized. However, concerns were also raised as to whether they were sufficiently involved.

As someone who has been close to a number of initiatives involving social scientists over the past 12 months, I firmly believe that has been the case. The social sciences and humanities were in the middle of the pandemic from the start. They have provided help, advice, guidance and, as expected, criticism.

It should be so. It is the job of the social sciences and humanities to confirm, on the basis of evidence, where official policy is in the public interest, but also to point out where it is not. In this article I am trying to show how the social sciences and humanities reacted in South Africa.

Gather Evidence

Days after the announcement of the national lockdown, the Human Sciences Research Council, the country’s science council for research into human behavior and social conditions, initiated two different series of surveys to assess South Africans’ perception of the crisis.

Both wanted to find out what South Africans think of the situation they find themselves in, their attitudes towards the proposed mitigation measures, their trust in the government and what the local people are doing for themselves. This had to be done to inform the government’s response to the pandemic.

As the surveys were rolled out, research teams from various universities in the country began to work on the impact of the pandemic on employment, household incomes, child hunger and access to government grants. Her job, the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAMS), was to survey a sample of 10,000 South Africans every month for six months. This type of work was crucial in tracking changes and changes in people’s situation and in dealing with those changes.

Read more: COVID-19 provides lessons for the future of social protection

The results of the polls – five were released – helped inform the national discussion about the pandemic, including the government’s response to the lockdown.

The data was used to back up policy information informing the government and policy makers about how people were feeling, how they were doing, and how they felt about vaccines. It is also important that they have given government a feedback loop on responses to physical distancing measures, corruption, service delivery and access to fundamental rights. These have shifted government focus directly to the catastrophic corruption problem of COVID-19 and, equally badly, weaknesses in the mechanisms and procedures for providing services.

This was especially important to highlight the dysfunction of hospitals and clinics.

At the same time, many universities and science councils took the initiative to hold public engagements for the epidemic. These ranged from the effects on education to problems in households with gender-based violence and the distribution of vaccines.

In addition to these initiatives, many academics have joined civil society initiatives to address emergencies in stressed communities. To overcome the socio-economic information crisis, scientists have helped to generate and disseminate reliable information.

Scientists became more public as they became much more active as a result of their research in public dialogues, radio and television interviews. They provided the public with an in-depth analysis of the often complex issues.

The researchers got involved on several fronts, initiated new work and provided insights to organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The South African government has even included social scientists on the advisory committees of ministers on pandemic and vaccination.

It is true that much remains to be done. Pandemics are complex social phenomena. They raise questions for which no questions have yet been formulated. Here the social sciences and humanities have to unpack problems such as the social relationships between people, in families, communities and society in the broader sense.

And the issue of inequality needs to be looked at at the macro level and how it insidiously reconfigures relationships – be it by gender or between different groups in societies. They all demand attention.

The longer term effects

In my opinion, permanent change has already taken place. For example, government departments such as the Ministry of Science and Innovation have launched initiatives that focus on social scientists, such as a national data observatory run by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

This transdisciplinary approach has also prompted a team of medical and social scientists from various organizations to conduct a COVID-19 antibody seroprevalence study to determine levels of antibodies to the disease in the South African population.

The leadership role of public health researchers remains important. However, there is growing recognition that social scientists need to be present from the start – and should be given leadership responsibility.

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