Social research can be an important weapon in the fight against coronavirus
Social research is generally not a priority during a serious crisis. Despite the fact that Covid-19 has dramatically impacted our society and altered the life patterns of a large section of the population, we have undertaken very few studies in Bangladesh to assist informed decision-making during this pandemic. While basically a health problem, Covid-19 has led to large-scale socioeconomic impacts. The measures taken to limit the rate of spread of the virus such as quarantining, physical distancing and social isolation have resulted in sudden unemployment of millions of people in the country.
The unprecedented circumstances unfolding over the last four months due to shutdown of business, transport and daily life are greatly influenced by several societal realities which are, persistent social and economic inequalities, the proliferation of misinformation, and the uncertainties associated with lack of proven strategies and tools to deal with this major crisis.
In Bangladesh, the vulnerability of the working population in both formal and informal sectors became apparent as a result of the shutdown to contain the spread of coronavirus through human contact. Millions of poor people who lack personal savings or alternative means of livelihood to fall back upon during this crisis, quickly became dependent on food assistance and financial support from the government.
The government of Bangladesh runs regular social safety net programmes and it covered over seven million of the poorest and most vulnerable families in 2019 to 2020. The government has allocated funds to support an additional five million impoverished families with cash assistance and 12.5 million destitute families with food aid in response to the economic crisis resulting from the ongoing pandemic.
A recent study has found that 63 percent of the main income earners of poor families lost their jobs or livelihood opportunities due to this crisis. A big chunk of the urban population have moved to their rural homes. The loss of jobs and income, shifting of location, and reduced level of services and amenities in the rural areas have had a debilitating impact on these families.
One thing to notice during this coronavirus crisis is the widespread use of internet, mobile devices and social media. While social media has played an important role in reducing the stress and impact of physical isolation by building social connections, it has also spread misinformation, which created panic among the people. In this situation, the value of social research is vital in bringing in reliable information. However, in the current situation, the methods of research and data collection have to be modified. Physical distancing requirements will not allow traditional modes of in-person research in many cases and therefore, mobile technologies and data collection by local enumerators should be introduced.
Social research is essential to find out how people's everyday lives have been disrupted by closure of schools, workplaces and businesses. A huge number of people are confined to their homes and are worried about their future. It is important to get the insights of the most at-risk population groups. If more and more research agencies and think-tanks undertake studies, it will reduce misinformation and the lack of evidence-based information.
In an unusually challenging and pressing environment where saving lives is the foremost priority, political decision-making is not easy. In this situation, social research findings can be an important basis for taking innovative decisions. Without the advantage of quality data, policies are likely to be made in a vacuum that may lead to poor outcomes and waste of public resources.
Since we are in uncharted waters with the novel coronavirus, we need to improve our understanding on various responses of the government to the pandemic and its effectiveness in dealing with the spread of the virus. One potential area for research is how people—from different socioeconomic backgrounds, location, age, gender, health or disability status, income, ethnicity/race, educational background and employment status—are responding to the crisis. The other study areas are whether food assistance is reaching target groups as per standards set and if allegations of corruption are valid, how family relationships are influenced by confinement to homes and if domestic violence is affecting women and children, how students are coping with the disruption to education due to closure of schools, if child labour is increasing due to poverty, and if large-scale school drop-outs are likely to happen in the coming months and what measures are required to stop this.
With falling family income, food consumption of children are also likely to go down. New studies should look at the level of child malnutrition during this pandemic and the policy implications of it. Studies should also look at the performance of the health sector and how much regular child immunisation, disease control and family planning programmes are affected by the pandemic, and how a reasonably satisfactory level of services can still be maintained.
Other possible research questions are: which digital media have been useful for the people in terms of getting information, how helpful digital technologies have been in case of educational and working-from-home arrangements, how have the experiences of teachers and students been in adopting online teaching and learning approaches, what have been the experiences of private medical facilities and health professionals, and how the small industries, dairy, poultry and fishery owners are trying to sustain their enterprises in the face of lower demand.
The government and its development partners are expected to support fresh studies and data generation. The findings of different research initiatives should be fed into policy-making processes to deal with the numerous problems the country is currently struggling with. There is no alternative to taking well-informed and evidence-based decisions, be it in a normal or in a crisis situation.
Dr Nawshad Ahmed is an economist and urban planner. He is engaged in research activities after retiring from the United Nations.