Back Home > Knowledge Exchange > The Human Factor
November 2020   |   Volume 22 No. 1

The Human Factor

Since COVID-19 took hold, HKU’s Centre for the Humanities and Medicine has been working hard to bring the human dimension of the pandemic to the fore. Disease outbreaks aren’t just biological phenomena; they are also social, economic and political events.

“The Centre for the Humanities and Medicine (CHM) is unique as a hub that links science, public health, history and anthropology to address some of the biggest health challenges facing societies in Asia and globally,” said Professor Robert Peckham, MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine and CHM Director. 

At times of pandemic crisis, understandably, the most prominent focus of attention is on the virus itself and on containing disease. A CHM priority is to complement this effort by seeking to understand the roles that human behaviour and broader social processes play.

Disease ecologies

“We need to ask: how do novel diseases emerge in the first place?” said Professor Peckham. “How can we minimise the risks of future pandemics? What insights might history provide? Poverty, migration, urbanisation, industrial agriculture and anthropogenic environmental change more broadly – these are some of the variables shaping disease ecologies. Pandemics happen when biological worlds collide with social worlds. At the CHM we want to ensure the human side of the pandemic does not get sidelined.” 

Knowledge exchange (KE) is key to the CHM’s mission and during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has taken many forms. They have published on the human and social aspects of the pandemic in mainstream media and online forums, including The BMJ, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, and The Lancet

“We’ve also partnered with institutions to create content for public education projects,” said Professor Peckham. “For example, in February we produced with Bloomberg the short documentary Can We Overcome Pandemics?, looking at the social and environmental drivers of zoonotic disease.” 

Another ambitious and ongoing initiative is their project to collate a broad spectrum of information on the pandemic: from infection data and medico-scientific discovery to sociocultural issues and experiences. 

The motivation for the project, which is being overseen by CHM Senior Research Fellow Dr Ria Sinha, has come from the Centre’s core research work and teaching on infectious disease epidemics and pandemics, and the recognition that a slanted and singular narrative often emerges post-outbreak. 

“Our aim is to bring together a wide array of mixed media materials that evidence the complex and ever-shifting nature of an infectious disease outbreak through time and space,” said Dr Sinha.

Professor Robert Peckham and Dr Ria Sinha

Professor Robert Peckham (left), Director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, and Dr Ria Sinha, Senior Research Fellow of the Centre.

Focus on the social 

“Most existing COVID-19 resource sites adopt a disciplinary focus, particularly in science and medicine, which means the social vanishes from view. In contrast, the COVID-19 project reflects the CHM’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and outreach. We’re building an archive that cuts across specialties. It will be a valuable resource for researchers, journalists and others to draw on in the future.” 

In the decade since it was established, the CHM has initiated numerous interdisciplinary research and outreach projects, particularly in the area of infectious diseases. In 2018–2019, the CHM advised the Wellcome Trust on the cultural project ‘Contagious Cities’, a collaboration between institutions in Hong Kong, New York, Berlin and Geneva that explored how infectious diseases have shaped the physical, social and cultural milieus of the global city. The project also sought to stimulate new thinking about epidemic preparedness. 

CHM exhibitions have included Fever: The History of Malaria in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences in 2016, and a photographic exhibition on campus last year featuring works by renowned anthropologist Charles L Briggs exploring the social aspects of a rabies epidemic in Venezuela entitled Tell Me Why My Children Died: Searching for Justice in an Epidemic of Bat-Transmitted Rabies

Today, in the midst of COVID-19, the CHM has been deluged with emails from journalists, policymakers, international researchers and others interested in an integrated approach to the crisis. “People are looking for answers to the big questions,” said Professor Peckham. “Among them: How did this happen? And, what will the social and political repercussions be of lockdown, isolation and social distancing? Now more than ever, there’s an appreciation that the challenges we’re facing aren’t just biomedical challenges, they are social ones, too. There’s increasing recognition that unless we grasp this, we’ll never make progress.” 

This is where he feels the CHM shines. “Our track record in innovative research on the social and cultural dimensions of infectious disease, in tandem with our high-impact KE programme, is ensuring that HKU is leading the way when it comes to big-picture thinking about the current pandemic.”

The Australian Financial Review

Mainstream media and online forums frequently turn to the CHM team for expert opinion on the human and social aspects of the pandemic. Here, Professor Peckham shares his insights in The Australian Financial Review.

Now more than ever, there’s an appreciation that the challenges we’re facing aren’t just biomedical challenges, they are social ones, too. There’s increasing recognition that unless we grasp this, we’ll never make progress.