Medical student Ferayed Hok and IBCoM student Julia Schipper both work as journalists for EM. During the pandemic they interviewed scientists conducting research into the impact of Covid-19. They share what they found most noteworthy and the lessons learned from more than a year of ‘corona science’.

What research left a lasting impression on you?

Ferayed: “The research carried out by Carin Uyl-de Groot (professor of Health Technology Assessment). She discovered the number of cancer diagnoses dropped by the thousands during the pandemic. Access to physicians was more restricted, and consults in hospitals were postponed or had to take place through video calls. This resulted in numerous missed diagnoses. Of course there wasn’t suddenly a reduction in the number of cancer patients. The ramifications of this will be felt in the coming years, both by the patients and in terms of healthcare costs. Because the longer it takes to diagnose cancer, the smaller the chance of successfully treating it. That was the first time I became aware of the flip side of Covid-19 measures: in spite of the intense focus on the healthcare system, at the same time, there was a serious failure in the same sector. On the one hand you’re saving lives, but on the other hand, more people will die due to other diseases.”

Julia: “In my case it wasn’t any one particular study, but more the personal motives of the scientists that struck me the most. I noticed that many scientists were strongly motivated to contribute solutions to the Covid-19 crisis. The virus is so devastating. I spoke with 2 international scientists who had both lost their mothers to Covid-19 and couldn’t return to their families during that period. That gave their research a very personal overtone. Because there was nothing else they could do, they hoped they could still contribute in some way through their research.”

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Did you also encounter these personal motives, Ferayed?

Ferayed: “Nothing quite as personal as that, but the sense of urgency and societal relevance was a recurring driving force. Professor of Finance Mathijs van Dijk, who studies the impact of Covid-19 on the banking sector by analysing changes in the stock market, put it very eloquently. In short, he said: usually, only a couple of dozen people read my research. While that’s worthwhile, it takes a long time before it has any impact. He saw Covid-19 as a good reason to change that. Use the pandemic as a rationale to use your expertise to contribute to society or the public debate.

“I also found it remarkable to see how personally invested some scientists were in their research subject. A good example of this is Josje ten Kate’s research on people’s distrust of vaccinations. Sometimes she would sit there for two hours talking to people about it. That’s something I really admire. I don’t know if I could just listen without getting embroiled in a discussion. And you have to earn the trust of people who are marginalised by society. Very impressive.”


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Have you observed any other cross-connections?

Julia: “Research on the impact of Covid-19 exposes social structures or social issues. Beitske Boonstra said ‘the risk of falling through the cracks has increased significantly’. Her research examines local social initiatives that emerged during the crisis, such as a hairdressing salon that transformed into a food bank. Many residents of Rotterdam are just able to keep their heads above water without structural aid under normal circumstances, but not when the crisis hit. These informal initiatives offer some relief in those situations.

Julia en Ferayed 0721-019-bewerkt – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

“The importance of these kinds of initiatives was also demonstrated by Zemzem Shigute Shuka’s research on the experiences of Habesha migrants (migrants of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent, eds.) in the Netherlands during the pandemic. The research revealed numerous problems related to communication. For example, when the schools closed down, some parents were still bringing their children to school two or three days later. This led to the establishment of a helpdesk by few NGOs run by migrants.

“Another example is Sreerekha Sathi’s research into the status of female health workers in India. To some extent, the country’s healthcare system is reliant on these workers. When the healthcare system there was overwhelmed by the rate of infections, the government told them they were basically on their own. That’s always been the government’s response, but now it became clear how problematic that is.”

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Science is often a slow-moving process. A research proposal has to be written, arranging funding takes a long time, and the actual research hasn’t even started yet. Despite this, corona research in a wide range of fields materialised at a rapid pace.

Julia: “Yes, that’s something I noticed too. But I have to say that many of the scientists I spoke to were already involved in this research in one way or another. Jeroen van der Waal’s research on the effects of Covid-19 measures on trust in institutions, for example, is part of a more comprehensive research project. There’s also Pauwke Berkers’ and Frank Kimenai’s research into the resilience of the music sector. This research would have gone ahead even without the pandemic. In that sense, Covid-19 was at times above all an interesting additional case or a good test environment.”

Ferayed: “There was deliberate policy to encourage Covid-19 research. Funding institutions made funds available just for that type of research. At Erasmus MC researchers could only work in their offices if they were working on Covid-19-related research. At the same time, this feels a bit strange, because everything else doesn’t come to a standstill. You can’t say research is only important if it’s related to Covid-19. In any case, it gave an enormous boost to knowledge about Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic in a broader context.”

There was actually criticism of the huge stack of Covid-19 research. Critics wondered if too much had been published and whether it was possible to guarantee the quality of the research.

Ferayed: “Remember that much of this Covid-19 research has wider applications. We haven’t reached the end of the pandemic yet, and there’s a big chance of another pandemic. To give you an example, Luc Coffeng is now developing a mathematical model that offers insight into the impact of the pandemic on human behaviour and vice versa. Its main purpose is to draw general lessons for fighting infectious diseases.

“Or it provides knowledge that’s really useful in other situations, such as Linda Dekker’s research on the impact of Covid-19 measures on children with an autism spectrum disorder. Her actual question is, ‘how do these families cope when important rules are introduced or when society changes? And we know that society is changing all the time. For such children, a holiday, moving into a new house, or a fire at the neighbours’ could be a comparable crisis situation.”

Read the interviews with ‘corona scientists’ in this special:

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