International concern over issues around representation has thrown a light on the classical music world and inspired ‘Diversity and the British String Quartet’, a wide-ranging collaborative project as part of Oxford’s TORCH Humanities Cultural Programme. Although focusing on the string quartet, it explores larger debates around inclusivity, access and identity within the classical music scene.
While the string quartet has associations of high art and intellectualism, it has been a medium for diverse and different British composers
While the string quartet has associations of high art and intellectualism, it has been a medium for diverse and different British composers. It also continues to inspire students, composers, and performers.
The project aimed to work with the widest possible range of those interested in the string quartet and music education, and to combine research with practical work and performance.
Diversity and the British String Quartet has been a collaboration between British music and music education specialists at the Oxford Faculty Of Music, the Villiers Quartet, contemporary composers, and schools.
Young people aged 14-18 at schools around the country have been involved, composing their own string quartets and working virtually over the last six months with professional performers, academics, and composers. On top of this work, the project has simultaneously evaluated the impact of the project on young people in terms of changing their perceptions of and relationship with classical music.
And the Villiers Quartet has commissioned five contemporary British composers to write ‘From Home’ quartets, exploring the experience of writing music in Britain in the current historical moment.
If classical music education is narrowed and defunded to the point of becoming an experience for those who can afford it, is inclusivity narrowed still further? Whose music is this, and what are the views of all those who have a stake in it?
Dr Joanna Bullivant
Dr Joanna Bullivant leads the project, which is supported by the TORCH programme. She believes the questions posed by the collaboration reach into the roots of our society. She says, ‘Increasing focus on STEM subjects in schools and universities, the global pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests have all raised important questions about the value of classical music performance and education in Britain.
‘If classical music education is narrowed and defunded to the point of becoming an experience for those who can afford it, is inclusivity narrowed still further? Whose music is this, and what are the views of all those who have a stake in it?’
Second year undergraduate and student mentor Chloe Green says, ‘The project facilitated important conversations and collaborations between diverse musicians in their processes of challenging preconceived notions about, and defining their own relationships to, the British string quartet tradition. It was a privilege to mentor the students as they developed their understandings of this tradition’s history and articulated their inspiring visions for its future.’
Graduate researcher and workshop participant Aaliyah Booker says, ‘I have learned a lot about composition and what it takes to write music for this type of ensemble. It has been fun doing research on the project and equally rewarding to be given an opportunity to play for the Villiers Quartet.’
For the Villiers Quartet, who guided the workshops with young people and commissioned the new quartets, this was a positive amongst the devastating and disruptive pause in performance caused by the pandemic.
Carmen Flores, violist, says, ‘We looked at string quartet composition from all angles - working with students, commissioning new works from our commissioned composers, and exploring repertoire of historical composers who were largely excluded from the mainstream story of British music.’
The live-streamed symposium (Monday 14 – Wednesday 16 June) is the culmination and public presentation of these activities through a series of talks, workshops, and performances.
Classical music has the potential to transform and enrich everyone’s lives, and we are committed to ensuring that those benefits are available to all. It promises to be a thrilling creative project
Professor Daniel Grimley
The symposium’s daily concerts will feature an array of rarely-heard British quartets, plus the world premiere performances of works by composers Florence Anna Maunders, Philip Herbert, Rob Fokkens, Alex Ho, and Jasmin Kent Rodgman. The student quartets, created during the project, will also be performed. Finally, expert speakers from the music industry and academia will address a range of issues in the history of the British string quartet and contemporary practice.
Dr Bullivant says, ‘This ambitious project has been a distinct learning curve for all of us, but hugely rewarding as we have been able to hear from so many different participants and voices on a subject that they are passionate about.’
And Dr Bullivant’s words are echoed by Professor Daniel Grimley, Deputy Head of Humanities, ‘Classical music has the potential to transform and enrich everyone’s lives, and we are committed to ensuring that those benefits are available to all. It promises to be a thrilling creative project.’
