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The Arts and Humanities Contribution to Covid-19 Research and Recovery: a snapshot

by Pascale Aebischer, Des Fitzgerald, Sarah Hartley, Rachael Nicholas and Victoria Tischler

In this blog post, we present a snapshot of what we have learned about the distinctive Arts and Humanities contribution to Covid-19 research and recovery and the positive impacts this research has had on society, culture, health and decision-making. The Pandemic and Beyond team has reached the end of the phase of work dedicated to bringing the researchers across the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Covid-19 rapid response portfolio into dialogue, organising projects into thematic clusters, and mapping their work.   

In the last few months, we have conducted an empirical analysis, including a thematic analysis of the projects’ public-facing documents, a series of discussions with key informants, and 5 half-day stakeholder workshops involving a total of 116 researchers representing 58 projects. Researchers have shared their work-in-progress and exchanged information and ideas about their findings, stakeholders, and what they are contributing to the overall research effort. 

This snapshot complements the British Academy’s broader mapping exercise in its The Covid Decade: Understanding the Long-Term Societal Impacts of Covid-19 research review and its Shaping the Covid Decade: Addressing the Long-Term Societal Impacts of Covid-19 policy report, with a focus on ongoing AHRC-funded research. Our analysis has produced a thematic organisation that partly overlaps with the categories of the British Academy study, but that is also more specific and targeted.  

In each of the thematic clusters, we have identified the principal contributions made by Arts and Humanities researchers and creative practitioners, the opportunities that have arisen from the period of upheaval, and the main challenges that they have faced. These are some of the highlights: 

1. Knowing the Pandemic: Communication, Information and Experience 

Contribution: The pandemic represents a watershed moment which is being communicated and memorialised through powerful grassroots narratives and stories. The use of creative media helps convey (and memorialise) this, reaching different audiences, and creating a legacy. Whereas official Covid-19 briefings were dominated by numerical and data-driven accounts of the pandemic, Arts and Humanities researchers and organisations have used creative methodologies to make the pandemic knowable as something happening to, and understood by, real communities in real time They have also played a central role in re-making public health messages to communicate more effectively with marginalised, communities, tailoring the message to the recipient in terms of both language and creative medium (e.g., use of graphics, comics, social media). Arts and humanities researchers have made strong interventions in information design, and in tracking and analysing how information about the pandemic has been spread and understood.  

Opportunities: The information design work can form the basis for better, more targeted design of information infrastructures, going beyond often limited behavioural and cognitive accounts of misinformation. By the end of this crisis, we will have learned a lot about how to be better at communicating with many different communities in highly consequential situations. There is also an opportunity for using more of this research to understand the human and cultural (as opposed to health and economic) impacts of the pandemic as we move into a phase of recovery that is mindful of the longer-term changes to the lived experience of the population.  

Challenges: Because so much of this work has taken place during the crisis, people have not had capacity to work on partnership-building as much as they would have liked and there have been tensions between research methodologies and dissemination. Researchers need more resource to communicate the findings to the right decision-makers and to create stronger networks that would allow them to maximise their impacts on policy.  

Examples: 

TRAC: COVID – TRust And Communication: a Coronavirus Online VIsual Dashboard  

Social Distance, Digital Congregation: British Ritual Innovation under COVID-19 

2. Coping Creatively 

Contribution: The Arts have been a key component of the pandemic response because of, among other things, the ability of arts organisations and grassroots groups to address wellbeing, mental health and social support issues arising from the reorientation of resources during the pandemic. These organisations are local and community-based and serve those whom larger organisations might struggle to reach. Participation in arts and arts-based activities (e.g., reading, doodling, creative writing, art-making, theatre-going) has enabled communities to survive and reform and has reduced feelings of isolation. Researchers have identified not only the spatial, geographical and developmental disparities between different communities, but also found what connects them: e.g., access to various spaces (parks, gardens, ventilated offices, frontline workplaces) of diverse communities in different areas, and intergenerational interactions.  

Opportunities: The pandemic has highlighted how participation in arts and ‘social prescribing’ enables the social care sector and the NHS to learn and benefit from the resources of Arts organisations and charities. Conversely, it has enabled Arts organisations to develop resources that contribute to mental health care, community cohesion and peer support. There are opportunities to build on the increased mutual awareness of Arts and Health providers to create stronger connections and provide strategic and widespread Arts activities for those using health and social care services. There are also opportunities to continue the community-building that has happened through the shared use of spaces and through intergenerational interactions during the pandemic. 

