COVID-19 documentation, AHRC
© Aleksey Satyrenko

The University of Manchester recently won a grant of nearly £1 million, to support their ongoing COVID-19 documentation projection

150 researchers and volunteers in Manchester have been working to understand this unprecedented moment in history.

The ‘NHS voices of Covid-19’ project begun in March 2020. The work of documentation will be significantly expanded with an injection of Arts and Humanities Research Council funding and the full resources of the British Library. Over 200 people have already been interviewed. The project has a strong group of stakeholders, including the NHS, the TUC, Age UK and the Stroke Association.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said:

“These are the voices of the people who went to work to save lives, to protect communities, and to give us care and dignity in our darkest days. These personal accounts tell the story of the NHS at a moment unlike any other, and of all the lives that have been deeply affected by this crisis.”

The power of documenting history

The way that the history of COVID-19 is documented will shape how the UK responds to a pandemic in the future. The oral history interviews will enable the research team to analyse the findings, creating briefings and digital resources that are expected to influence how the UK functions in the direct aftermath of the pandemic.

Explaining the power of historical empathy in classrooms, Jason Endacott at the University of Arkansas, and Sarah Brooks at Elmhurst College, wrote:

“Historical empathy involves understanding how people from the past thought, felt, made
decisions, acted, and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context.

“We contend that any attempt at “historical empathy” must include historical contextualization, perspective taking, and affective connection.”

The necessary contextualisation, perspective and connection was there in South Korea. The Government executed swift policy decisions when faced by initial reports, with widespread public support and a resultant avoidance of high-volume fatalities. This was only possible because of the region’s history, a well-documented recent experience with MERS in 2015. Lives were saved, due to the administration’s hard-earned awareness of the public health consequences – this implicit knowledge was missing in the UK.

Jongeun You, researcher on the South Korean strategy, University of Colorado Denver, endorsed documentation as a preventative cure:

“Though many solutions are emerging, I believe one essential solution for public administrators is to collect documentation about their successes and struggles, and what they hear from citizens and residents about policy implementation and communication.”

Dr Stephanie Snow is a key figure in this undertaking, and was at the helm of the ‘NHS at 70’ project. This documentation effort included 1000 interviews from those in the NHS and using it, to measure the importance of the health system across the UK. Her team interviewed Nick Hart, the respiratory doctor who treated Prime Minister Boris Johnson in intensive care. This moment was loaded with uncertainty for the population – would this be the first death in office since the assassination of Spencer Perceval in 1812?

When discussing the intensive care that changed the trajectory of a country, Hart said:

“I didn’t realise the importance of this until after the event, and that was probably a good thing. I was so focused that we were going to provide the best possible care for this patient as we had done for the 150 that had been admitted before him.

“There was an inherent need to be able to support as best we could.”

Another NHS perspective already documented is Samuel Agabi, a Nigerian hospital administrator working in a London hospital. His interview brings to light the fear faced by BAME individuals working in healthcare, which severely impacted his mental health.

He said: “I lost my appetite. I couldn’t eat. I was worried about what was going to happen to me and about my mum not seeing me again.”

Where is the £1 million coming from?

The grant is from UK Research and Innovation through the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Professor Andrew Thompson, Arts and Humanities Research Council Executive Chair, said:

“The ‘NHS Voices of COVID-19’ is a highly significant project that will create a valuable archive of people’s experiences of this pandemic. This promises to be fascinating in its own right and of great value in informing future policy.”

Dr Stephanie Snow, from the University’s Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, commented:

“We are thrilled to have received AHRC funding. By building on the partnerships we’ve built through NHS at 70 we will have a unique opportunity to capture the unfolding of this global pandemic and document how it has impacted our lives and communities across the UK.”

“Covid is producing seismic shifts across lives and communities and its social significance in terms of a public health crisis is unprecedented in living memory.”

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