It is easy to believe Melinda Mills was a very disruptive child. She is clearly a disruptive adult...and that has proven to be a very good thing indeed. Over the last year, it has been a valuable and evident quality as the Oxford professor of sociology and demography has provided sometimes controversial, often difficult to hear, but always research-based advice to government, business and the public on everything from face coverings and social bubbles to vaccine passports. This has not always won her friends, but it has helped inform and influence policy.
Putting social and behavioural sciences firmly at the table, Professor Mills knew her team (at the newly-established Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and from her European Research Council Advanced Grant) had a real role to play in fighting the pandemic.
It is important when looking at the impact of the pandemic not to forget ‘behaviours, social environment and population composition’; the sort of bread and butter work of social scientists...what will or will not work...what has been tried before, what people will think and how they will react
She explains it is important when looking at the impact of the pandemic not to forget ‘behaviours, social environment and population composition’; the sort of bread and butter work of social scientists, looking at who is in the population, what will or will not work with each group, what has been tried before and what people will think and how they will react.
‘It became quite clear we could make a contribution and we wanted to help,’ she says. ‘By being systematic, using different data and thinking and drawing from multiple scientific disciplines.’
As early as last March, the team set aside ‘regular’ work and turned attention to the pandemic. ‘With its interdisciplinary team, the Leverhulme Centre was ‘uniquely positioned’, she says, to provide the demographic data and research-based advice on the real world decisions and impacts of the pandemic and the policies being introduced to contain it.
As the world looked in fear at events in Italy, before the pandemic even reached the UK, the demographers had seen it coming, realising Italy’s ageing population would suffer greatly in the face of the coronavirus. The team were one of the first to clarify the value of demographic science in understanding the pandemic, in April 2020, with a widely cited article.
Before the pandemic even reached the UK, the demographers had seen it coming, realising Italy’s ageing population would suffer greatly in the face of the coronavirus
The next action they took was to set up an online ‘dashboard’, looking at the likely impact of the pandemic and potential hospital shortages in the UK. Using demographic data, such as age and ethnicity profile, Professor Mills’ team was able to predict which NHS trusts would be overwhelmed. One answer came back quickly: Harrow, in North West London. With its mixture of older residents and other social traits including density and ethnicity, it looked vulnerable – and so it proved.
‘We were able to predict [based on the data] where hospital beds would be under pressure. Our research was very granular. And that was just with basic demographic information. It had quite a bit of impact.’
After that, Professor Mills has not ducked difficult issues – however controversial and potentially uncomfortable.
‘I could have stayed on safe topics and I might have had a nice relaxing year,’ she says. ‘But I have never done that, [with my ERC research], and I thought we had a responsibility. I could see some opinions being voiced without evidence. We needed to provide balance and rigorous evidence-based research.’
Setting aside her plan for a once-in-a-career sabbatical, the expert in sociogenomics led her team to undertake unusually rapid research. Instead of taking months before data is published and more months trying to persuade policymakers of its value, they were sometimes asked to provide results in the space of 76 hours. And, based on this, policy changed in days.
Professor Mills has drafted major reports on face coverings [the evidence was quite clear and enacted by government in days], social bubbles [fed into policy internationally], misinformation [potentially dangerous], vaccine hesitancy and deployment [not to be dismissed] and vaccine passports [ethical and technical minefield]
Working on the Royal Society’s COVID-19 science in emergencies group, Professor Mills has drafted major research-based reports on face coverings [the evidence was quite clear and enacted by government in days], social bubbles [fed into policy internationally], misinformation [potentially dangerous], vaccine hesitancy and deployment [not to be dismissed] and vaccine passports [ethical and technical minefield].
She also served on several sub-groups of the UK government’s SAGE (Science Advisory Groups for Emergencies), focussing on behavioural insights, ethnicity and vaccines.
She says, ‘We have worked in tandem with policymakers, which has been very productive...the value of our work has been heard. We have made a difference.’
But putting her head above the parapet, has not been without risks and rewards. The director of the Leverhulme Centre has become a well-known social scientist. Her input has been sought by government, at home and overseas, by businesses and organisations. But, over the last year, she has researched the murky worlds of data trade, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and bogus medics, speaking the truth to loud and sometimes powerful interest groups. And there are some who really have not liked what the research has found.
