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Social Dimensions of the Pandemic

Image credit: Screenshot showing results for “masks” and “reopen” from the COVID-19 Tweets Project, developed in collaboration between the Lazer Lab and Aleszu Bajak.

Image credit: Screenshot showing results for “masks” and “reopen” from the COVID-19 Tweets Project, developed in collaboration between the Lazer Lab and Aleszu Bajak.

By Julianna Wessels

On October 15th, the NULab had the pleasure of hosting the “Social Dimensions of the Pandemic,” panel where David Lazer (Northeastern University), Andrea Parker (Georgia Institute of Technology), Jacqueline Wernimont (Dartmouth College), and Alessandro Vespignani (Northeastern University) shared their multidisciplinary research on COVID-19 and its impacts. Each panelist shared their current research into topics such as understanding the current and historical ways that diseases and persons have been measured, surveying public responses to the pandemic, and modeling information about COVID-19 and the responses to it. The panel concluded with a discussion where attendees from around the globe were able to pose pressing questions related to current and future COVID-19 developments.

Starting off the panel, Jacqueline Wernimont, Distinguished Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement and Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, presented her research which focused heavily around “who” (which races and genders) has been counted in official death toll numbers and who has been left out. Centering much of her research on the Anglo-American context during the 16th to the 21st century, Wernimont compared the death toll counts of the Plague as it was represented in the Oxford Gazette, government death toll records, diaries, and personal accounts to how COVID19 is being represented today in newspapers, public death toll records, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Ultimately Wernimont highlighted the disparity in how women and peoples of color’s deaths are counted and called for new methods and modes for collecting data as well for deeper thought around what information is circulating amongst the public.

Alessandro Vespignani, Director of the Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor with interdisciplinary appointments in the Khoury College of Computer and Information Science, College of Science, and Bouvé College of Health Sciences, followed Wernimont’s presentation with insights into how modeling and data analysis can be used to forecast, situate, and plan for interventions during a pandemic. Vespignani explained that using situational awareness tools when COVID-19 first hit Wuhan (at which point only 50–100 people were confirmed infected) his modeling predicted the epidemic would cause thousands of infections. Research conducted by Vespignani and others at Northeastern’s MOBS Lab is currently being used to inform the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on forecasted national death tolls related to COVID-19. Looking toward the future, Vespignani called for national and international level pandemic forecast systems, organized similarly to weather forecasting systems.

Third to present, David Lazer, University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science as well as the Co-Director for the NULab, tied his current projects to the work presented by Vespignani in explaining that it was Vespignani’s alert of how horrific the spread of COVID-19 would be that inspired him to initiate projects in relation to the looming pandemic. With the support of grant funds, Lazer was able to conduct a nationwide survey to gain information on how this illness was affecting the health and economic wellbeing of Americans. Lazer shared, “if I could describe it (the impact of COVID-19) in one word it would be unequal.” Expanding upon this statement Lazer likened COVID-19’s impact on individuals to that of the injuries received by passengers in a car crash. Similarly to how passengers in a car crash receive different levels of injury based on where they are seated, if they are wearing seatbelts, and so on, victims of COVID-19 experience the impacts of the pandemic in relation to their gender, age, ethnicity, and income. Lazer shared the results of “The State of the Nation: A 50-State Covid-19 Survey,” which has now released 18 reports on the pandemic. Lazer concluded his presentation by sharing insights on “Pandemic Politics,” which revealed that most democrats feel the government has not responded seriously enough to the pandemic whereas republicans have remained polarized on the topic with some feeling content with the current reaction and others asking for more precautions to be put into place.

Finally, Andrea Grimes Parker, Associate Professor in the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, shared her investigation into COVID-19 information exposure, attitudes, and impact among vulnerable populations. As part of a collaborative study between Northeastern, Georgia Tech, and Emory University, Parker researches how COVID-19 news exposure compares among Black, Hispanic, and white adults with information collected in Georgia and Massachusetts. One of the key takeaways from Parker’s research was that, while COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black, Hispanic, and low-income individuals, the amount of COVID-19 information received by different groups was similar in many cases. Parker’s study examines how different populations expressed concerns with the impacts of COVID-19 on finances and health, and also looks at patterns in which sources are trusted, which types of information are prioritized, and how populations expressed positive and negative responses to information exposure.

In this panel, Jacqueline Wernimont, Alessandro Vespignani, David Lazer, and Andrea Parker provided essential insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected various social groups unequally as well as how their research recommends handling these inequalities moving forward. The panel concluded with a brief question and answer section where questions in relation to herd immunity and the importance of implementing scientific data into the circulation of news channels were addressed.

Watch a video of the full event here

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