The Social Life of Public Health Disasters


Key questions

  1. What does it mean for a public health phenomenon to become a “disaster” or “crisis”?
  2. How do different understandings of “disaster” influence what individuals and institutions do and have done to mitigate threats to public health in the past, present, and future?
  3. How can a better understanding of past and present public health disasters help us mitigate or more effectively respond to future public health crises?

Over the past several years, the world has witnessed unprecedented threats to its public health and healthcare systems, including deaths brought on by the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 and monkeypox and decreasing life spans related to surging rates of overdose from illicit opioids. These problems are particularly concerning in countries without comprehensive public health systems or those where drug distribution remains inequitable and infrastructural problems lead to shortages of crucial health resources. Knology’s researchers are interested in better understanding the ways in which the meanings of such disasters are socially constructed and how this construction impacts the way that individuals and groups experience and respond to public health threats.

To answer these questions, we aim to implement a two-fold approach: The first prong involves a critical examination of the institutions and institutional systems that respond to public health threats. A critical institutional analysis will allow us to develop a deeper understanding of the institutional logics, protocols, and practices that help shape the evolution or devolution of public health disasters and influence the way in which they are experienced. Second, we are also are eager to partner and work with those who have been most intimately involved in the aforementioned “crises'' - from COVID-19 nurses to people who use opioids - to better understand how they envision the problem at stake and what they would have their institutions do to help them weather the storm. By bringing institutional expertise together with the lived expertise of individuals and groups, we aim to develop an initiative that examines the social life of public health disasters from more than one perspective and which targets the point at which the agents and structures of public health meet or collide.