Professor Mills may be one of the few professors of demography globally to have received death threats because of her research. Some of it has been really nasty or what one journalist noted after seeing some material as ‘astonishingly abusive’.
Professor Mills may be one of the few professors of demography globally to have received death threats because of her research
But she was quick to note that the majority of the population acted incredibly responsibly. She says, ‘There was a fear that people would not adhere to some of the pandemic measures such as lockdown or wearing face masks or resist vaccinations, but the majority were actually highly compliant.’
Here she also argues that clear communications, tailored to different groups or local communities remains vital, but also dialogue to respect and hear concerns rather than only one-way passive and information-laden communications.
Professor Mills’ capacity for disruption began early. As a farm girl growing up ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in Canada, she laughs as she recalls spending a lot of time in the hallway at school, [for being disruptive, attention seeking and talking].
This was no Archers’ storyline of farming misery and countryside complaints, though, but a tale of a frighteningly over-achieving family - perhaps going some way to explain Professor Mills’ nothing-daunted approach. Her farmer and teacher father went on to become a Canadian MP, her brother is a professor at a top US university and her sister is a leading designer.
‘It’s a kind of unusual family, but in a good way,’ she admits. And, despite her apparently inauspicious, academic beginning in the hallway, the young Melinda went on to study demography and sociology at the University of Alberta and then to take a PhD in Demography in the Netherlands, from where she came to Oxford in 2014 as a Statutory Professor at Nuffield College and the Department of Sociology.
She is baffled by some negative personal attacks, though. One journalist accused her of being like ‘Spock’.
‘I’m a Trekky,’ she laughs, pointing out that James T Kirk [William Shatner] is a fellow Canadian. But she says, ‘I always loved Spock and the Vulcan character. I like being very rational, systematic and non-emotional when I look at the evidence. I don’t see that is bad.’
I’m a Trekky...I always loved Spock and the Vulcan character. I like being very rational, systematic and non-emotional when I look at the evidence. I don’t see that is bad
The evidence provided by social sciences has proved its worth in the pandemic, as has the benefits of working across the disciplines at Oxford.
‘There was thinking that evidence was only valid if it came from a randomised control trial (RCT),’ she says. But it is different in social sciences, sometimes an RCT would not be an ethical or useful approach, says Professor Mills.
But, she points out, the data and research we draw from is peer-reviewed, systematic and accurate – and often based on very large representative samples, so thinking about what counts as valid evidence also needs to change.
There is still some way to go, she says, despite the relative success of the vaccine programme in the UK, there is concern over the rise of new variants. As a social scientist she recognises, ‘People are fatigued now on multiple levels. We are also experiencing an ‘infodemic’ and it’s difficult to process all the information.’
Demography is emerging from the pandemic as a powerful discipline and the Leverhulme Centre as the go-to place for research. Rather taken by surprise, Professor Mills admits, ‘I didn’t realise our approach was going to be so valuable....But national and international governments, organisations and businesses contact us now. And our work has energised and attracted a lot of young researchers. We hear from people around the world....A year and a half ago, there were eight people at the Leverhulme Centre, now there are around 30.’
With wide-ranging academic interests, she is most enthusiastic talking about the cross-disciplinary potential, adding, ’We have had support from organisations, including the Royal Society [which has published some of Professor Mills’ reports] and the British Academy and it is exciting to be in meetings with immunologists, engineers, computer specialists, it’s important for understanding social behaviour and serious problem solving.’
Not one for a ‘quiet life’, later this month, Professor Mills will be taking part in the Brussels Economic Forum in her role as one of eight advisors in a High-Level Group convened by European Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, the former Prime Minister of Italy. She will be speaking amongst President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Bank Christine Lagarde, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden.
A lesson exposed by the pandemic has been the deep inequalities, accelerated shifts to the digital economy, offering us a chance to reboot our thinking and planning
Full of concern about the future of employment in a post-Covid world, which is at the heart of her European Research Council Advanced Grant, she says, ‘A lesson exposed by the pandemic has been the deep inequalities, accelerated shifts to the digital economy, offering us a chance to reboot our thinking and planning.’
