The Pandemic and Beyond: The Arts and Humanities Contribution to Covid-19 Research and Recovery

It is a year since the UK government announced the first lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, arts and humanities researchers have contributed significantly to tackling some of the major challenges caused by the pandemic. A new two-year project, The Pandemic and Beyond: The Arts and Humanities Contribution to Covid-19 Research and Recovery, has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s rapid response to Covid-19. Led by Professor Pascale Aebischer and a multi-talented team at the University of Exeter, the project will work with universities across the country who have carried out AHRC-funded research related to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this post, Professor Aebischer shares the team’s plans for the project and how they intend to amplify the impacts of Covid-19 research.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck the UK and the country went into lockdown, new laws were passed at speed, theatres and cinemas went dark, care homes stopped accepting visitors, and a population used to working, exercising and socialising outside the home was asked not to leave their houses or mix with other households. Soon it became apparent that the pandemic was affecting different communities in different ways, with particularly devastating impacts on older people and people with underlying health conditions, communities of African and South Asian descent, and those in frontline jobs and living in cramped conditions. As the death toll rose, families had to deal with not being able to be with their loved ones as they died and not even being able to comfort one another at a funeral. There was a rise in domestic violence, social media began to spread misleading messages and many freelance workers, especially in the creative sector, were left without access to the furlough scheme or any idea of when they might be able to return to work.

In other words, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic go far beyond the strain on the NHS and the death toll: they affect the fabric of our society; our laws, culture, economy, and mental health. The pandemic is revolutionising our way of life, our behaviours, the scope of our actions. Fighting the pandemic therefore involves both the work of frontline NHS staff and medical researchers and the work of arts and humanities researchers and creative industries professionals. The Arts and Humanities have responded to the crisis with initiatives and research projects that have often worked hand-in-hand with medical research to integrate creative approaches into caring for patients and identifying ways of communicating Public Health messages as effectively as possible to save lives.

Hundreds of arts and humanities researchers heeded the UKRI’s call for  rapid-response project ideas that address Covid-19. Around seventy  projects have been funded since May 2020 and all bear witness to the extraordinary energy and creativity with which arts and humanities researchers responded to the call. This work has been truly inspiring and vitally important and has been spearheaded by researchers tackling a broad range of challenges, including working with care homes, examining the ethical impacts of specific legislation, creating new ways of operating for creative industries professionals, investigating how religious rituals or theatrical performances can continue to provide solace and a sense of community via digital media, and understanding the impact of public health messaging on different population groups.

It has been a privilege to have been put in charge of coordinating the pandemic response of the arts and humanities research community and to begin to map and analyse this research. We are a team of six arts, humanities, social sciences and medical researchers, all based at the University of Exeter, who have hands-on experience working on Arts and Humanities approaches to addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic. We are embarking on a two-year AHRC project which will involve working with all the AHRC-funded research designed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic to create a dialogue between colleagues working in related fields, identifying synergies, and find ways of amplifying the impacts of their findings. To do so, we will run workshops through which we will facilitate focused exchanges of expertise, impact plans, and communications strategies that add value to all the projects and stakeholders involved and enable a scaling up of impacts.

Working collaboratively with AHRC-funded colleagues, stakeholders, and with some of the people most directly affected by the pandemic and by the Arts and Humanities interventions to mitigate it, we will devise a programme of activities and public engagement designed to communicate creatively and effectively the contribution of arts and humanities researchers to solving some of the most pressing problems caused by the pandemic, with a keen eye to promoting the equity, diversity and inclusivity of the impacts of AHRC-funded pandemic research. We want to reach the wider public, disadvantaged communities and policy makers and will soon start showcasing some of the Arts and Humanities research on Covid-19 through a series of podcast interviews. As our work progresses, we will produce documentary films and policy documents, inform communities and key stakeholders in Public Health, the NHS, Government, NGOs and international user groups.

We are just at the beginning of an exciting journey that will take us through the thick of the pandemic and beyond. We are working towards a future in which we will be able to use what we have learned to tackle future crises with yet more imagination and energy, and with strategies in place that embed Arts and Humanities research deeply in a holistic crisis response that recognises the fundamental connections between Public Health, society, culture and the economy.

The Pandemic and Beyond: The Arts and Humanities Contribution to Covid-19 Research and Recovery project team comprises Pascale Aebischer (PI), Professor Victoria Tischler (CI), Professor Sarah Hartley (CI), Professor Des Fitzgerald (CI), Dr Benedict Morrison (CI), Dr Rachael Nicholas (PDRA)

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