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Essex academics take up local challenges of COVID-19

  • Date

    Mon 17 Aug 20

Family in park

Essex academics have joined forces with Colchester Borough Council (CBC), Essex County Council (ECC) and other partners to try and address some of the economic, social and cultural challenges arising from COVID-19.

The virtual event was the latest in the University’s series of Challenge Labs, which create an environment where business, public and third sector organisations are invited to identify their business problems and work with Essex researchers to develop solutions.

The projects have each been funded with up to £10,000 from Essex’s Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). IAAs are block awards made to research organisations by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with the aim of speeding up the impact of research.

Academics working across the University’s many disciplines are now working together with several organisations to address problems ranging from how to revive Colchester town centre to helping Essex young people to make the transition back to school in a pandemic.

Deputy Dean of Research for the Faculty of Social Sciences Professor John Preston, who is also the academic leading IAA at Essex, said: “This is an extraordinary time for the country and the Challenge Lab enabled academics to address the key challenges of the pandemic and these were particularly related to the local area.”

One of the funded projects will involve academics working with CBC to find out how people and businesses think the town centre should be revived post-COVID-19.

COVID-19 has accelerated changes to the town centre that have been occurring in recent years. It has increased online shopping, reduced town centre footfall, as well as creating issues around keeping people safe in crowded areas. However, COVID-19 may also bring new opportunities as people working from home may begin to use their local high streets more.

Involving questionnaires and focus groups, the project aims to find what all sections of society want from their town centre in the future. Understanding what people want from their urban spaces will hopefully encourage them to spend more time there which will help drive economic growth.

Professor Preston added: “The task of economic, social and cultural regeneration following the pandemic is an extraordinary one and the Challenge Lab harnesses the expertise of our academics to step up and play their part in that effort.”

Another project will work with ECC to find out how pupils make the transition back to school in a pandemic and to create a film based on their experiences.

The affect of the pandemic on our mental wellbeing has been widely reported, with young people aged between 16-24 said to be the most seriously affected.

The project aims to capture the “unfiltered voice of pupils” and hear first-hand their views on COVID-19. The team will work with youngsters to create a documentary which will provide an authentic insight into the post-COVID-19 lived experience of young people returning to education which will provide useful evidence to inform policy.

One of the most striking aspects of lockdown was the extent family members were essential to one another to get through this unprecedented experience. However, the pandemic’s effect on jobs, caregiving demands, and the uncertainty of future outbreaks have created fractures in many families, while others have become closer and stronger during these unprecedented times.

As the UK emerges from COVID-19, a third project working with Family Action will aim to get a better insight into what support families need to become more resilient as they navigate the ‘new normal’ on a post-pandemic world.

Inspired by these discussions Matthew De Abaitua, from the University’s Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, produced two short stories – intended to provoke thinking about the challenges at hand and the possible opportunities.