Professor Mills speaks with considerable warmth about the flexibility and strength of her team at the Leverhulme and on her ERC project, ‘They’ve worked really hard and we have gotten to know each other very well – even though mostly remotely. That’s what you do when you bond.
‘It’s a diverse group, but it wasn’t hired to be diverse. They were the best people for the job.’
With every intention of boldly going further, Professor Mills concludes, ‘I’m very excited by the opportunities and talent at Oxford. There’s so much to offer.’
Two years ago, the Leverhulme Centre was launched with a £10 million grant.
Cameron Hepburn is not an environmentalist from central casting. In person, Oxford’s professor of Environmental Economics comes across more like...well, an economist or a successful entrepreneur (he laughs), rather than a clichéd protestor, set on gluing himself to an inanimate object. But this is what makes him all the more convincing and persuasive. When he says, we need to take action now, the automatic response is: how not why.
The economist is under no illusion about the structural challenges and is sought out by governments around the world, looking to meet challenging Net Zero targets and ‘build back better’
As someone who has been at the cutting edge of environmental issues since the early 2000s, before the term ‘climate change’ was common currency, Professor Hepburn is insistent about the need to move away from a carbon-based economic model. But the economist is under no illusion about the structural challenges and is sought out by governments around the world, looking to meet challenging Net Zero targets and ‘build back better’.
The youthful professor is both reassuring and realistic, pointing out economic upheaval will take place over decades, as old industries are replaced by new jobs and, he maintains, technological change means the costs of conversion are coming down – a welcome thought for both countries and consumers.
Talking as the Government announces he is to lead a multi-million-pound project investigating greenhouse gas capture, Professor Hepburn is adamant the time is past for delay and that we now have to cut our carbon emissions, while actively removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
It’s not an either-or-situation. We have to reduce emissions as fast as possible, and scale up our capacity to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
Professor Cameron Hepburn
The ambitious project, announced today, encompasses leading environmental scientists at universities around the UK – and funds cutting-edge research into ways of removing the gases and storing them, permanently.
‘There’s a lot of very clever science underway in the UK and around the world,’ says Professor Hepburn. ‘Scientists have developed machines to capture carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground. Others are restoring ecosystems to lock-up carbon in trees, plants, and soils. Still others are studying ways to accelerate the natural processes by which minerals in rocks absorb carbon dioxide from the air. ‘
‘It’s all incredibly interesting and potentially vital,’ he says.
It might seem a strange comment for someone who started their career working for Shell, the oil giant. But, says Professor Hepburn, his early encounter with fossil fuels convinced him that this was ‘even then a sunset industry’ and it began him on the road to his environmental work.
‘It’s important that we look at the societal impact as well as the political and structural impacts,' he says. ‘We have delayed for long enough, so that we have no choice but to explore ways to get greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, which also help us achieve other social and environmental goals.’
Professor Hepburn heads the project’s Hub, which will coordinate the work, and look into ways of scaling up the research to economic viability, as well as making it possible in the political and legal framework. Oxford, and its partners at other universities, will provide the ‘central brain’, he says. His team will gather evidence, verify research and provide data.
The young Cameron lived with his parents and siblings in an idyllic environment in the Australian outback, with lots of camping expeditions and life in the outdoors. It sounds more Skippy than Crocodile Dundee
It was a path which began in the outback of Australia, where the young Cameron lived with his parents and siblings in an idyllic environment with lots of camping expeditions and life in the outdoors. It sounds more Skippy than Crocodile Dundee, with Mr Hepburn senior nicknamed ‘Leafy’ Leigh Hepburn because of his interest in nature.
Cameron won a scholarship to a school in Melbourne, where his fellow alumni include many leading Australians – including a host of army chiefs, bishops and...Barry Humphries (not a contemporary).
From there, he went to Melbourne University, where the young scholar was awarded degrees in Engineering and Law. But, after the brush with Shell and then some law firms, where he was engaged designing complex legal contracts for the financing of power plants, the graduate knew, ‘It was very clear that this was not how things should be done’.
