Exploring how Humanitarian Actors use Key COVID-19 Concepts

Exploring how Humanitarian Actors use Key COVID-19 Concepts


Authors: Joy Muller and Alex Oldman, Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies

All corners of our globalised world have felt the extensive impacts of COVID-19. Not only has COVID-19 generated new crises and needs for humanitarian assistance, but lockdowns and restrictions have also complicated ongoing humanitarian responses to existing crises. The far-reaching nature of this pandemic across borders, cultures and languages has highlighted the need to find common ground on how we use and understand key humanitarian concepts related to COVID-19 in different contexts, as well as to acknowledge differences where they exist in the interpretation and applications of these concepts.

For example, www.covid19humanitarian.com is a platform to share guidance and field experiences on adapting to COVID-19.

Identifying Concepts to Inform the COVID-19 Response
Information responses to COVID-19 have mostly involved humanitarian and public health actors and researchers creating and consolidating knowledge, operational guidance and lessons from the field in online portals. To complement these efforts, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project saw an opportunity to help diverse actors involved in COVID-19 response to speak a mutually understood language by disseminating analysis on key concepts.

In conjunction with public health and linguistic experts, we selected 17 COVID-19 priority concepts out of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s list of 129 concepts. These were: care, communication, community engagement, crisis, emergency, epidemic, ethics, livelihood, monitoring, prevention, risk, sanitation, solidarity, contingency planning, evidence, psychosocial support, vulnerability. This selection of concepts reflected a range of emerging challenges to the initial COVID-19 response in early 2020, such as the “ethics” of lockdowns, quarantines and isolation, the importance of social “solidarity”, and the need for “community engagement” to support and protect the vulnerable populations.

Exploring Conceptual Relations and Breakdowns
The 17 concepts were analysed following the general methodology applied for all of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s concept exploration summaries. This approach involves analysing occurrences of the concept in over 2,500 documents published by humanitarian organisations between 2005 and 2018.8 Identifying how the concept behaves in this document collection provides an indication of how humanitarian actors have tended to use each concept prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a baseline reference to see if and how the use of the concept is changing in this crisis.

In particular, we explored the frequency with which each concept appears in relation to other terms, as a modifier of other terms, and as an object of other terms, to sketch the main related concepts, types of usage and technical terms. These sketches show, for example, that “epidemic” is commonly used in combination with “pandemic” and “outbreak”, as well as with “emergency” and “disaster”; that the specific disaster events associated with epidemics include floods, earthquakes, famine and malnutrition; and that the top three types of epidemic found in the document collection are cholera, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS. Such findings are not conclusive, but open important questions for further study. For example, can the low frequency of occurrences in humanitarian documents for respiratory related epidemics (such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)) compared to cholera, Ebola or HIV/AIDS explain a lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic?

We also disaggregated the frequency of occurrences in the corpus for each concept by organisation type, region, and year, and found, for example, that information projects and think tank types of organisations use these 17 COVID-19 related concepts more frequently than states, religious entities and foundations. A next phase of analysis will use more advanced linguistic methods and humanitarian expertise to investigate why such variations might occur and the controversies related to each concept in more detail.

Co-creating a Public Good
The Humanitarian Encyclopedia presents an innovative platform to bring diverse researchers and humanitarian actors together to share their understandings and enrich the meaning of concepts that are often assumed to be universal.

If you are interested in one of the 129 concepts and want to help us co-create knowledge for this global public good, please join us. www.humanitarianencyclopedia.org

Read the full AIDMI report with a range of other articles here.