News & events


26 March 2020

HSRC announces public survey to assess awareness of Covid-19 among South Africans

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on 17 March 2020 announced that it would conduct a public survey, via social media and some follow-up qualitative studies, to better understand what the South African public knows about Covid-19, state of readiness to deal with this global pandemic and how they feel about it.

Speaking about this initiative the HSRC’s CEO Professor Crain Soudien said, “Covid-19, the current strain of the coronavirus that is affecting the world now, presents us with a biomedical crisis. We will have to come up with a therapeutic vaccine to treat those who are affected by it, and ultimately with a cure for the virus. “

Professor Soudien stressed that, “However, in its origins, in its reproductive pathways and, critically, in its effects, Covid-19 is a social phenomenon. It takes its form, character, scale and intensity from people’s interactions with each other. If we all lived entirely by ourselves – completely unimaginable, of course – any contagious condition which we would acquire would begin and end with each one of us. We live, however, as social beings. We require each other – for mutual support, for care, for enablement and, yes, management of each other, for ensuring that we have in place the systems, infrastructures and practices that will give us some sense of assurance that we will all be reasonably safe, reasonably secure and reasonably healthy.”

Professor Soudien further questioned, “If diseases are social, and we have outbreaks of highly contagious illnesses in our midst, what must we be doing? How do we, first of all, manage ourselves, our relationships with each other, and, most urgently, how do we understand and respond to the situations in which the most vulnerable in our midst find themselves? If a disease is social, how does South Africa, which is the most unequal country in the world, manage itself? How does it manage the circumstances and the life-chances of the most vulnerable, the aged, the poor, and those who are less able to choose ways of life that take them out of harms’ way?”
“The answer to these questions is complex. It calls for the rapid assimilation of the very best scientific knowledge we have at our disposal. We must understand, scientifically, the nature of the disease, whatever it is, as fully as we can. But we must also come to a quick understanding of how social factors such as poverty and inequality, education and physical environment will position socially vulnerable people. We must come to this understanding because while diseases are social levellers – and do not discriminate – we know, as an empirical fact, that people in socially diminished circumstances are much more likely to carry the burden of the disease. HIV/AIDS, for example, while present in the whole South African population, has a stronger incidence amongst poorer segments of the population. Covid-19 is currently evident in and being borne by more people within a healthier social context  but, as has happened in China, then in Iran and now in many parts of Europe, it can easily be passed on to anybody.”

“If this passing on of Covid-19 to many more people in South Africa happens – and it is bound to happen – extra steps have to be taken. We need to craft a management model that takes cognisance of the South African realities, where a vast majority of people do not have running water, access to medical services or to the range of hygiene products and amenities to manage this, and will not easily have the option to self-isolate, but will continue to be subjected to using overloaded modes of public transport and sharing public spaces.”
“What kind of public health approach must we now take? In the long run, a capacitated national health system is essential. We are, however, in a situation where an appeal to the luxury of the long-run is almost cynical. We have to act now. We must give serious consideration immediately to the public management of our social interactions with each other. In a highly sociable environment such as ours where bodily contact with each other is almost expected – handshaking and hugs – we have to put a moratorium on this. We have to suspend all inessential social activities.”
In contributing to a stronger understanding of how Covid-19 impacts on the most vulnerable and marginalised in South Africa, the HSRC will conduct a public survey via social media and also some follow-up qualitative studies, to better understand what the South African public knows about Covid-19,  state of readiness to deal with this global pandemic and how they feel about it.  The results of this survey will be released as soon as possible to help inform an integrated response to the pandemic,” concluded Professor Soudien.

Notes to the Editor

About the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The HSRC was established in 1968 as South Africa’s statutory research agency and has grown to become the largest dedicated research institute in the social sciences and humanities on the African continent, doing cutting-edge public research in areas that are crucial to development.

Our mandate is to inform the effective formulation and monitoring of government policy; to evaluate policy implementation; to stimulate public debate through the effective dissemination of research-based data and fact-based research results; to foster research collaboration; and to help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences.

The Council conducts large-scale, policy-relevant, social-scientific research for public sector users, non-governmental organizations and international development agencies. Research activities and structures are closely aligned with South Africa’s national development priorities.

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Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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