Challenges: Both Arts organisations, the social care sector and the NHS are very stretched in their resources and fatigued by their work during the pandemic. While there are many local examples of good practice, there is currently a lack of coordination between organisations and a lack of structures to facilitate the sharing of resources and good practice, the sustainability of novel services developed during the pandemic, or the scaling up from local to regional and national interventions.  

Examples: 

COVID-19 CARE: Culture and the Arts, from Restriction to Enhancement: Protecting Mental Health in the Liverpool City Region  

Using multisensory culture boxes to promote public health guidance and to support the wellbeing of people with dementia in care homes 

3. Bridging Distance in the Creative Industries 

Contribution: The pandemic has galvanised artists and stakeholders in the creative industries to find new ways of doing culture, with tremendous advances in digital innovation and rethinking approaches to how to reach out to audiences through digital and analogue media. Creative industry practitioners have found ways of continuing to provide employment for freelancers and entertainment and connection for audiences, with significant positive impacts on mental health and the creation and nurturing of communities. Part of the transformation the sector is undergoing involves creative industries practitioners acquiring new skills and the development of technological tools that enable cultural activity to continue flourishing in face-to-face and socially-distanced environments. 

Opportunities: There is a recognition, by researchers working with the creative industries sector, of the opportunity to address structural inequalities and exclusions in the sector and to create an industry that is more inclusive following the pandemic. There is also a desire to integrate the learning from new ways of working in the new structures, with hybrid modes of digital and analogue production that can increase access to culture, build new audience communities and be the basis for economic resilience.    

Challenges: Among the many challenges faced by this stretched and exhausted sector we identified the need for more research that is co-created with the sector and directly useful to organisations as a key intervention that would help it in its ongoing transformation and adaptation to a post-pandemic environment.  

Examples:  

Digital Theatre Transformation: A Case Study and Digital Toolkit for Small to Mid-Scale Theatres in England  

The application of motion-capture technology in telematic and virtual dance performance through a framework for long-distance remote communication  

4. Ethics, Law and Governance: 

Contribution: Researchers have critically examined ethical questions relating to ethical preparedness, ethical responsiveness and vaccine development and delivery.  Because researchers in this area are highly networked with decision-makers, stakeholders and publics, they were well-placed to bring Arts and Humanities knowledge to bear on real-time decisions in response to the pandemic. Researchers were making results available in real time to provide resources to others, such as detailed and comparative information on different countries’ legal responses to the pandemic, and to allow findings to shape current policy decisions, including rapid review, policy briefs, responses to consultations, and systematic reviews.  

Opportunities: there is an opportunity for Arts and Humanities to engage in law and policy yet more visibly, including in exploring the concept of ‘care’ and what care looks and feels like in a pandemic. 

Challenges: The heavy reliance on existing networks to shape policy and decision-making negatively affects junior scholars who find themselves unable to develop networks through the usual means such as conferences, workshops etc. There is furthermore a tension between describing and explaining the ethical issues and considerations and prescribing what should be done. 

Example: 

Ensuring Respect for Human Rights in Locked-Down Care Homes  

Conclusion 

The first phase of our work has highlighted how Arts and Humanities researchers have contributed to multiple areas of the pandemic response, conducting research that has wide-ranging impacts for society, specific communities, and policymakers. This research is collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature, with a strong focus on recording, analysing and understanding pandemic experiences. It provides unique insight into how important messages about crises are spread and understood by different communities, tackles the urgent ethical and legal dilemmas caused by public health interventions, interrogates the importance of arts and cultural activities on wellbeing, and seeks to understand the impact of the pandemic on the industries that typically provide such activities. Arts and Humanities perspectives are vital in informing how we might, and should, prepare for and respond to future crises, and how we can move forward from the pandemic in a way that addresses structural inequalities and societal issues.  

As many of the projects begin to reach their final stages, the work of The Pandemic and Beyond team will now turn to focus on communicating and amplifying the results and impact of this research through a communications strategy devised with input from the projects. This will include documentary films, public-facing events, articles and a media campaign, through which we aim to raise the profile of the Arts and Humanities for both policymakers and the wider public. To keep up to date, you can follow the project on Twitter @PandemicBeyond 

Our podcast series will also continue through the next phase of our project.

You can find all our previous podcasts here: https://pandemicandbeyond.exeter.ac.uk/media/podcasts/ or you can follow us on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/7KslChFBaIUDpvoySMRdjc  

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