The novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic has severely impacted the entire world, directly and indirectly. This means seemingly infinite new topics of research have emerged, in addition to obvious issues such as vaccines, social disobedience, and economic recovery. Quantitative and qualitative research is needed.
Much changed because of the pandemic. At the time of writing, almost every country has recorded cases of COVID-19, and its total number of cases soars deep into the millions. And those are just the ones that have been tested. The real number could be tenfold.
Beyond the clinical are the myriad social consequences. From strict quarantines and various levels of enforcement to the effects they have and how we emerge from them, so much has changed in 2020.
Almost every branch of the social sciences has something to say, something to explore with relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where to start? Let’s look at six branches of the social sciences: psychology, economics, business and management, sociology, political science, and communication sciences.
I’ll include references on what may have been done thus far. Maybe this will inspire you. For my part, I’m deep into the psychosocial aspects of remote work in the context of social and organizational psychology. And I look forward to editing your brilliant work.
Psychology and Psychiatry
Pandemics are often associated with psychological distress. Their effect on populations’ mental health has been pointed out numerous times (Bao et al., 2020). Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic, while moving and while cultures adapt in scattershot ways, is not slowing. It seems only a vaccine can contain it, and on a global scale, that should take years.
Its potential impact on mental health is something governments need to address with the utmost urgency.
Rajkumar (2020) argues there is a gap in terms in the existing literature and that it needs to be filled with more clinical experience and general research. Many emergent mental health topics need urgent research.
Here’s a shortlist of literature-based suggestions of topics to research.
The effects of isolation in different contexts and on particular populations, such as older/elderly people (see Armitage & Nellums, 2020)
Older people (elderly people) were already one of the populations that suffered most greatly from social isolation.
They are among the most susceptible populations to illness because of weaker immune systems, and the tendency to self-isolate or be forced into isolation is even more profound during the pandemic.
This might be the cause of several mental health disorders and it needs to be addressed as quickly as possible (Armitage & Nellums, 2020).
Anxiety disorders in the pandemic context (see Lima et al., 2020; Rajkumar, 2020; Roy et al., 2020)
Anxiety disorders have been pointed out as the most common mental health issue that is being aggravated during the pandemic.
It’s a great topic to explore and it can be approached through different angles, such as measuring in what way the number of anxiety disorder cases has evolved, discussing new therapies (perhaps virtual), or suggesting new preventative measures.
Researching about the prolonged grief disorder (see Eisma, Boelen, & Lenferik, 2020)
Eisma, Boelen, and Lenferik (2020) argue that prolonged grief disorder will become a worldwide major public health concern. One main factor is that people don’t have a chance to personally say goodbye to their loved ones who died from COVID-19. Final communications, sadly and modernly, are often done by FaceTime.
The mentioned topics can be researched through different approaches and on various populations; just a few of these have been suggested:
- The general population (Roy et al. 2020; Rajkumar, 2020)
- Healthcare workers (Roy et al. 2020; Rajkumar, 2020)
- Vulnerable populations (Rajkumar, 2020; Usher, Bhullar, & Jackson, 2020)
- Infected population (Roy et al., 2020)
A great deal of mental health research related to the COVID-19 crisis has thus far been conducted in Asia, especially in China. This owes to the emergence of the disease from China and the greater time to process it, in addition to the overwhelming amount of Chinese studies of late. In Western societies, the call and funding for these research topics are expected to be high. That’s worth considering when designing a research proposal.
COVID-19’s economic implications are, similarly to the mental health ones, huge. And their impact on the world is yet to be seen. Foremost perhaps are the worldwide economic crisis and recession, which seem inevitable (Nicola et al., 2020).
Nicola et al. (2020), to better understand COVID-19’s effect on the world economy, analyzed the situation by three main sectors of an economy:
- primary sectors, involved in the extraction of raw materials
- secondary sectors generally involved in finished and usable products
- tertiary sectors that involve all service provision, whether to consumers or other businesses.