Changing tack, he applied for a Rhodes scholarship to come to Oxford to take a masters in Economics. He intended to be in the UK for two years. Twenty one years later, now married with three children, he is still here, having taken a doctorate in Economics, become a researcher, then a senior researcher, now the Professor of Environmental Economics. Having changed track twice, he knew he did not want a conventional economics career.
‘Environmental economics was virtually invisible,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to spend my time looking at the money supply...I was much more interested in thinking about the impact of climate change.’
Environmental economics was virtually invisible... I didn’t want to spend my time looking at the money supply...I was much more interested in thinking about the impact of climate change
Laughing, he adds, ‘I thought it was worthy of a career – and so here I am.’
'Climate change was on the scientific agenda for decades before climate concerns became widespread and governments around the world were pledging to reduce emissions, and environmentalism became mainstream.'
He adds, 'It’s a shame Australia didn’t begin the transition [from a carbon-based economy] back in the 1990s. We could have done things more steadily. The later you leave it, the more difficult some things become, as they have to be done faster.’
But he says, ‘The good thing is, everyone has woken up. We have delayed long enough.’
There should be no need for mass redundancies, to meet the UN’s 2050 Net Zero target. Older industry jobs will be more than replaced by others – and it does not have to happen all at once
However, Professor Hepburn does not underestimate the challenges and the costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels- and the need to reassure. He maintains there should be no need for mass redundancies, to meet the UN’s 2050 Net Zero target. Older industry jobs will be more than replaced by others – and it does not have to happen all at once.
While stressing there will be costs of going Net Zero for some countries, businesses and individuals, Professor Hepburn anticipates that new technologies will emerge and existing ones will become much cheaper. He says, ‘Smarter, cleaner tech is getting better and cheaper all the time...it won't be long before it would be crazy for anyone to buy a fossil fuel-driven car.’
He admits that domestic heating is a ‘big challenge’, with most UK homes reliant on fossil fuel energy. But he maintains, we will not be sitting at home shivering in 20 years. Technological progress is already happening which will assist in making the switch to clean heating cheaper. Overall, he thinks, the savings on cheaper electricity and transport will help offset the costs of investment on clean heating.
Smarter, cleaner tech is getting better and cheaper all the time...it won't be long before it would be crazy for anyone to buy a fossil fuel-driven car
The same goes, he hopes, for air transport, with short-haul flights potentially driven by battery-powered electric motors, and longer haul adopting hydrogen and ammonia solutions.
According to Professor Hepburn, though, we do not need to wait for technology to start the process of improving sustainability. Nature based solutions can be deployed right now. ‘Leafy’ Leigh was right, it seems. Professor Hepburn says, ‘Trees are the oldest tech in the world....nature has been doing this [taking carbon out of the atmosphere] for millennia.’
He is optimistic about the future, despite the delays in getting started, and points to the fact that countries and businesses around the world have given Net Zero pledges, to slash emissions, which cover two thirds of international GDP. But will the fine words translate into action? Many critics focus on whether the ‘big polluters’ are going to take action and whether vested interests will take this lying down. Professor Hepburn stresses, ‘The credibility of such targets is vital.’
And he maintains key carbon emitters should accelerate towards Net Zero targets, as the technology becomes more affordable. But Professor Hepburn admits, ‘There will be winners and losers in the transition [think sunset industries]. It needs to be a just transition...but the transition will create many more jobs than it destroys. There will be net gains both to economies and workers.’
The reality of transition to sustainable power, like many new technologies in the past, will be far less difficult than is currently apparent
As an economist, he points out, economies have transitioned all the time. When there has been seismic shifts in technology, they have adjusted naturally, ‘The economy can be quite flexible but we need transition schemes for reskilling.’
He adds, ‘It is critical that financial and economic ministries are looking at this – and they are.’
Reassuringly, says Professor Hepburn, the reality of transition to sustainable power, like many new technologies in the past, will be far less difficult than is currently apparent.
‘Clean electricity is already cheaper in a lot of parts of the world, solar and wind is cheaper and electric vehicles are simpler and easier to maintain.’
