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The role of South Africa’s social scientists in COVID-19 responses: why it matters

People wearing face masks stand in a line, with shacks in the background
South Africans wait in a queue for free food. Understanding the social impact has been key to managing the pandemic. Photo by Luba Lesolle/Gallo Images via Getty Images

The effects of COVID-19 have been devastating to economies across the globe. This has been true in South Africa too where the unemployment rate has shot up to almost 33%. The suffering is visible. In every city and town one is struck by the numbers of queues of desperate people seeking help of all kinds.

In this situation, almost no-one takes issue with the statement that science is the kingpin on which recovery will be based. In the immediacy of the moment, it is the time of the virologists, the immunologists, the vaccinologists and public health specialists. To their great credit, they have stepped up to the plate.

Even though biological factors are the immediate cause of our problems, the effects are social. We have ill people, dying people, unemployed people, people unable to get health care. Less visible – but no less debilitating – are social trauma and strains in families and communities.

It’s therefore no surprise that the role of the social sciences, humanities and arts is so critical right now.

There has been public acknowledgement of the contributions of social science and humanities scholars. But concerns have also been raised about whether they have been involved enough.

As someone close to a number of initiatives involving social scientists over the past 12 months, my strong view is that they have been. Social sciences and the humanities have been in the thick of the pandemic from its very beginning. They have provided help, advice, guidance and, as should be expected, critique.

This is how it should be. It is the role of the social sciences and the humanities, on the basis of evidence, to affirm where official policy is in the public interest, but also to point to where it is not. I try, in this article, to show how the social sciences and humanities have responded in South Africa.

Gathering the evidence

Days after the announcement of the national lockdown the Human Sciences Research Council, the country’s science council for research on human behaviour and social conditions, initiated two different survey series to establish South Africans’ perceptions of the crisis.

Both sought to establish what South Africans thought of the situation in which they found themselves, their attitudes to the mitigation measures proposed, their trust in government and what people on the ground were doing for themselves. It was necessary to do this to inform government’s responses to the pandemic.

In addition, as the surveys were rolled out, teams of researchers from various universities in the country began working on the effects of the pandemic on employment, household income, child hunger and access to government grants. Their work, the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAMS), consisted of surveying a sample of 10,000 South Africans every month for six months. This kind of work was critical to track shifts and changes in the situation people were facing and how they were dealing with these changes.


Read more: COVID-19 holds lessons for the future of social protection


The results of the surveys – five have been released – have helped inform the national discussion on the pandemic, including the government’s response to the lockdown.

The data have been used to underpin policy briefs telling government and policy makers about what people were feeling, the state of their well-being, their attitudes to vaccines. They have also, importantly, enabled a feedback loop to government on responses to physical distancing measures, corruption, service delivery and access to basic rights. These directly raised the focus in government on the calamitous issue of COVID-19 corruption and, as bad, weaknesses in its service delivery mechanisms and procedures.

This was particularly pertinent for highlighting the dysfunctionality of hospitals and clinics.

Simultaneously, many universities and science councils took the initiative to hold public engagements about the epidemic. These ranged from its impact on education, to the problems in households with gender-based violence, to vaccine distribution.

In addition to these initiatives, many academics joined civil society initiatives to deal with emergencies in stressed communities. And to help overcome the socioeconomic information crisis, scientists have helped generate and disseminate reliable information.

Scientists became more public-facing as, on the strength of their research, they became much more active in public dialogues, radio and television interviews. They provided the public with informed analysis of what were often complex issues.

Researchers stepped up on a number of fronts, initiating new work and providing insights to organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The South African government has gone as far as including social scientists in the ministerial advisory committees for the pandemic and for vaccinations.

It’s true that a great deal remains to be done. Pandemics are complex social phenomena. They raise issues for which questions are not yet formulated. This is where the social sciences and humanities have to unpack problems such as social relations between people, in families, communities and the broader society.

And the question of inequality needs to be looked at a macro-level, and how it insidiously reconfigures relations – be they gender or between different groups in societies. All demand attention.

The longer term impact

In my view long-lasting change has already been baked in. For example, government departments such as the Department of Science and Innovation have established initiatives which have social scientists at their core, such as a national data observatory based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

This transdisciplinary approach has also led a team of medical scientists and social scientists from various organisations to conduct a COVID-19 antibody sero-prevalence study to ascertain levels of antibodies to the disease in the South African population.

The lead role of public health researchers continues to be important. But there is growing acknowledgement that social scientists have to be present from the very beginning – and should be given leadership responsibility.

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