Professor Sophie Harman, a member of our Global Health Working Group, gives some advice about coming up with dissertation topics related to COVID.
Part of the joy and point of writing a dissertation is for students to come up with their own subject and research question. Both students and supervisors know this is often the most painful part of the process (second only to the week before deadline – start early, marathon not a sprint etc!). I know good supervisors can support students writing dissertations in all manner of subjects and this is what makes it so rewarding. However, in a year where we’re all dealing with increased pressure, demands on our time, and managing screen headaches, I thought I’d put my 15 years global health politics experience to good use and make some suggestions/pointers to help you when a student comes to you as says the inevitable:
‘I was thinking of writing my dissertation on COVID-19’
Below are 10 suggested questions with suggested literature and methods, covering institutions, security, race, policy, vaccines, gender, aesthetics, expertise, knowledge. These by no means cover everything and by no means prescribe how I think a dissertation on that topic should be written. If helpful, see them as jump-off points to think about these topics. The only caution I have is make sure all projects are only focused on the start/first 6 months of COVID-19 – we are only at the end of the beginning. This is also a pre-emptive move to stop you getting your students to email me for ideas.
Institutions and global governance
1. Is the WHO capable of preventing and responding to major pandemics?
Literature: WHO, IHR, GOARN, global health security + previous outbreaks (Ebola, pandemic flu, HIV/AIDS)
Methods: Case Studies – look at the tools/instruments e.g. IHR, GOARN, Regional offices etc
2. Why did states pursue different responses to the COVID-19 outbreak?
Literature: Global health security, state compliance in IR, international law and international organisations
Methods: Pick two contrasting case studies e.g. England/Scotland, Canada/US, Germany/UK, Sweden/Denmark and then look at different levels of policy and decision making per chapter – Global, National, Regional/local and rationales behind decisions from – expert evidence, speeches, policy decisions, policy timelines
3. How can we understand the gender dimensions of COVID-19?
Literature: Gender and global health, Feminist IPE, Black Feminism, WPS (if looking at violence)
Methods: Explore 1 – 3 key themes from the literature – Care and domestic burden, Health Care Workers, Domestic violence in depth. Depending on networks and contacts, could run focus groups (ethics! And definitely NOT if doing violence), or analyse survey data – lots of surveys done on this and the raw data is always made available if have the skills to play with it.
4. Are states the main barrier to vaccine equity?
Literature: Vaccine access and nationalism, access to treatment, IPE of health and trade, pharmaceutical companies, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Methods: Look at the different stages of vaccine development for 2/3 trials and consider the role of States (where putting money, public statements, any actions e.g. email hacks), Researchers (where get money from, how collaborating, knowledge sharing), Institutions (CEPI, GAVI, WHO), and the Private Sector (pharma and foundations – who’s investing, what is their return – and private security companies – who protects the commodity?). Think: interests, investment, barriers/opportunities.
Security and foreign policy
5. Were state security strategies prepared for major pandemics prior to COVID-19? If not, why not?
Literature: Global health security, securitisation and desecuritisation of health
Methods: 2 – 3 state case studies or 1 in detail, think about Strategy, Training/Preparedness, Actors. Content analysis of security strategies and defence planning and budget allocations, speeches, training, simulations etc.
6. What is the role of images in responding to outbreaks?
Literature: Aesthetics and IR, behaviour change communication and images in public health
Methods: 3 case studies on different types of images in COVID-19, e.g. 1. Global public health messaging; 2. National public health messaging; 3. Community Expression – OR pick one of these options and explore in depth.
Race and racism
7. Could the racial inequalities of COVID-19 been foreseen and prevented?
Literature: Racism and global health, racism and domestic health systems, Black Feminism, Critical Trans Politics
Method: Option 1 – look maternal health as a proxy in three case study countries e.g. Brazil, US, UK; Option 2 – pick one country and look at three health issues prior to COVID-19 e.g. Maternal Health, Diabetes, Heart Disease.
Knowledge, discourse, and experts
8. Is COVID-19 the biggest global pandemic of a generation?
Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, poststructuralism, Politics of HIV/AIDS, pandemic flu
Method: Discourse analysis around ‘once in a lifetime rhetoric’ – who says it, when, and why; contrast with discourse around COVID-19 from countries with previous outbreaks e.g. Sierra Leone, DRC, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil (you’ll need to be selective as can’t measure discourse from all states! Think through why you make your choices here and how they relate to each other) OR contrast COVID-19 with a previous pandemic, e.g. HIV/AIDS
9. What knowledge counts in COVID-19?
Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, post-structuralism, IR and Global Health, politics of experts
Methods: Review lessons learned from previous outbreaks (there are lots of source material on this after Ebola and SARS for example) and how they led to changes/what learned for COVID-19; Stakeholder mapping and/or network analysis – Who are the experts? Look at backgrounds, types of knowledge and expertise, did they work on the Ebola response/HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s for example?; Case Study – UK/US – where have high concentration of public health experts and institutions, export knowledge to low and middle income countries, evidence of importing knowledge from these countries, especially given the experience?
10. How can we understand/explain the first 6 months of the US/UK/Sweden/Australia/South Africa/China/Brazil/you choose! response to COVID-19?
WARNING! This is the question that could descend into a polemic so approach with absolute caution. I would strongly advise against, but have included to give a clearer steer.
The key with this question is to remember you are not submitting a public health or epidemiology dissertation, so bear in mind you probably don’t have the skills and knowledge to assess what was a good/bad public health decision (other than obvious ones such as PPE stocks for example). What you do have the skills to do is to look at the politics as to why a decision was taken and how it was taken – investigate what the different recommendations/guidance suggested, who followed/ignored/subverted it and what outcomes this produced.
Literature: health policy, public policy, state compliance IR
Methods: 1. Global – map what global advice there was and how did the state follow (or not) in preparedness and response and what was the rationale for doing so – political circumstances at the time, stated rationale for decision, who was making decision; 2. National – key public health decisions, commodities, social-economic consequences – how were these planned for/overlooked and why. To look at these two levels may require mixed methods of global and national policy timelines, stakeholder analysis, content analysis of speeches and recommendations, mapping changes to data presentation and access.
 For the first two years of my career I supervised countless projects loosely based around ‘Is the War in Iraq illegal?’ I’m hoping some of the variety here will stop two years of ‘Is the UK government’s respond to COVID-19 a national scandal?’ or ‘Is the WHO fit for purpose?’ – two great topics, but tiresome after a bit.