Pulling together: how the arts and humanities can address infection prevention and control

In the midst of the current pandemic, researchers from arts and humanities disciplines are engaging with the many challenges that COVID-19 raises. Questions around ethical, legal, historical, and cultural issues are to the fore as society struggles to adjust to the pervasive effects of this new virus. In this opinion piece, Dr Colin Macduff, School of Design, Glasgow School of Art, draws on learning that is emerging from another huge infectious disease challenge, antimicrobial resistance, to argue that arts and humanities (A&H) research can be of integral (rather than added) value to infection prevention and control.

The global rise in drug-resistant infections due to anti­microbial resistance (AMR) has been flagged as an evolving “antibiotic apocalypse”. While overuse and misuse of antibiotics are at the heart of the problem, recent research is untangling underlying causes and consequences, and generating new ideas and actions to address it.

In 2017, as part of the cross-council programme addressing AMR, the AHRC funded a programme of 11 pump-priming projects focusing on AMR in Indoor and Built Environments. Most were led by arts and humanities researchers and all were very interdisciplinary in nature. During the past five months, with the support of the other ten project teams, I have pulled together the collective learning that has accrued. The report is available on the Glasgow School of Art website (best viewed in double page layout: download, save then open).  

So, what can be said about the contribution of A&H disciplines? And what are the implications for AMR, other infectious diseases like COVID, and for interdisciplinary working in general?

The projects spanned a range of settings, from homes, schools and community pharmacies through to hospitals and a vet practice. Design and architecture were particularly prominent, especially in very productive collaborations with microbiology. Inputs from history were also often influential. New understandings and related ideas for interventions were generated and evaluated. Co-design approaches involving extensive participation from collaborating end-user groups were a key feature. Outcomes ranged from improved hand hygiene in primary school children to the development of new prototype probiotic tiles for buildings.

Co-designing with primary school children (Lifting the Lid on Bacteria project; Catherine Stones)
Detailed view of new prototype probiotic tiles (NOTBAD project; Richard Beckett)
The report identifies a distinc­tive set of attributes that arts and humanities approaches can contribute to research and developments address­ing AMR

Importantly, the report shows how these attributes can drive forward AMR-focused work that is highly interdisciplinary in nature. In turn, this shows that A&H approaches can contribute inherent, fundamental value rather than being seen as adding value to primarily medical endeavours.

As such, there is great potential for A&H disciplines to develop their contributions, pulling together with colleagues from natural and social sciences to address issues like AMR, COVID-19 and other infectious disease challenges to come. Indeed, the suite of 11 projects provide great exemplars of how SHAPE subjects (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy/environment) can work alongside STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) on a pressing global health challenge. While this suite highlighted the contributions of design, architecture and history in particular, there is need and scope for more inputs from philosophy/ethics, law, film, drama, literature and many other A&H disciplines. Speaking as a nurse working in a School of Art, I relish the potential for creativity when the disciplinary margins melt. The report provides lots of insights into such interdisciplinary work in the field of infection prevention and control.

A key point here is that this work sees infection prevention and control as contingent on social, cultural, environmental and economic factors that go well beyond medicine and pharmaceuticals. This, of course, is being vividly demonstrated in the COVID-19 global public health emergency. The work reported here shows that, to date, A&H contributions tend to focus less on AMR in terms of prescription of pills and more on AMR in terms of conjunctions of place, people, pathogens and power, addressing causes and conse­quences with creativity.

Thus, the need for national and international infrastructure fund­ing and support for interdisci­plinary work to address AMR and other infectious disease problems is highlighted. The UK’s cross council initiative on AMR has been a good start. In developing such structures and programmes further for AMR, COVID-19 and other challenges to come, it is now essential that the integral contributions of disciplines from the arts and humanities are actively advocated, included and facilitated. Let’s pull together, and push together, to help this happen.

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