Perhaps the primary and secondary sectors are most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Research is urgently needed on the challenges and responses to the pandemic in sectors like agriculture, petroleum, and oil, and manufacturing. These sectors share some common challenges, such as the inability to adopt remote work strategies, lower demand, and new importation/exportation challenges.
Here’s a shortlist of literature-based suggestions of topics to research.
Agriculture: how are already fragile agriculture-dependent economies coping with the pandemic?
It’s known that this outbreak will severely impact the agriculture sectors in already fragile economies that depend on it. This will cause disruptions in food chains and threatens to exacerbate both poverty and hunger in already vulnerable populations – especially in the African continent where millions of people rely on subsistence farming (AfricaNews, 2020).
In-depth cross-sectional and longitudinal looks at how agriculture-dependent countries are trying to rescue this sector are crucial. Policymakers urgently need data in order to make the right decisions.
The agricultural sector in the developed world: a look into rescue economic policies
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a global crash in demand from hotels and restaurants. This in turn is causing both a drop in both the demand and the prices of agricultural commodities (Nicola et al., 2020).
Although subsistence farming is somewhat rare in the West, many small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs/SMEs) depend on agriculture.
The world has seen several appeals to localize consumption in an attempt to save the sector and some countries developed specific policies to support their agricultural sectors.
But have these initiatives been enough?
Choosing a country and examining the economic policies intended to “rescue” agriculture is a topic needing dedicated research.
The petroleum and oil price war: New challenges to major oil-exporting countries
Oil prices have been fluctuating in the past months, but trending downward.
Even before the pandemic, the disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia led to some of the biggest price crashes ever seen.
The so-called oil price war will have many implications in the global economy, and the pandemic will affect the already diminishing demand for oil. This is a crucial aspect to keep in mind since the cheap oil advantage some economies have is now threatened by diminishing demand (Nicola et al., 2020).
A macroeconomic approach deeply concerned about economies that rely on this industry, or alternatively, in the international relations aspects surrounding this sector, is especially relevant in today’s context.
Business and Management
Several authors have dedicated their research to assessing the range of possible pandemic-caused economic costs (Atkenson, 2020; Baker, Bloom, Davis, & Terry, 2020; Fernandes, 2020; Mckibbin & Fernando, 2020). Sufficient response to a crisis like this one is fundamental, as its effects will be relevant over the long term.
That said, countries have approached the pandemic from different angles that resulted in policies that differ a lot.
These can easily be identified in many ways such as the several ways governments handled the quarantine, government aid to struggling businesses or vulnerable populations, and so one.
Now we’re well into the pandemic, there’s a clear opportunity to see how businesses are reacting to this government aid and coping with the pandemic. And what else is being demanded.
Here’s a shortlist of literature-based suggestions for research topics.
New challenges for the manufacturing Industry: Importation/exportation issues and staffing deficiencies
The previously mentioned importation/exportation issues and the potential staffing deficiencies have been identified as key concerns for businesses.
Unlike in other sectors, working from home is not an option in manufacturing, and a lack of alternatives to solve these issues will certainly result in reduced growth (Nicola et al., 2020) or bankruptcy for many companies.
One potentially interesting topic is, for instance, looking for outstanding cases of companies that successfully surpassed all these difficulties presents itself.
Tourism’s the hardest hit sector: How can small businesses deal with the pandemic?
COVID-19 created many forms of travel bans. In March 2020 they affected about 90% of the world population (Gössling, Scott, & Hall, 2020).
The earlier data retrieved about the impact on air travel, cruises, and accommodations shows the devastating effects. Measures to contain any pandemic severely hit tourism because of restricted mobility and social distancing.
We’ve already seen some of the biggest rescues ever given to airlines (BBC News, 2020), but other smaller businesses that depend on tourism have somewhat remained under the radar. These include travel agencies, Airbnb renters, and the many informal and local operators such as daily tour guides and drivers. among many others.
