Humanities in pandemic times: supporting societies coping with COVID-19
Researchers at The Guild's member universities are working to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our lives in profound ways. Pandemics have been changing the course of human societies. As Prof Mischa Meier, from the University of Tübingen, points out, 'The history of humankind can also be written as a history of diseases and epidemics. It is certainly not a coincidence that the earliest work of ancient literature, the Iliad, begins with a 'plague' description of all things’.
We need stories to make sense of our lives. Narratives of the pandemic are being elaborated and circulated across the globe, helping societies making sense of these new circumstances. In response, research at King’s College London on “Worldmaking in the Time of COVID-19” is exploring how language is shaping perceptions of the world and constructing transnational, national and individual identities during this unprecedented period.
With the magnitude of the crisis engulfing our social fabric and our polities, disciplines across the social sciences and humanities are playing a crucial role in informing decision making. An international survey (in which the University of Warwick takes part) shows that, in many countries, citizens aren't positively perceiving governments' responses to the pandemic, and this might jeopardize the implementation of containment measures. This is a critical period to democracies that calls for swift actions. Adopting a data approach, Aarhus University's project HOPE looks at different indicators to understand how democracies react and cope with the unfolding of the pandemic.
At the University of Ljubljana, the project 'Social Contract in the 21st Century' has expanded its investigations to examine the social effects of the pandemic, exploring them from different angles, including the population’s media consumption during the quarantine, the understanding of solidarity and attitudes towards cross-border collaboration. Ultimately, social contracts are expressed in the law. To foster the COVID-19 response through legal studies, Jagiellonian University’s students have created the “Law against the pandemic” website, providing a platform for collaboration and sparking debate by gathering academic papers in different languages.
The unfolding of the crisis has raised questions in terms of its psychological impact. Many universities, including the University of Glasgow and Groningen University, are trying to understand the implications of social distancing on mental health. At the same time, many are finding the online environment as a space of improvised normality and a turn to digital art forms might emerge as an alternative site of creativity, as Aarhus University suggests.
Recognising the significance of the Social Sciences and Humanities in investigating the impact of COVID-19 and informing our response, universities like the Université de Paris and King's College London have made available a COVID-19 research fund that incentivises applications with a social sciences and humanities remit. This recognises that we are only at the beginning of our understanding of how COVID-19 puts into question the mode of existence of contemporary societies. Researchers have understood that these past months have shown an immeasurable sense of unity, but that we do not yet understand what this means. Or, as UCLouvain’s Michel Dupuis explains, “the desire to survive awakes an elementary form of citizen consciousness”.