Covid-19: An Unequal Impact?

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on every industry, including research.

With BCU’s conference on Covid-19’s impact on research coming on Friday 9 July, PhD student Alan Taman provides some key thoughts on why this conference is needed.

Understanding the turmoil

The best defence against turmoil is understanding. If you know why, if people are told why, it at least betters the sapping doubt of uncertainty. 

Everyone has been in turmoil, to varying degrees, since the early Spring of 2020. That past life, now, seems removed. The Time Before. Many lives have been lost through this disease. All have been touched by it.

The scale of suffering has been without parallel, at least since the last time war came to the UK. It has visited us all, in some guise or other, and left its shadow, slight or deep. And we are not beyond the pain and gloom yet. How, then, can knowing help?

Because in knowing, lies hope. Battling to understand this virus and develop the vaccines was bedded on decades of careful science. Achieved through unparalleled investment in the power of reason, the faith that learning can offer a solution.

Struggling to predict how this would threaten us, a near-impossible task of weighing up shifting circumstance with incomplete information, at least gave the political decision makers themselves the best possible information to weigh up. Judging what was most valuable, at least, had some reliable knowledge underpinning it.

Research deals with the currency of the uncertain, something I discovered when starting my PhD. There’s not a single researcher who sets out saying ‘I know this is true so I’m going to prove it’ –  or any that do are bluntly disabused of their delusion  very early on.

What research offers, and demands, is the chance to say ‘I want to know why this is happening’.  This is as true for the pandemic. Looking at this upset and threat to so many lives, this time of turmoil, and trying to make sense of it is something everyone will, I think, have tried to do. Looking at this as a researcher offers potential, responsibility, and hope.

The potential to understand what this has done to us, no matter in how small a way or how huge an influence, must rank as without parallel for many years. How could such a monumental force for change, such a threat, not offer many ways of increasing what we know, of learning why this has done what it has done, and will keep doing?

The effects of Covid-19

When it comes to inequalities, the effects have been deep and wide. My field is perceptions to health inequality – to solutions, in particular. What do the public believe will stop or slow inequalities in health?  The pandemic hit these shores when I was, supposedly, in the last six months of my research.

I knew enough to realise it was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, influences on public health I was likely to see, that anyone had seen at least for decades. None of it good. And so it proved.

Every single health inequality you could care to mention – mortality by class or ethnicity, childhood health chances, mental health outcomes, ALL of them that can so far be discerned – has been made worse by Covid.

How will perceptions to health inequality be changing? Will people want to know or do more about them? For me, the potential was obvious.

But that leads straight to responsibility. The first responsibility for a researcher has to be rigour in what you’re doing: to say ‘we don’t know’ when we don’t and ‘this is what we know’, and where we think we might not. 

A far-ranging concern

I believe as a researcher you are responsible not only for the way you conduct your research, but for considering what the wider impacts are likely to be. I think you have to gauge a pandemic with due regard for what it’s done: many lives have been lost.

So, for me, the research I am now carrying out is an affirmation, not a celebration. A determination to know more so that things might be better. Better policies on health inequality maybe, or better understanding by the public so they get to choose more or want to have a greater say.

I knew I was not alone in that. In putting forward the idea for a conference, about Covid and inequalities, I was inspired and encouraged to discover just how broad that interest was, across many disciplines.

We have researchers from many fields outlining what their research on the pandemic will mean, or hopefully will lead to. It is astonishing how wide that determination is.

Which, finally, leads me to hope. Hope that what we are trying to do, trying to understand, must make a difference. Hope that research will point the way to the wider community we are in. Hope that research will help lead us beyond this. A time of great change, and even greater challenges.

Come and listen. Learn more about how much difference and hope research can offer. And, if you want to, join in – you can register now via Eventbrite.

Alan Taman is completing his PhD on public perceptions of health inequality solutions and is on the planning committee for the conference.