Some of these businesses have diverted their attention to national tourism and found some success, while many others are simply filing for bankruptcy. Moreover, with the virus rates still wildly fluctuating, even local- and national-level tourism plans have had to continually retool themselves or be seen as irresponsible or even life-threatening.
Research is needed into which factors made some succeed and others fail. Longitudinally, you could have started a few months ago. This is a very dynamic area.
Inequality has always been a fundamental sociological topic.
Sociologists’ curiosity was initially ignited by the extreme inequality that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further increase inequality worldwide, between and among nations.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic increased pre-existing inequalities and created new ones.
In the West, perhaps the rise of new poverty and the mass unemployment are two main drivers for the heightened inequality that we are, and will be, facing in the following years. Or perhaps the coronavirus is only highlighting the already inadequate systems.
Here are some literature-based suggestions of topics and populations to research.
Aggravated poverty within vulnerable populations in countries severely affected by the pandemic, such as the US, Brazil, and India
This is an important topic to research because other widespread viruses such as HIV have already spotlighted the overall faults in structural inequality in the past.
Such issues are particularly striking among already vulnerable groups such as people of color in the US, the poor, and many other marginalized groups all over the world (Bowleg, 2020; Dorn, Cooney, & Sabin, 2020).
Many of these populations, if employed, work in jobs that require human presence, so there is no “work from home” option for them. They are frontline workers and they have already suffered because of this.
For an adequate response to a crisis event, much research is needed to help policymakers prepare a good response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Universal healthcare in the US: Intakes from the COVID-19 pandemic
When a country largely doesn’t have a universal healthcare system and relies on a fragmented and expensive private insurance system, vulnerable populations are left in a very difficult position.
Vulnerable populations are already the most affected by structural aspects of inequality, such as poverty, racism (MacLaren, 2020), sexism, xenophobia, and transphobia. COVID-19 can now be added to those aspects (Bowleg, 2020).
To further aggravate their situation, these populations tend to have more health issues (e.g., diabetes, hypertension) than their counterparts. This leaves them more open not only to increased rates of contamination but also to an increased death rate (Dorn, Cooney, & Sabin, 2020).
Perhaps now is the best occasion to research universal healthcare implementation in the US. The old arguments remain, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the US now faces an unprecedented challenge when it comes to the millions of uninsured or under-insured to relieve their expenses if they suffer from COVID-19.
This may result in many people delaying treatment and even the diagnosis as long as they can to avoid expenses. And that that can severely hinder the capacity to finally win the war against COVID-19. How will the current and future US presidential administrations take up this highly popular but controversial topic? Continued comparative analysis is needed to inform policy.
A crisis as big as the COVID-19 outbreak poses a serious challenge for contemporary democracies. Globally, we’ve seen many countries using exceptional powers to tackle the pandemic, enforce draconian lockdowns, and severely restrict citizens’ movement in various ways.
While it’s generally agreed that these tactics were needed to “flatten the curve,” one must reflect upon the social, political, and ethical impacts of such measures for democracy.
The way these lockdowns and restrictions have taken place is often largely representative of the authoritarian or democratic natures of the places they’re implemented, or at least those of their ruling politicians.
Sometimes temporary measures end up having a lasting impact on civil liberties, so it’s crucial to research people’s responses to the extreme measures we’ve seen.
Here are some literature-based suggestions of topics and populations to research.
The COVID-19 pandemic: A perfect opportunity for populism, dictatorship, extremism?
During periods of crisis, it’s not uncommon for people to react by wishing for more technocratic or even authoritarian leadership (Amat, Arenas, Falcó-Gimeno, & Muñoz, 2020).
These kinds of reactions are commonly temporary but they can sometimes end up lasting for several years or even decades.
It’s fundamental to research this topic and to have in mind that several extreme-right parties were already finding increasing success in well-established democracies such as France (see Le Pen’s National Rally for instance).
