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Making sense of COVID-19: Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences response to the pandemic

Making sense of COVID-19: Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences response to the pandemic

As part of the work of the GW4 Deans of HASS, we highlight the importance and impact of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Havi Carel - University of Bristol      Pascale Aebischer - University of Exeter      Kathryn Body - University of Bristol      Claire Gorarra - Cardiff University

Pascale Aebischer                               Havi Carel                                           Kathryn Body                                      Claire Gorrara


COVID-19 has impacted our lives and communities in many ways over the last two and a half years. The successful development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine demonstrates one way research has contributed to combating the physical effects of the COVID-19 virus in the UK. What is less widely appreciated is the contribution Humanities, Arts, and Social Science researchers have made to changing the behaviours that kept us safe and to tackling the social, cultural, ethical, and mental health impacts of the pandemic.

As part of the work of the GW4 Deans of HASS, we highlight below the many ways GW4 research communities are leading and supporting others (and themselves) to build back better, or differently, from the pandemic by taking a look at a funder, project and institutional response.

Programme Leadership

The Pandemic and Beyond programme at the University of Exeter, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), brings together 77 teams of researchers across the UK, amplifying the impacts and visibility of their COVID-19 research. The virtual hub connects research teams with each other, and with user groups and policymakers, enabling them to share expertise and resources. Some are tirelessly working to compare and scrutinise legislation. Others help individuals and families deal with lockdowns, bereavements, and mental health crises. Working with industry partners, a number of projects have found ways of keeping the creative industries afloat or of formulating life-saving messages for marginalised communities.

We know, for example, that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people and care home residents were disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Associate Professor Victoria Tischler, from the University of Exeter, stepped in with a team of researchers and artists with whom she co-designed ‘culture boxes’ filled with cultural objects. While care homes were locked down, these boxes were regularly delivered to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic care home residents living with dementia, enabling them to engage in creative activities together with a care-giver. The activities provided a stimulus and community to residents’ lives, while also helping care home staff feel better supported at a traumatic time.

The Pandemic and Beyond programme demonstrates the vital contribution of HASS research in finding concrete solutions and offerings way of making sense of the pandemic. It has also brought joy, creativity and hope to light up the darkest moments of the past two years.

Project Spotlight

A University of Bristol-based project focused on the phenomenology of social distancing is an excellent example of GW4 interdisciplinary research. Conducted by the universities of Bristol, York, Birmingham, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, the study surveyed respondents from the UK, Japan, and Mexico and used computer-assisted qualitative data analysis to investigate people’s lived experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was conducted in summer 2020 and again in summer 2021. The survey provides a lived, embodied account of how people have experienced the pandemic, including national lockdowns, physical distancing, and rigorous isolation protocols.

The study considers the ways in which COVID-19 restrictions, and pandemic related concerns - such as fear of contracting or transmitting the virus, fear of falling ill or dying, and uncertainty about the future - have affected people’s being-in-the-world, and specifically the relationship between their body and other people’s bodies. It identifies discreet aspects of people’s lived experience of the pandemic that are revealed through the narratives found in the responses.

Common themes emerged, such as increased bodily awareness, hypervigilance about illness symptoms, and changes to interpersonal relationships involving trust, social stigmatisation, and marginalisation of groups deemed to be high risk. Yet, despite its many challenges, many of the participants in the study reported that the pandemic and lockdowns provided an opportunity for self-reflection, personal growth, positive lifestyle changes, and valuable time with family.

Supporting the University community

As the rich research initiatives profiled here demonstrate, GW4 HASS researchers are leading programmes and projects that engage with the experiences, outcomes, and legacies of COVID-19 for specific communities beyond academia. We have also been researching on how we, as university communities, have been shaped by COVID-19 as part of reflections on transformations in academia brought on by new ways of working.

Research at Cardiff University has looked to understand the impacts of the pandemic on the attitudes and experiences of our university communities. Drawing on a survey and interviews with colleagues across academic and professional pathways within the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff in the summer of 2021, the resulting report sets out eight recommendations for mitigating the impacts of COVID on people’s working lives and how we might build back better, and differently. These range from actions to support disproportionately affected groups, such as those with caring responsibilities, to the significance of maintaining flexible working and the value of providing ongoing opportunities for colleagues to input into changing workplace cultures brought on by the pandemic.

In all our endeavours, the wellbeing of our GW4 HASS communities remains central to our ability to support others to manage change at multiple societal levels. Recognising and understanding the pandemic’s impacts on ourselves as researchers is also part of the ongoing negotiations with COVID-19 that are here to stay.

Further reading

The Pandemic Experience: A Corpus of Subjective Reports on Life During the First Wave of COVID-19 in the UK, Japan, and Mexico. Frontiers in Public Health. Tom FroeseMatthew BroomeHavi CarelClara HumpstonAlice MalpassTomoari MoriMatthew RatcliffeJamila Rodrigues and Federico Sangati

University of Bath
University of Bristol
Cardiff University
University of Exeter