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Improving social and societal preparedness for disaster response and health emergencies

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the specific challenges of health emergencies and the necessity to be prepared not only on a material and physical level but also from a social and societal perspective. Challenges during the pandemic included difficulties of working with protective gear such as insecurities and usage mistakes; additional disadvantages for vulnerable groups among others due to communication issues; and lack of local cooperation and prevention regarding equipment, stocks, and coordination. These challenges were largely due to deficiencies in the inclusion of social sciences in disaster research. The COVID-19 pandemic poses an opportunity to analyse successes and difficulties during a global health crisis and thereby preparing for future health crises.

Currently, different groups are not reached equally by public communication efforts. Risk communication especially fails to contact vulnerable groups. Social inequalities are present in different forms and on different levels. For communication strategies and interventions, it should be considered how they are affected by different groups, localities, and cultural factors. In different crises, different vulnerability factors can be more pronounced and different groups can be more vulnerable. On the other hand, resilience can protect against negative effects of crises. Resilience can be supported on an individual, organisational, or systemic level. All should be considered in preparation for crisis as well as in acute situations.

Information technology and digital data processing are becoming increasingly important in public health issues, including personal data protection and ethics. Processing large datasets and automated analyses can open new possibilities in understanding health and illness on a population level and for deriving prevention strategies. However, the implementation of information technology poses several challenges and research on how to effectively use the results in political decision-making. Data security is another challenge when large amounts of personalized (health) data are processed automatically. Concerns about data security and general scepticism about digital information processing in the population need to be taken seriously and addressed.

Health encompasses several aspects and levels. Human health incorporates both physical and psychological health which are interconnected and mutually dependent. At the same time, humans are embedded in their environment so human and environmental health cannot be approached in isolation from each other. According to the One Health approach, health of humans, animals, and environment are intertwined. This is illustrated by the current health crisis of COVID-19 which is attributed to SARS-CoV-2 jumping over from wild animals to humans. Another illustration of the interconnectedness are health impacts of climate change. These interdependencies make an interdisciplinary approach to health necessary that incorporates all aspects of health and their interconnectedness.

This topic requires the effective contribution of SSH disciplines and the involvement of SSH as well as gender experts, institutions as well as the inclusion of relevant SSH and gender expertise, in order to produce meaningful and significant effects enhancing the societal impact of the related research activities. The involvement of citizens, civil society and other societal stakeholders in co-design and co-creation should be promoted. In order to achieve the expected outcomes, international cooperation is encouraged.