Social sciences away from health crisis management

Social sciences away from health crisis management

Photo d'illustration

© Gonzalo Fuentes
Photo d’illustration

Beyond the biological interpretation of the virus, our knowledge of society could have played a decisive role in the explanation and management of the pandemic.

Tribune. Since March 2020, the management of the health crisis has mainly relied on central governments, law enforcement agencies, doctors, epidemiologists and economists. The social sciences are called upon to express themselves only to comment on the consequences of the situation: psychological effects of confinement, acceptability of measures, destabilizing irruption of new objects in the world. This is certainly a necessary task. But we almost completely forget to use the knowledge that these sciences have developed on risks, crises and their management.

The epidemiological-administrative reading of the crisis, based on figures for lethality, morbidity, contagiousness and number of available beds, disqualifies any other reading, sending the slightest discussion to ignorance, irrationality, even incivility. But to focus on the virus, this unknown, we forget the known on which we have taken, that is to say the knowledge of the social world. However, what creates a crisis is not the virus alone, it is the virus which resonates with society.

We have thus neglected the contributions of the social sciences in understanding the spread of the virus on a planetary scale. The explanations centered on the influence of the climate or the relief, even if it means not being embarrassed by glaring contradictions – the heat favoring the virus in Amazonia but slowing it down in Africa – or to disseminate hazardous hypotheses, as on the role of altitude. We have not listened to the geographers who quickly noted the resemblance of the spread of the virus with contemporary forms of globalization, in connection with simple logics: the places of mixing of populations that are the big international airports, the sprawling agglomerations, the traffic corridors and various traffic areas have an increased probability of being places at risk even before the first containment measures. However, these places are not distributed homogeneously: if globalization is everywhere, it presents itself in very diverse forms.

Of the functioning of society

When analyzing the vulnerability of populations, we forget that this is not only a characteristic registered, on the one hand in biological individuals, their age and state of health, and, on the other in the system. of care. It is also built because of the specializations and segregations of space which require long daily trips in sometimes precarious conditions. The poor and the elderly are not assigned to the same places everywhere; speaking out, which allows alerting, is not possible everywhere. The spatial and social forms of the spread of the virus are undoubtedly shaped by the territorial organization and the functioning of society.

It is therefore a question of going beyond the biological interpretation of both the virus and society. Because we cannot manage the crisis based on partial knowledge. We need to take into account a wider range of elements making it possible to understand the pandemic, in order to anticipate its evolutions, and a wider range of resources, in order to slow it down. We must mobilize, in the strong sense of the term, other objects of the social world, such as housing, jobs, transport systems, public spaces, institutions, NGOs, social organizations …

In the North as in the South, companies have taken initiatives, admittedly sometimes in a limited and localized way, but with a certain efficiency. Thus, in Peru, peasant and Amazonian organizations have controlled access to their territories to slow down the contagion; the Catholic Church has organized collections to produce oxygen; local collectives were formed to compensate for the shortcomings of the administrations.

Establishment of a short support circuit

In the northern districts of Marseille, a collective, Norcovid, made up of city and hospital doctors, association activists, proposed a reorganization of the space and set up a «circuit court» comprehensive health and social care, supported by the NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF). This system has integrated support for populations very far from the care pathways, such as migrants living in squats, thanks to the knowledge of the field provided by the associations and the crisis expertise developed by MSF.

These initiatives deserve to be deciphered by the social sciences, so that the public authorities really take the territory and the population into account. Risk and crisis management inevitably involves conflicting interests that are not clearly stated or discussed. Perhaps this is why when sociologists and geographers in Peru pointed out that the virus seemed to follow the route of agro-export workers, who were moved without special precautions by bus or truck to the places of harvest, the important media did not talk about it. In France, it is said that universities have made their comeback in absolute chaos, after years of “modernization” which have reduced staff and premises to the strict minimum, thus undermining the possibility of imagining and implementing suitable systems? Poor housing has sometimes been mentioned, but much less the reasons for its importance in developed or emerging countries.

The crisis feeds on all the social, political, economic and territorial dysfunctions that were already there. It was not unpredictable, it was built over time. It reveals nothing: the degradation of health systems, the vulnerability of the globalized economic system, the injunction to mobility, the rise of social and territorial inequalities, poverty and precariousness, and their consequences on crisis situations. were already known to the social sciences. The marginalization of these sciences in the explanation and management of the pandemic is resuming a major trend. As a consequence of this myopia, the formatting of the problem posed by the health crisis, leads to the famous “we have no choice” which accompanies authoritarian measures.

The methods of managing this crisis are thus, in France, as elsewhere, a real test of democracy, which tends to be placed in parentheses. It seems urgent to unlock the debate and invite around the table not only the medical and political world, but also the citizens, and the social sciences, which are largely forgotten in the understanding and management of the crisis.

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