Who’d be a petrol-head? ‘Within a few decades, he wonders, I think we will look back at cars spewing out toxins into our lungs as even worse than horses defecating in the middle of our streets.’
And yet, and yet, what can the UK do, or other European countries, when we are not responsible for most of the world’s emissions? Professor Hepburn is typically enthusiastic: Britain has been leading on climate science for a decade
And yet, and yet, what can the UK do, or other European countries, since we are not responsible for most of the world’s emissions?
Professor Hepburn is typically enthusiastic, ‘Britain has been leading on climate science for a decade. The whole concept of Net Zero arguably came from Oxford, as did Net Zero investment finance and Net Zero economics.’
Pointing out the greenhouse gas project could deliver technology for the world, he insists, ‘These are ideas that matter, drivers of change. The UK is important for wider science and theories. It’s the first large country which had a formal architecture with the government's committee on climate change and the net zero legislation – it’s not just a theory for the UK.’
And, says Professor Hepburn, Oxford’s environment and structure has been key in propelling environmental research up the agenda.
‘It’s a pretty unique place,’ he says. ‘The college system means we meet people from other disciplines all the time [which facilitates and drives critical inter-disciplinary cooperation]. You can find yourself sitting next to a classicist or a specialist in Physics.’
Also, he says, the Oxford Martin School, the university’s multi-disciplinary research organisation, drives key research, involving experts from every discipline and has led to environmental collaboration on pressing international topics. And, he notes, that the Smith School, which he directs, has interdisciplinary research right at the heart of the mission.
While we stand on the cusp of massive change, Professor Hepburn says, he is hopeful, ‘2019 may have been the peak year for fossil fuels...the global community can no longer deny it makes sense to transition. Why sink more money into gas and coal, when the future is clean?’
Parents will worry, that is what parents do. But, according to Oxford Internet Institute researcher, Dr Matti Vuorre, the evidence base suggesting a negative impact of the use of technology on teenagers’ mental health is thin - at best.
Dr Vuorre and colleagues Dr Amy Orben and Professor Andy Przybylski have been studying the associations between technology use and adolescent mental health – and, according to new research, it is not all bad news, not at all.
It is popularly believed that new technology, particularly social media, is responsible for declining mental health among young people and a range of other social ills. But, says Dr Vuorre, concerns of this type are not new, nor are they well justified by current data.
Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced listening to radio crime dramas...would inspire lives of crime
Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced that listening to radio crime dramas, such as Dick Tracy (special agent) would inspire young people to turn to lives of crime.
Then, as now, says Dr Vuorre, the popular idea does not appear to be supported by hard evidence. The research, published last night, used data from three large surveys to look into the lives of more than 400,000 young people in the UK and US.
In these surveys, young people report on their personal use of technology and various mental health-related issues. Using this large data set, the team of researchers set about investigating the associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health problems, and whether they have increased over time.
According to Dr Vuorre, these survey responses do not establish a smoking gun link between the use of technology and mental health issues, nor do they show that technologies have become more harmful over time.
‘We did find some limited associations between social media use and emotional problems, for instance,’ he says. ‘But it is hard to know why they are associated. It could be a number of factors [perhaps people with problems spend more time on social media seeking peer support?]. Furthermore, there was very little evidence to suggest those associations have increased over time.’
In fact, according to the new research, ‘Technology engagement had become less strongly associated with depression in the past decade, but social-media use had become more strongly associated with emotional problems.’
The study concludes, ‘The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data either.’
These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not...it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives
‘These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time.’
Dr Vuorre says. ‘Scientists are working hard on these questions, but their work is made more difficult by the fact that most of the data collected on online behaviours remains hidden in technology companies’ data warehouses.’
He adds, ‘We need more transparent research collaborations between independent researchers and technology companies. Before we do, we are generally in the dark.’
When will this all be over? As the number of COVID-related infections, hospitalisations and deaths reported in the UK continues to fall, the chorus grows ever louder for the abandonment of restrictions on everyday activity.
