The meanings and pressures of ‘rapid research’ on Covid-19

In this blog, co-PI Sarah Armstrong talks about the pressure, meanings of and need for ‘rapid’ social research on Covid-19: to respond to emergent funding, to inform the current response to the current pandemic, to study a phenomenon that is itself rapidly changing.

We learned about a call for rapid Covid-19 research in late March, just after the UK officially went into lockdown. In a single week, we pulled together a team of 18 investigators across four distinct research areas. We Zoomed our ideas about topics and methods in light of the new normal and organisations we might partner with, costed the work and distilled all this into a single (!) page application. After a successful result on the application, we moved forward, enlarging our team with a set of 17 partner organisations, and 7 RAs, most conducting their own doctoral research that was now stymied by lockdown.

I have never worked harder in my entire life, and can imagine my colleagues feel the same about this period. Looking back, I think two things provided a sense of motivation to get through it. First, throwing oneself into a major research project about Covid-19 turns out to be a really effective means of not having to think about Covid-19 in personal terms, and the upending of a whole way of life that was just beginning for all of us. Second, I know I speak for my colleagues in saying all of us felt that the encroaching shutdown would be tough enough for us, but would have profound consequences for people who already are positioned at the margin of society’s interest and attention.

  • In prison, lockdown triggered confinement of people in their cells up to 24 hours per day and stopping all visits of loved ones.
  • In homes across Scotland, people were being locked in with abusers, cut off from the normal routines that would provide respite and relief from isolating situations.
  • The limited services supporting those fleeing from unsafe home countries were being forced to close or restrict operations.
  • And, people living with disability or long-term health conditions found themselves at different points categorised as expendable or extremely vulnerable, and subject to greater restrictions and scrutiny of their movement.

At its heart, our project aims to give voice to the experiences of those who face particular hardships and challenges in getting through a global pandemic.

During April and May, we designed research tools that by June needed updating. As the most extreme phase of lockdown gave way gradually to allow access to more spaces and people, it became clear we needed also to include interview and survey questions about coming out of lockdown. We needed to be thinking about the Coronavirus response not as a sprint but a marathon – crisis funding was holding some things together; what will happen when people need help in September, October and onwards? How will people’s ability to weather a storm change when the storm coincides with winter and with the generosity of public spirit fraying?

These questions have stayed with us as we have worked through the nearly overwhelming logistics of carrying out 100+ interviews – thinking about the ethics and technology of using phones, WhatsApp, email, Zoom to talk to people at one of the toughest times of their and our lives.

Logistics have been frustrating and complex, and as with most research, the time taken to set things up is longer than anticipated, or at least hoped for. There has been added pressure given the fact that universities are not just studying, but also experiencing the pandemic. Colleagues without permanent contracts are exposed to even more anxiety and insecurity. University finances are being policed closely, to the extent that there can be challenges purchasing the equipment we need to do our work.

At the same time, delays to the research schedule have meant we are further along in the course of the pandemic, revealing new issues emerging and needing exploration. This has included positive as well as negative developments, and we are adopting an open mind to ways people may, at least in some ways, have flourished or learned adaptations point the way to better ways of doing things after the pandemic. Covid-19 is itself rapidly changing in terms of its distribution and incidence, and the response to it, including even the vocabulary of disease control. We are rapidly learning to adapt to the unstable circumstances we find ourselves in as researchers, and the meaning of ‘rapid research’ is evolving too.

What has become clear along the way is that social research is absolutely essential to understand how to get through a pandemic. The ways societies are organised, how they treat their least well off, how caring works and suffering is experienced, what contributions and needs are valued or invisible will all determine the effectiveness of medical and public health interventions. A sociological lens will help us employ and innovate concepts that allow us to understand the import of what is happening, situating and contextualising issues of power, marginalisation and crisis.

Ultimately, we hope the knowledge we produce with and alongside those at the front line, will make a positive difference in people’s lives.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Glasgow nor are they intended to represent the views of all working on this study.