Humanizing the pandemic response

After reading Gideon Lasco’s recent column (“Social sciences and the pandemic”), I’ve been asking myself whether the points Mr. Lasco raised are enough to convince the President and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to include people from the social sciences other than the economists into the group of experts that they have been consulting.

The reluctance of policymakers to engage with social scientists stems in part from the prevailing mindset of many public officials to reduce complex problems into a narrow set of solutions. While it is commonsensical to think of a COVID-19 vaccine to eliminate the coronavirus from the face of the earth, social scientists know well that major technological fixes won’t deliver their intended results if they collide with people’s values, experiences, and beliefs.

Social scientists can help policymakers grapple with the complexity of the pandemic by offering alternative framings of the problem that uphold not only the metrics of economic efficiency and human security, but also social ideals of equity and social justice. We must come out of this crisis not only alive but also with our integrity and dignities intact.

Consistent with the tendency to privilege simple solutions to a rather complex problem, policymakers also respond to a hierarchy of problems, with problems that can be easily subjected to quantification and modeling at the top of the priorities while the social consequences of the pandemic (e.g., coping mechanisms, moral duty to help, marginalization and injustice) — the perceived turf of the social scientists —c ome as an afterthought.

We’ve learned that the decision to extend the enhanced community quarantine in some “high-risk areas” and to relax the same measures in other areas is based on a thousand-foot view of economists and modelers looking through a two-dimensional matrix. How would the new classification of areas under ECQ and GCQ look like if the President and the IATF sought the advice of sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, psychologists, communication scholars, and interdisciplinary social researchers?

Perhaps we would not be heavily fixed on the idea of a “lockdown” coming from the top through militarized forms of control as we empower local leaders and communities to decide for their constituents. Perhaps we would be humble enough to admit that our models are only as good as the data we put into them, and so we encourage social innovations from local governments, citizen groups, and other social institutions that are more responsive to the uncertainties inherent in our models and scientific approaches.

In her book “Crisis,” British sociologist Sylvia Walby talks about how crises, such as the 2007-8 global financial crisis, cascade through various institutional domains in society, affecting the real economy, the legitimacy of the state, and the everyday life of the people. By bringing in the voices of social scientists into the policy processes, we also highlight the human face of the pandemic.

President Duterte should seriously consider incentivizing not only vaccine development, but also equally relevant social research that can help Philippine society better navigate this deep social transformation of our time.

* * *

Winifredo Dagli is an assistant professor at the Department of Science Communication, College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines Los Baños. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Rural Studies at the University of Guelph.