social distance written on a blackboard with arrows pointing away

The Dutch COVID-19 policy aims to keep the health system in operation while protecting vulnerable groups in society. Those most vulnerable to the epidemiological risk of infection are people in poor health or over 70 years of age and people who have a severe medical condition. However, this physical vulnerability to infection needs to urgently be related to social vulnerability. Social vulnerability relates to the degree to which people are able to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of COVID-19 [1] and the regime of social isolation [2]. During periods of crisis social and health inequalities tend to escalate.

The aim of this mixed-method social science study is to document the challenges, experiences and creativity of socially vulnerable Dutch populations during social isolation. What kinds of problems do people run into? Do they find solutions to these problems? What (other) solutions can be generated? How can policy support these solutions? Our aim is to provide actionable lessons about measures that can be taken to sustain social distancing. The rationale for this is that, if we have better insight in what the challenges are for vulnerable people to endure social isolation, we can develop policy and communication strategies to remedy this. Hence, social isolation can be made easier to bear.

Using existing networks, we will conduct digital ethnographic and survey research among groups regarded as vulnerable. The main target groups are: 1) older adults, among those people living alone, people with dementia, people living in nursing homes; 2) people with severe psychiatric problems; 3) people with learning disabilities; and 4), and homeless populations. In addition, this study will uncover more vulnerable groups by following emergency calls made at Veilig Thuis (an organization supporting victims of domestic violence) and the police (meldkamer). We will distill policy lessons learned in consultation with societal partners and provide recommendations on a short-term (one month) and medium-term (three months), followed by long-term peer-reviewed publications (one year).

We will use a longitudinal research approach, both in our ethnography and through surveys with at least two waves. This allows us to monitor changes over time which is important through this quickly evolving crisis. We will assess what problems people experience and document solutions people find, by building a log through weekly consultations, and analysing the materials with a Grounded Theory approach. To gain access to these populations, our research strategy focuses on the one hand on close collaboration with partners who either have been providing direct care or have already been engaged in study of the target populations. On the other hand, we make used of the already established and well-known LISS panel (Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social sciences) to specifically target the older population. For the analyses we will use standard social science tools and methods, complemented by a co-creation workshop to distill overarching recommendations.