During the challenging times we are facing because of COVID-19, there has been a seismic shift in our everyday life. We are all enduring new ways of shopping, socialising, working, and learning. By minimising some risks, we are potentially opening the doors for new risks to our health, wellbeing, and happiness. These new implications for our wellness need to be understood and supported by scientific evidence, which provides a key opportunity for dynamic, applied research – something we can all contribute to.

The wellness-based research priorities that stem from COVID-19 can reside in two different camps: primary and secondary, informed by their proximity to the virus itself. Primary wellness research priorities focus on the immediate proximal factors associated with the virus and those who test positive for it; secondary wellness priorities represent factors that are not immediately connected to the virus, though they may be impacted by it directly or indirectly. Each of these can have implications for the biopsychosocial welfare of individuals as well as the health, wellbeing, happiness, and prosperity of society. This framework is not proposed as a means to prioritise any particular level of importance or “type” of research; rather, it is a means to fit multiple avenues of scholarly work into the broader context of COVID-19.

Viral therapeutics is an obvious example of aprimary research need that is being globally addressed by the pharmaceutical industry. However, within the sphere of primary research priorities, a host of broader research opportunities exist. For example, of individuals who are infected with COVID-19, what biopsychosocial and behavioural factors are associated with positive and negative short-term and long-term outcomes? In a study examining gene expressions among people defined as lonely, Cole, Capitanio, Chun, Arevalo, Ma, and Cacioppo (2015) found an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. This may disproportionately impact a subgroup of individuals who are COVID-19 positive and lonely, generating a significantly greater risk of negative outcomes. Therefore, we should prioritise the impact on these individuals in addition to the development and independent scientific evaluations of interventions such as virtual friending and tele-conferences to understand loneliness among those who test positive.

Secondary research needs may best be exemplified by the  indirect impact of the virus on society beyond those who test positive. Aside from the impact of loneliness on COVID-19 positive individuals, prolonged periods of isolation are likely to impact different groups in different ways. Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, and Stephenson (2015) provide long-term, meta-analytic evidence to suggest that a lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol misuse disorder, concluding that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. Additionally, Valtorta, Kanaan, Gilbody, Ronzi, and Hanratty (2016) note a 30% increased risk of stroke and coronary artery disease among individuals identified as lonely, which likely stems from the interaction of biological behavioural and psychological factors. Broadly speaking, this represents a significant priority for the population at large.

However, there are non-infected but otherwise unwell individuals, such as those who experience acute sickness or chronic disease during the pandemic. Among this group, there is likely to be a subgroup who do not seek medical attention due to social distancing, coupled with concerns relating to visiting hospitals and clinics, which may render some “at risk” individuals at “even higher risk”. This multi-layered risk likely extends beyond physical health to those with mental illness too, (for example, psychoses). What impact does the pandemic have on people with anxiety-based disorders or major depressive disorder? What impact does an enhanced personal hygiene programme have on obsessive-compulsives whose symptoms manifest in scrubbing? Specific groups including the elderly, the young, students who have transitioned into university and are apart from loved ones, individuals with illnesses or struggles with addiction, and the people who were already lonely and isolated prior to the pandemic represent important avenues of inquiry.

As university educators, we have key concerns related to student wellbeing, happiness, and success. This is a critical consideration worldwide, where policies that negotiate the challenging interplay between health and the economy are made. These decisions will likely benefit significantly from the knowledge economy that is Higher Education. We should be looking to the future as an important priority during this time of uncertainty. The role a vaccine will play, in addition to the barriers that will ensure vaccine uptake, are likely to become key knowledge in the near future.

Above all, during this time of uncertainty, we must engage with research and remember that knowledge is power. Research is not just there to inform scientists and policymakers. We can do what allows us to maximise our own wellbeing, such as practicing gratitude by writing a gratitude letter to a loved one. We can also try meditation, yoga, exercising, eating healthy food, going for a walk, experiencing outdoors, video calling friends and family, and taking this opportunity to invest time and resources in our own development. It is now more important than ever to step away from the Internet to engage with the world around us.

As a researcher, COVID-19 presents a number of interesting challenges and opportunities to help us tackle the current pandemic and further our understanding of how to minimise the impact of the next one. It is on us to take the lead!

Dr Anthony Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Head of the Centre for Applied Research at MDX Dubai.

Read more about the research mentioned in this article

Cole, S. W., Capitanio, J. P., Chun, K., Arevalo, J. M., Ma, J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(49), 15142-15147.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science10(2), 227-237.

Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart102(13), 1009-1016.