AAS Open Research

Addressing socio-economic burdens of the pandemic


This blog has been shaped by a recent high-level engagement on the role of social sciences and policy research towards COVID-19 response across Africa. 

From the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, COVID-19 has caused great distress worldwide, and has overwhelmed government efforts to counteract and address growing health, economic and social challenges. Repeated lockdowns and strong containment measures have resulted in a socio-economic and humanitarian crisis beyond the direct health and human devastation of the disease itself [i]. These unprecedented impacts have been particularly severe for disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. While governments are acting decisively to contain the pandemic, there is also a need to assess the effects of disease on local populations, and to formulate countermeasures to ensure social wellbeing, particularly for those in vulnerable communities.

Deployment of holistic and sustainable social support

Social distancing and confinement have brought about unintended socio-economic consequences. Those who are regarded as vulnerable are often in poor physical and emotional health, in unstable financial and employment situations and coping with poor living conditions [ii]. These people are confronted with the devastating choice between risk of exposure to COVID-19 or starving at home due to lockdown. Disease control programs that restrict movement and control borders can disrupt supply chains for essential goods, leaving people who rely on daily trade and exchange of goods to suffer more than others.

African countries deal with these socio-economic crises in different ways with many focusing on social welfare. In Senegal, for example, programs include food aid for the poor and a system of assisting severely affected sectors. However, the country‚Äôs social welfare system has shortcomings. According to Ato Onoma [iii], a Senior Researcher in the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, it is flawed by:

  • The inadequacy of aid, which was disrupted after a few months due to insufficient funds;
  • The politicisation of aid; and
  • Extensive corruption, where money intended for poor and vulnerable groups is misappropriated.

Policy makers sometimes reduce the needs of poor and vulnerable people to just basic material needs, with insufficient attention to the need for resources to cope with destitution, or mechanisms to enable people to improve their situation. Social welfare systems must provide tools for people to escape poverty, rather than simply to survive.

Bringing multi-disciplinary research and innovation to bear to mitigate the effects of the pandemic

While governments play a fundamental role in providing social support to the general population [iv], other consortia also make crucial contributions to combatting the pandemic. Collaboration among organisations and institutions in academia, industry and civil society is essential to harnessing knowledge and creating innovative platforms to fight the pandemic.

Professor Frederick Ato Armah [v] of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana stresses that participatory and effective partnerships among multi-disciplinary research and innovation organisations are crucial to identify issues that require policy and academic attention. These draw on not just the medical and biological sciences and public health, but also on the social sciences and humanities. Partnerships between academic bodies and non-academic organisations and communities have the capacity to drive a comprehensive understanding and response to emerging issues. While clinical sciences generate the development of life-saving vaccines, the comprehensive recovery of society is dependent on the contributions of all fields of scholarly endeavour to create a definitive vision that responds to the societal challenges posed by the health crisis.


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities in the ability to access healthcare, strengthen fragile and inadequate health systems, reverse work vulnerabilities, prevent widespread discrimination, correct historical injustices, and combat increased domestic violence. Sectoral responses may deepen inequalities, causing new divisions among peoples and impairing the resilience of communities. An integrated and holistic response is needed to address all aspects of wellbeing.

[i] Middlemass, R. (2020) ‘What is the role of the social sciences in the response to COVID-19? 4 Priorities for shaping the post-pandemic world’ LSE Impact Blog, 25 August. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/08/25/what-is-the-role-of-the-social-sciences-in-the-response-to-covid-19-4-priorities-for-shaping-the-post-pandemic-world/ [Accessed 6 July 2021].

[ii] Reeves, R.V. and Rothwell, J. (2020) Class and COVID: How the less affluent face double risks. Brookings Middle Class Memos,  27 March. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/03/27/class-and-covid-how-the-less-affluent-face-double-risks/ [Accessed 6 July 2021].

[iii] Onoma, A.K. (2021). Science Policy Engagement to Support Evidence-Informed Policy Responses to Covid-19 In Africa. Tele-Convening Panel Discussion, 15 June, Nairobi, Africa.

[iv] OECD (2020). COVID-19: Protecting People and Societies. OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), 31 March. https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-protecting-people-and-societies-e5c9de1a/ [Accessed 6 July 2021].

[v] Armah, F.A. (2021). Science Policy Engagement to Support Evidence-Informed Policy Responses to Covid-19 In Africa. Tele-Convening Panel Discussion, 15 June, Nairobi, Africa.