Summer holidays in Spain, crowded sporting arenas and nightclubbing, are held out as examples of normal life to which we can look forward. But, for many, it is the more mundane life they miss: meeting friends and relations indoors, having a coffee in a coffee shop, going to the library or cinema.
But the question of when the pandemic (or epidemic) is over is not as simple as it might appear. It is a medical question, but determining what is an epidemic and when it has ended is also a political and social question.
In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways...sometimes the illness has gone but sometimes people have learned to live with it
In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways – some in which the illness has gone and others in which it has not, but people have learned to live with it.
Oxford Historian Dr Erica Charters is leading a project looking at these complex questions. Some 40 researchers, from more than a dozen universities across the academic spectrum, have come together to study - ‘How Epidemics End’.
The team includes experts in a variety of past events which have wreaked havoc around the world – from the plague to TB to HIV/AIDs to cholera.. And this week the team is releasing a series of videos discussing what has happened in past epidemics. The first three videos compare how different researchers study cholera and its ending, explaining the cholera epidemics which devastated countries including England in the 19th century, but more recently, Yemen.
‘We have asked the question: how did epidemics end?’ says Dr Charters. ‘We have brought together longer term reflections on this and looked at the different ways of distinguishing the end – looking at epidemiological and mathematical models alongside political and social questions.
’But there is no one answer. Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?’
Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?
Dr Erica Charters
In January, Dr Charters and Dr Kristin Heitman wrote, ‘Detailed research on past epidemics has demonstrated that they do not end suddenly; indeed, only rarely do the diseases in question actually end.’
Dr Charters points out, ‘In the past, epidemics have ended in one of three ways.
‘People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs].’
As the numbers of infections continue to fall in the UK, although other countries are still experiencing severe illness, COVID appears to follow the pattern. But Dr Charters warns against ‘false endings’. And the historian, who specialises in the history of medicine, points out that some diseases may be considered an epidemic in some parts of the world but may be common elsewhere, ‘Malaria is endemic in large parts of Africa but if there were cases in England, it would cause alarm.’
People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs]
It is this sense of alarm which underpins the pandemic (which is an epidemic on a global scale). The January paper maintains, ‘Epidemics—like the recurring narratives they produce—throw a society's confusion, fears, and anxieties into high relief.’
It continues, ‘When communities are thrown into panic and turmoil by the outbreak of a new disease, when medical committees are convened and central governments spring into action, epidemics are understood in clear biological terms.... But at the end stages of epidemics, the disease is regarded through the filter of political, social, and economic dislocation—dislocations that have deepened as the epidemic progressed—articulating the processes by which policy decisions are debated and implemented, and the accommodations between scientific models and human behaviour.’
The World Health Organisation categorises it as a public health emergency of international concern. But, from a global perspective, it means different things to different groups at different times – not just as the disease spreads around the world but because within the same country, different groups will experience a disease differently.
So the end will also be different for different peoples. Dr Charters says, ‘It is unlikely that there will be a single end date.’
There may be biological markers, suggesting a decline in infections or excess deaths. People tried to track these in 17th century England, when the number of plague deaths fell and the population returned to London – rather prematurely.
But, says Dr Charters, in general, the end of epidemics can be traced to ‘when people resume social practices’. She adds, ‘When the city gates opened and groups returned.’
In general, the end of epidemics can be traced to when people resume social practices. When the city gates opened and groups returned
And she notes, there is also a falling off of evidence – as people stop recording the impact of the disease and go back to their previous occupations.
According to the article ‘How epidemics end’, ‘Epidemics end once the diseases become accepted into people's daily lives and routines, becoming endemic—domesticated—and accepted. Endemic diseases typically lack an overarching narrative because they do not seem to require explanation. More often, they appear as integrated parts of the natural order of things.’
But, says Cr Charters, one of the research team points out that there have just as often been celebrations and thanksgiving to mark the end of epidemics - that they have not just fizzled out.
Endings were not always quiet,’ she says. ‘There have been celebrations and fireworks, thanksgiving...but most epidemics have ended when people just returned to their lives.'
See the videos here How epidemics end | How Epidemics End (ox.ac.uk)
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