Our research response to COVID-19

Understanding and addressing major social, economic and environmental challenges in the modern world has always been a central focus for research activities within the Business School. With the emergence of COVID-19, overcoming the spread of the virus and analysing its impact on business and society has become a key concern for our research.

As the greatest science policy issue for a generation or more, the Science Policy Research Unit – SPRU - is active in terms of practical responses to the pandemic, providing expertise on innovation in vaccines, testing regimes and issues of data governance in relation to tracing apps.

Our researchers are also providing insights on how we learn from epidemics and the politics of global health as well as critical analyses of the nature and influence of scientific expertise and the structures and processes of science and research that could help to understand the virus and transform our societies for the better in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Across the School, our research is helping inform policy and business practice across a broad array of challenges resulting from and aiming to address the pandemic and its aftermath.

Testing for covid-19Testing

Professor Michael Hopkins is conducting a study on diagnostic testing in response to the pandemic. Those countries that have implemented a robust testing strategy have seen lower mortality rates, better targeting of healthcare resources, and shorter lockdown periods, all of which has minimised the economic consequences of the virus.

With data from countries where effective diagnostic testing systems have been implemented, the researchers will identify how key elements of these systems, including measures taken that facilitated preparedness and resilience before the crisis, and rapid innovations that helped countries to deal with a fast-evolving pandemic, could be rapidly replicated in other contexts. The study will provide robust evidence to facilitate rapid uptake of effective elements into testing systems in the UK (and beyond) during the course of the current pandemic and support future epidemic and pandemic preparedness nationally and internationally. Early results have already been submitted as evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry on the science of COVID-19 with recommendations on how to improve testing and tracing in the UK. See the Optimising Coronavirus Testing Systems website for more information.

Contact Tracing applications

There has been much discussion around contact tracing apps, both with regards to their effectiveness and their reliability. Building on earlier work on data governance, Professor Maria Savona has analysed the debate around the deployment of contact tracing apps. She argues that whilst digital contact tracing applications may be more effective than a manual contact tracing procedure, the use of digital technology is complex with issues around personal data collection and storage, user consent, and surveillance, particularly in the context of health data to be considered. Nothing is more dangerous for a democracy, ideally characterised by a safe-space for public scrutiny and monitoring of the government’s accountability, than hiding behind false dilemmas such as “public health versus privacy” at times of emergency.  

However, to overcome the problem, Professor Savona argues the need for clear and transparent processes, with primary legislation following public scrutiny of proposals. This, she claims, will help build understanding and trust among the public which will be absolutely key if the track and trace programme is to be taken up by a sufficient portion of the public. She explains that in this context, the adoption of these apps should not be made mandatory, and no one should be penalised for not adopting, including those who cannot adopt due to digital exclusion. It will be important to predict and regulate for the potential side effects of exclusion and discrimination in the use of digital tools for tracking, tracing and certificating immunity. Low income, vulnerable citizens might not be in the position to access information, increase their awareness and develop agency over their personal health (and location) data.

Read the paper and the policy brief.

Dr Galina Goncharenko and Dr Tobias Polzer are also researching contact tracing apps and the reshaping of accountability relationships between governments and citizens. The project focuses on contact tracing apps that have been or are planned to be introduced by governments across the globe and studies the reactions of citizens expressed on social media together with the consequences, deferred outcomes and side effects of such emergency innovations.

Supply Chains

With funding from HEIF, the UK Trade Policy Observatory is conducting a rapid survey and gathering selected case studies of firms to assess their immediate and planned supply chain related responses to COVID-19. The work focuses on how firms are currently adjusting their national and international supply chains in the face of COVID-19, and any plans they may have for future reorientation or reshaping of those supply chains. The results should enable a comparative analysis of how the South East region is responding in comparison to nationally, and will help firms to survive post-COVID and policymakers to formulate appropriate policies.

Medical SuppliesMedical Supplies

At the beginning of the pandemic, with panic buying wiping products off supermarket shelves and nations scrambling to source medical supplies – equipment, drugs and personal protective equipment – Supply chain expert Dr Sam Roscoe called on the Government to subsidise a parallel, UK-based, pharmaceutical supply chain capable of coping with the huge and abrupt increases in demand seen during the current pandemic and that will be seen again during future crises.

Dr Roscoe told the International Trade Committee that a UK-based parallel supply chain for critical drugs including those that treat the symptoms of coronavirus was essential to ride out the disruption to international supply centred on China and India. Read the blog here.

Professor L. Alan Winters has also set out a new basis for reciprocity in trade policy to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19. With his co-author, he proposes a trade policy bargain that, although time-limited at first, could evolve into a multilateral or plurilateral deal. As governments of net exporting nations realise that export bans do little to end shortages of medical kit in a world of international supply chains, and do much to antagonise trading partners and to embolden economic nationalists at home and abroad, this proposal provides them with a rationale for embracing a more collaborative approach that generates a commercial edge for their exporters of medical supplies. For nations reliant on foreign deliveries of these goods, this proposal provides greater reassurance that supplies will be forthcoming when they are needed—thereby diminishing the case for devoting scarce resources to an import substitution drive on medical goods. Read the Briefing Paper: Preparing For a Second Wave of COVID-19: A Trade Bargain to Secure Supplies of Medical Goods.

