The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has erupted, affecting all regions of the world, and the news media are dominated by reporting developments and effects. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of lives have already been lost worldwide, and many healthcare systems are straining under the burden of caring for unprecedented numbers of seriously ill patients with pneumonia. Everyday lives have been disrupted: schools and workplaces are closed, many people have lost their jobs, vast populations have been confined to their homes, people are cut-off from face-to-face interactions and worried about their own health or those of their family members.
Bearing all these issues in mind, below I have come up with a list of research questions as a way of kick-starting a social research agenda for a COVID and post-COVID world. (Please note the important caveat that these are only my initial thoughts based on the current situation in these early months of the pandemic where conditions are rapidly changing.) Researching these topics will generate better understandings not only of the current social impact of COVID, but also continuing or new impacts into the future. Findings will have immediate and long-term applications for contributing to policy and service delivery and development to better support publics as they deal with and recover from the myriad challenges they are experiencing to their ways of life and health status. They will also offer ways forward for how to deal with and manage new large-scale health crises in ethical and effective ways.
Key social research questions
· What are the situated responses of government agencies and healthcare organisations to the pandemic, and how do these differ between countries? Which agencies and organisations have been most effective in countering the spread of the COVID virus among their populations?
· How are people from diverse social groups and geospatial locations responding to the crisis? What are their lived experiences and social relationships as the pandemic’s effects continue to unfold and into the future of the post-COVID world? How do attributes such as location, age, gender, health or disability status, ethnicity/race, income, educational background, employment status, housing situation structure their experiences and wellbeing?
· Which individuals and social groups are the target of neglect, stigmatisation or marginalisation? How has this been recognised and dealt with (or ignored) in different socio-geographical-political environments?
· What were the rationales behind the widespread panic-buying that emptied supermarket shelves of essentials for weeks on end, and how can such responses be better managed in the future?
· How have people’s general wellbeing and mental health been affected by the current conditions of the crisis and into the future, and how can they be better and more ethically and effectively supported?
· How have family relationships been influenced by confinement to family homes for long periods, and what are the positive or negative consequences (e.g. increased risk of being a victim of family violence for women and children, post-natal women losing hands-on help with their new infants from extended family members)?
· How are children and young people coping with the disruption to their usual routines, education and social relationships, now and into the post-COVID future?
· What are the lived experiences of healthcare workers and other key support workers in dealing with the working conditions they are faced with, and what are the implications for their current and long-term health and wellbeing? How can they be supported now and into the future?
· What socioeconomic support systems offered by government and non-government agencies have best managed the crisis and how should they deal with support into the post-COVID future?
· How are digital technologies contributing to disseminating information — which are most helpful and useful for publics?
· What digital media and devices have been most helpful and useful for publics in dealing with physical isolation conditions?
· Which digital health technologies have been most effective and helpful for offering self-diagnosis and healthcare? What are the experiences of patients and healthcare workers in offering these mediated forms of diagnosis and care?
· What is the role played by novel digital technologies such as ‘smart’ devices, drones and automated decision-making software in health surveillance and diagnosis systems?
· How have educational and working-from-home arrangements been supported by digital technologies, and which have been most useful and helpful?
· How have the working practices of teachers at all levels of the education system (primary to tertiary) changed? What are the losses and gains for both students and teachers in moving to online teaching and learning?
· How will education and work systems change as a result in the post-COVID world?
· How have major internet companies as well as start-ups responded to the crisis?
· Which forms of grassroots organisation and networking have emerged and which are most helpful and effective for communities, now and into the future?
· How have more-than-human agents contributed to supporting people’s health and wellbeing in conditions where they have been forced to be physically distant from other people (e.g. companion animals, plants, natural landscapes, bodies of water)?
· What research methods can we use to understand the more-than-representational dimensions of people’s lived experiences (their affective and sensory responses, experiences of space and place)?
· What social and cultural theories can help us understand the COVID and post-COVID worlds?
Let’s get started!