How is (or will) COVID-19 affect the 2020 US elections?
The US response to the pandemic has been widely criticized worldwide (and domestically) for its initial devaluation and lack of acknowledgment of how COVID-19 threatens public health. That debate continues and is conflated with the issue of individual freedom, which comprises much of America’s backbone.
Barrios and Hochberg (2020) highlighted the politically driven variation in risk perceptions during the current pandemic, with Republicans perceiving the pandemic as less of a risk.
If so, one can certainly wonder about Trump’s voters having portrayed the pandemic as less threatening and, therefore being less prone to changing their vote due to the pandemic.
The main question could be: does Trump’s criticized approach to the pandemic hurt his chances of being reelected? What we do know is that we can’t rely on the polls. Observational research at all levels is needed before, during, and after the elections. Much is to be learned about the US, its people, and various mindsets.
Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said “We’re not just fighting an epidemic: we’re fighting an infodemic (as cited in Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, & Rand, 2020, p. 270). This quote perfectly demonstrates why it’s crucial to research so-called fake news during the pandemic.
More specifically, it’s important to apply a scientific approach to evaluating evidence. This is where researchers are of immense benefit. They are trained to evaluate evidence.
COVID-19’s impact is highly intertwined with individual decisions to follow (or not) the instructions and directives given by health authorities all over the world.
Misinformation poses a serious threat to curve-flattening. The Internet is rife with useless and potentially dangerous therapeutics, convincing but flimsy conspiracy theories, and large numbers of influential channels/personas devaluating the COVID-19 threat.
A close look and critically rigorous dissection of online information during the pandemic is very important. Policy, industry, and society stand to gain from this work.
Here are some literature-based suggestions of topics and populations to research
Disinformation on social media: What causes it and how to stop it
Pennycook et al. (2020) argue that one of the main causes of misinformation spread on social media is inattention in the context of COVID-19.
Most social media content can penetrate its users by having content that generally doesn’t require much attention or reflection, such as friends’ photos, beautiful landscapes, and funny quotes.
It’s likely and widely agreed in academic and non-academic circles, that attention spans have shortened and brevity of message is what gets through best. Readers often don’t take the time, or lack the ability, to check-proof more complex and rapidly changing content such as COVID-19 news.
According to the abovementioned authors, a simple and subtler reminder of the concept of accuracy can be enough at least to tackle disinformation.
But in a case such as the pandemic, high-quality information and stopping the spread of misinformation can be a matter of life and death, so there’s a need for further research on this topic. No doubt.
Resilience-based communication: Persuading lasting compliance
People’s response to governmental and World Health Organization directives has varied, quite widely.
While some political leaders opted to publically underestimate the pandemic by ignoring preventative measures and comparing it to the seasonal flu, others opt for a much more careful approach that includes acknowledging the COVID-19 outbreak threat and calling for people’s resilience. Others have tied it to politics, accusing the WHO of being in the pocket of China.
Persuading months of compliance can sometimes be challenging, and it requires a strong collective mindset, maybe a wartime mindset.
So what would be the most effective way of communicating to do get people to do what’s scientifically known to be best?
Some authors such as Wu, Connors, and Everly (2020) argue that leadership focused on resilience and structured communication are key communication strategies to fight the ongoing pandemic. Earlier research seems to point out resilience as fundamental, but there’s still a need for more research on this topic.
What are you going to research?
You’re welcome to bounce ideas off me, especially if you’re researching in the social sciences. As I said, I’m doing my own research on remote work, which inevitably is tied to the pandemic. I’m also a human guinea pig, of sorts, as I’m a remote worker myself. If English isn’t your first language, consider getting professional scientific editing and writing so that the world knows about your work, and understands it. Contact Scize if I can help. Good luck with your research.
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Amat, F., Arenas, A., Falcó-Gimeno, A., & Muñoz, J. (2020). Pandemics meet democracy: Experimental evidence from the COVID-19 crisis in Spain [working paper, April 5 2020].
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