Financial Accountability

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a catalyst for extreme monetarist economic policies which have the effect of disrupting the normal relationships between financial markets. A key player in this disconnection is the US Federal Reserve’s exchange stabilization fund that acts to stabilize the value of the US dollar by intervening in foreign exchange and gold markets. However, since President Nixon’s term it has – with the President’s permission – unlimited authority to deal not only in gold and foreign exchange, but also in stocks and bonds, keeping all profits within the fund. Before the pandemic, from an initial $2billion the fund had grown to almost $100billion. Then President Trump allocated an extra $500billion to the fund (under the CARES Act of 27 March 2020). As a result, the US dollar has been depreciating against most currencies, except during a brief period in March when US stock and bond markets crashed. Since then, prices in US capital markets have been rising again, even as the pandemic shows no signs of abatement. Likewise, prices of safe haven assets such as gold and bitcoin are not behaving as one might expect, thanks to intense and large-scale market manipulations. The CryptoMarketRisk team have been tracking trades on these markets in recent months and have detailed huge sell orders on gold futures and regular spoofs or malicious attacks on key crypto exchanges. The biggest beneficiaries of these market attacks are holders of US dollars and US assets.

Read Professor Carol Alexander's book: Corruption and Fraud in Financial Markets.

Political Impact of the pandemic on the young

What will be the political legacy of the Coronavirus pandemic? Dr Orkun Saka and two co-investigators have found that epidemic exposure in an individual’s “impressionable years” (ages 18 to 25) has a persistent negative effect on confidence in political institutions and leaders. Their research finds similar negative effects on confidence in public health systems, suggesting that the loss of confidence in political leadership and institutions is associated with healthcare-related policies at the time of the epidemic. The results are mostly driven by individuals who experienced epidemics under weak governments with less capacity to act against the epidemic. The implication of these results is that the Coronavirus may leave behind a long-lasting political scar on the current young generation (“Generation Z”).

Read the most recent working paper here and the VoxEU blog here; listen to it in a podcast here.

home workingWorking from home

Dr Chidiebere Ogbonnaya has been studying the effects of remote working on mental health. In recent times, we have witnessed a dramatic rise in remote working, with more and more people working away from the physical office location — sometimes by choice, sometimes not. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this phenomenon.

From studying the effects of remote working on mental health, Dr Ogbonnaya has found that some people may be inspired by it, and use it to perform their jobs well. For others, remote working can cause a lot of stress, loneliness, and reduced performance. Dr Ogbonnaya finds that the impact of home working varies widely, with individual personality being a key determinant. Read the blog here.

Business Survival

Many firms, both large and small, have struggled to survive during the pandemic. Research by Professor Roger Strange looks at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on firm strategies and, in particular, the configuration of firms’ global value chains once the pandemic has been brought under control. He compares the merits of alternative location strategies and different governance arrangements and finds that reshoring and/or reintegration strategies are unlikely to lead to greater resilience but may well necessitate substantial switching costs. Prof Strange argues that resilience will come from more diversification involving more suppliers in more countries, thus guarding against individual governments which close their borders to international movements of people, capital, goods and services. But—and this is the crucial consideration— the evolving geopolitical context and rising protectionist sentiments worldwide are likely to be the critical drivers. Read the paper here.

For industrial marketers, the pandemic suddenly resulted in a lack of markets and a potentially disastrous future. Professor Michael Beverland has examined the value of design thinking in times of crisis by drawing on examples of firm innovations during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. The study argues that disruptive events require managers to break out of established patterns of thinking, and that the problem-solving approaches and tools of designers represent one such approach. The researchers identify a three-stage process of design thinking - disrupt, develop and deliver - and argue that identifying how careful disruptive thinking with a focus on understanding problems within their context can give rise to innovative solutions, resulting in a more resilient organisation. Read the article here

In conjunction with colleagues from Bahir Dar University, Dr Yohannes Ayele is investigating the impact of COVID-19 on small-scale manufacturing firms in Ethiopia. A vital source of employment for low-skilled people and low-income households, some of these firms are likely to be hard hit by measures taken to mitigate the spread of the virus. Funded by PEDL, the project will assess the impact of COVID-19 on current business activity; identify the channels and characteristics that explain why some establishments are more severely affected than others; and assess the differential employment impact across Ethiopia’s regions.

Business Research

COVID-19 has shifted the focus of research to developing knowledge of COVID-19 and its implications on business and society. Yet, there is a lot of uncertainty about how business research will transform effectively after COVID-19. A recent workshop provided staff with the opportunity to obtain a holistic understanding of the current research and the experiences of different disciplines and to generate the conversation around the impact of COVID19 on business research.

Better careers guidance for the post-COVID-19 labour market

A new research project with Dr Chidiebere Ogbonnaya, organised by Policy Connect and led by parliamentarians and the Skills Commission will explore how careers guidance in England can be improved to support adults and young people (16+) in a difficult post-Covid-19 labour market.

The study will develop understanding of the interplay between further education and higher education, and how pathways between them may be strengthened to provide social mobility and economic benefits to local populations. It will help to identify scalable and transferable good practice, and develop recommendations for policy interventions appropriate for the new economic context.

What does COVID-19 mean for Nigerian street vendors?

Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund to address COVID-19, this research project explores the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on Nigerian street vendors, focusing on their socioeconomic experiences (e.g. loss of income and hunger), coping strategies and susceptibility to crime. The project also explores street vendors’ perspective on what government and policymakers can do to assist them urgently.

Find out more about the project.