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Well-being in Vulnerable Contexts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Richard G. Cowden, Victor Counted, Tim Lomas and Andre Renzaho. Original version was published in the Harvard University’s The Human Flourishing Program blog

It is a truism that the world has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, with millions of lives tragically lost, families separated, economies shut down and societies disrupted. Given these unprecedented challenges, it is vital to understand how the situation has impacted people’s mental health and general well-being. In doing that though, we need to make sure we have a nuanced understanding of global differences, rather than assuming uniformity across cultures. This itself will be a challenge, albeit one that is welcomed and necessary.

Social and behavioral science is WEIRD

Ten years ago, in a groundbreaking paper in Nature, Harvard anthropologist Joe Henrich and colleagues coined an influential acronym that captured a fundamental issue with the scientific process. Their charge was that social science fields such as psychology were fundamentally Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD), in that the vast majority of research was conducted by, and on, people from societies that are WEIRD (particularly the USA). The issue is that such people constitute a mere 12% of the world’s population. This of course raises a host of issues, including the extent to which findings in these fields are universally generalizable — which the fields themselves often assume — as opposed to being applicable mainly to these WEIRD contexts. When research is conducted in non-WEIRD settings, most findings are reported in English, a language that is not native to many non-western countries. Such a dissemination strategy deprives those countries of digestible evidence that could be used to transform their policies and practices.

Their findings called for these fields to build a more complete understanding of human nature by studying more diverse participants and cultural contexts. However, ten years on, researchers have found that the issues identified by Henrich and colleagues seem to have persisted. As a result, research in these fields may be of limited use in promoting well-being — from applied interventions to policy making — across the world. This, of course, is especially problematic in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sustaining well-being in vulnerable contexts during times of crisis: Grasping hope and turning to religion

Despite the global reach of the COVID-19 pandemic, its implications for well-being are likely to vary by context. In many countries and regions, the public health crisis has magnified vulnerabilities (e.g., under-resourced health systems, high levels of unemployment, extreme poverty) that existed before the outbreak emerged. Unlike citizens of many WEIRD countries who could draw on social-structural resources (e.g., social security, quality healthcare, food or housing assistance) that were available to them during the COVID-19 pandemic, people elsewhere have not been able to rely as heavily on government infrastructure and resources to support their health, economic, and psychosocial needs.

In comparison to WEIRD continents (e.g., North America, Europe) where external resources are more widely distributed to support citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in less WEIRD parts of the world (e.g., Africa, South America) may need to look to psychospiritual resources as means of sustaining their well-being during the public health crisis.

Our recent COVID-19 pandemic study on hope and well-being in two vulnerable contexts (i.e., South Africa and Colombia) revealed that well-being was highest among people who had high levels of hope. In vulnerable contexts where the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to have greater repercussions for local people, hopeful thinking may be a valuable resource that people can draw on sustain well-being.

That same study also explored how religious coping might support well-being among Colombians and South Africans. When people reported lower levels of hope, those who engaged coping strategies that rested on their connection with a higher power and those who were less in conflict with the sacred were more likely to report higher levels of well-being. This set of findings suggests that people living in vulnerable contexts may benefit from engaging in religious coping strategies that enable them to reinterpret their circumstances more positively and maintain a sense of control by believing that a divine purpose is at work, especially when hope is in short supply.

Broadening our understanding of well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

People in places characterized by social-structural vulnerability appear to benefit from psychospiritual resources, such as hope and religious coping. Although clinical and public health interventions command a spotlight in the media during pandemics and global health efforts, the effectiveness of public health interventions hinges on social science theory and empirical evidence. If we are to ensure that people across the globe receive appropriate support and resources during times of crisis, particularly those living in vulnerable contexts, more substantive progress needs to be made to understand and promote well-being in a diverse range of contexts.

It may be useful to integrate social sciences into the COVID-19 pandemic response and consider how psychospiritual resources of hope and religious coping can contribute to promoting well-being during the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery. Such an approach is particularly important for people living in contexts where structural resources to provide relief and support recovery are limited. There is a range of culturally embedded resources that people living in less WEIRD countries likely draw on to support their well-being during times of crisis, and these cannot be well understood and addressed solely from a clinical and public health perspective. There is an urgent need for further research to identify the range of psychospiritual resources that could be leveraged to promote well-being in vulnerable contexts during times of crisis. More generally, the pandemic provides a pivotal opportunity for us to build an improved understanding of well-being and how to promote it in societies that have historically been overlooked in the psychological and behavioral sciences.